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"The ask is that you provide me with..."

I started hearing "ask" being used as a noun a few years ago. Is this a recent trend? Is it an East Coast thing, unique to North America, or just unique to the in-house vocabulary of telecommunications companies?

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I might be imagining it, but I think I'm hearing this more and more... –  ukayer Feb 10 '12 at 5:26

5 Answers 5

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Living in Europe, I have never encountered the usage myself, and neither Merriam-Webster nor Wiktionary even mention the mere possibility of "ask" being used as a noun.

That being said, Raymond Chen, a senior Microsoft programmer (Redmond, WA), blogged about the noun ask on January 7th, 2004, saying that it had gained momentum in the year before:

Ask (as a noun)

This has taken over Microsoft-speak in the past year or so and it drives me batty. "What are our key asks here?", you might hear in a meeting. Language tip: The thing you are asking for is called a "request". Plus, of course, the thing that is an "ask" is usually more of a "demand" or "requirement". But those are such unfriendly words, aren't they? Why not use a warm, fuzzy word like "ask" to take the edge off?

Answer: Because it's not a word.

I have yet to find any dictionary which sanctions this usage. Indeed, the only definition for "ask" as a noun is A water newt [Scot. & North of Eng.], and that was from 1913!

Answer 2: Because it's passive-aggressive.

These "asks" are really "demands". So don't guilt-trip me with "Oh, you didn't meet our ask. We had to cut half our features. But that's okay. We'll just suffer quietly, you go do your thing, don't mind us."

If we stop right here, whether you subscribe to Mr. Chen's prescriptive approach or prefer to just let languages evolve, your suspicions seem to be confirmed to some extent (rather recent trend, technology company, though not exactly East Coast).

However, digging deeper, here is a Language Log post from August 7th, 2004 (the plot thickens). And finally, the excellent follow-up from July 10th, 2008 (the plot takes an unexpected U-turn):

I opined that the noun ask was likely to be venerable, probably going back to Old English. And so it is and does, but the full story is more interesting than a simple survival of a lexical item from a millennium ago.

[...] A natural innovation in Old English would have been to create a noun directly from the verb ask (or its pre-OE forebear); that would have been a useful thing to have, and so it happened. Yes, a nouning of a verb. [...] The crucial point here is that the noun request wasn't around then. According to the OED, it appeared in Middle English, in the 14th century (when borrowings from Old French began swarming into the language), and, about 200 years later, we got the verb request (a verbing, either in English or in Old French, it's hard to tell). So a noun ask was a good thing to have while we were waiting for the French-based request to arrive.

The OED has three early cites, between roughly 1000 and 1230, and then a huge gap until these two cites:

1781 T. TWINING Let. 8 Dec. in Recreat. & Stud. (1882) 108, I am not so unreasonable as to desire you to..answer all my asks.

1886 ‘CAVENDISH’ Whist 127 When your three comes down in the next round, it is not an ask for trumps.

That post is chock-full of such revelations, which boil down to:

[The] noun ask seems to have been innovated on a number of different occasions.

Of which the current technology-company speak is just one. Highly recommended reading.

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agh the language! it is evolving before my very eyes! –  Claudiu Oct 21 '10 at 17:47
@Claudiu: you might be interested in other posts by Raymond Chen tagged "Microspeak". Quite a few interesting developments there. –  RegDwigнt Oct 21 '10 at 17:59
I don't care how old the usage is, 'ask' as a noun is just... wrong. :) –  Marthaª Oct 21 '10 at 18:49
@Martha: that's exactly the immediate reaction I had when I first encountered "I will" instead of "I shall", "center" instead of "centre", and "have got" instead of "have gotten". We are all victims of our environments. –  RegDwigнt Oct 21 '10 at 18:54
I'm with Raymond on this one. While language evolution might explain how it could come into use, the real problem is the context where it has recently come back: The minefield of passive aggressiveness that is negotiations between middle managers in giant companies, fighting over who will deliver what (all the while considering how "the ask" will impact their CYA strategy). Yuck. –  Jeff Allen Jan 22 '13 at 13:21

It's also used fairly commonly in sports situations, especially cricket commentary.

For example: "England need 200 more to win — that's a big ask".

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Indeed - I'd say ask as a noun can mean an instance of asking. –  Jez Jan 22 '13 at 13:38
UK sports for sure, I've never heard it in a US context. –  ohmi Jan 22 '13 at 23:14

The NOAD reports that ask is also a noun:

noun [in singular]
1. a request, especially for a donation: an ask for more funding.
2. the price at which an item, especially a financial security, is offered for sale: [as adjective] ask prices for bonds.

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I have only noticed this usage of "ask" recently, perhaps in only the last few years. I have noticed it mostly in a political and business context, which appears to have started spreading to other broadcast domains, like sports. I have no idea where nor why it has started (or restarted, as some suggest).

On the one hand, it sounds horrible to most of our ears, since we have become so accustomed to hearing "request" as the noun. In spite of this, I can see two benefits to "ask" as a noun:

  1. By using the same word for verb and noun, more non-native English speakers will understand us, which one might debate as a benefit, but which I believe benefits the world as a whole

  2. It rejects a French/Latinate form in favor of an Anglo-Saxon one, which one might also debate as a benefit, but which the linguistic purists would love.

The first time I heard it, I felt a tinge of Orwellian "Politics and the English Language" effect, but upon reflection, I don't think using "ask" as both verb and noun qualifies as a dumbing-down of the language, but rather as a useful simplification of it. Remember that "access" used not to be commonly used as a verb (one would "gain access to" something), and yet it sounds perfectly commonplace to us now.

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Seems to be the standard wording regarding asking for money in as in fundraising or investment.

Some of more prominent examples of use:

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