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Someone told me that the English language is special (compared to German, at least) in the way that every noun could be used as a verb. I think this phenomenon is called supine. Is this correct?

Examples:

  • house → to house
  • well → to well
  • phone → to phone
  • table → to table
  • lamp → to lamp

At first it seemed to me that this would work with all nouns. But then I thought of the following nouns, and I think they can't be used as a verb, am I right?

  • person →(?) to person
  • human →(?) to human
  • baker →(?) to baker
  • computer →(?) to computer
  • example →(?) to example

It seems that nouns describing people (person, human, baker) are exceptions? But it works for "author" ("to author"). Hmm. "Computer" seems smiliar to a person's job to me (could be a human instead of a machine that computes).

But what about "example"? I think "to example (something/someone)" is not possible, is it? What would a native speaker understand/think if someone says:

He examples.

I want to example it/him.

Which are the nouns that can't be used as a verb?

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Related basis of an answer: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supine –  Andrew Leach Aug 15 '12 at 12:12
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All nouns can be used as verbs. Not all nouns are used as verbs. And I'll crumpet you while you tanker if you banana any different. –  Matt Эллен Aug 15 '12 at 12:23
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I think Not Constructive. I can't think of any context where it makes sense to use baker as a verb (it's formed from to bake in the first place. For many other nouns we have dedicated inflexions - personify, humanise, computerise, exemplify, etc. But there's no simple way of defining which words have those inflected forms, or which "uninflected" noun forms are plausible. –  FumbleFingers Aug 15 '12 at 12:33
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Also, unor, people is a verb. –  Matt Эллен Aug 15 '12 at 12:46
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@FumbleFingers Maybe you can't think of any occasion to verb baker, but Edith Nesbit clearly did: "The natural and right ways of earning your living in the country are much jollier than town ones, too; sowing and reaping, and doing things with animals, are much better sport than fishmongering or bakering or oil-shopping, and those sort of things...." :) –  tchrist Aug 15 '12 at 15:43
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3 Answers 3

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Theoretically, any, absolutely any noun — and indeed any, absolutely any word — in English can be used as a verb. Nothing prevents you from exampling, betweening, egadsing or greating. Theoretically.

In practice, there are of course a variety of reasons why not everything gets verbified. For starters, there are only so many words you really need in everyday conversation. You don't use example as a verb, but you also don't use amaranthine as an adjective. For all you know, both are sitting in a dictionary somewhere, but for all you care, both might as well not exist.

Secondly, there is that linguistic phenomenon called "blocking". We already have the word "to compute", so its existence blocks the verb "to computer" from getting any traction, or indeed from being created in the first place. If it is to be introduced and get any traction, then only in a meaning different from that of "to compute". The difference can be very slight; it can also be one of register or dialect rather than one of meaning, but it will be a difference nonetheless.

Likewise, there is no way to tell what "he examples" might end up meaning should it ever get introduced, but it's likely to be something entirely different from "he demonstrates", or "he leads by example", because we already have other words for those which everybody uses.

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You can word anything as long as you verb it. –  Joshua Shane Liberman Aug 15 '12 at 18:36
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A pretty cool novel that deals with the creation of new words (and overcoming 'blocking') is Frindle, by Andrew Clements. It's certainly aimed at kids and is by no means an academic piece or other authority on the subject, but the ideas are there. Interestingly, the book very explicitly plays the teacher, Mrs. Granger, as a benevolent anthropomorphism of blocking. Also, obviously lots of new words are made to fill a niche. Somewhat less obviously, the "this word isn't used by your parents" niche is very powerful. –  rsegal Aug 15 '12 at 23:05
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I think the operative word here is already, to a point. We already have “to bake”, so we don’t need “to baker”—unless of course we need to distinguish a person who bakes from a person who makes a living as a baker… –  Jon Purdy Oct 29 '12 at 14:48
    
Wait, what? We don't use ‘amaranthine’ as an adjective? It's not a word I use very often, but I would guess that when I do use it, it's as an adjective at least 80 per cent of the time … –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 19 '13 at 13:48
    
@Janus the point here is not which part of speech it is used as. The point here is precisely that it is not used often as such. (You can search a corpus and pick a much rarer word if you wish, I just went with the one I subjectively deemed rare enough.) For all intents and purposes, it is safe to say that the OP uses amaranthine as an adjective about as often as he uses example as a verb. That is all I am saying. They, and ten thousand other words, might well be all sitting in the dictionary next to him, all unused. –  RegDwigнt Oct 19 '13 at 14:30
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To think that I should have lived to be goodmorninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!

As Gandalf’s exclamatory remark above illustrates, English has no restrictions that preclude some certain class of words, let alone nouns, from being used as verbs.

However, whether your listener or reader will understand what you mean by this innovation is a different matter. This may be especially true if the noun you’re trying to use as a verb is itself already derived from a verb, because people will then have to figure out whether you mean something different than would have been meant had you reverted to the original verb that the noun derived from.

So in the text up to this point, with duplicates removed, we have these candidates:

  • to son — ok
  • to button — already a verb
  • to door — ok
  • to remark — already a verb
  • to English — ok
  • to class — why not to classify?
  • to word — already a verb
  • to restriction — why not to restrict? how would this be different?
  • to noun — ok
  • to verb — ok
  • to listener — why not to listen?
  • to reader — how is this different from to read?
  • to innovation — why not to innovate
  • to matter — already a verb
  • to text — recently verbed
  • to point — already a verb
  • to people — already a verb
  • to duplicate — already a verb
  • to candidate — ok

So nouns that are already verbs, or which have base forms that verbs, may be more resistant to verbing. But there is no general rule, because English lets you do whatever you want without whatever you have.

No reason to stop with nouns. Both yessing and to a lesser extent also noing are well attested. From the ever-neologuing world of computer programming there’s anding together two integers, or foreaching across an array, or even withing something. Then of course there’s thouing someone instead of youing or yousing or yalling them.

As for being goodmorninged, that one I’ll leave you to work out for yourself just why it works so well there. See the complete text where Gandalf the Lexicographer (or would that be lexicomancer? :) is trying to work out just what all of Bilbo’s many goodmornings actually mean in context.

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I think I'd disagree with all four of your "OK" examples, preferring Anglicise (or translate to English), nounify (or make a noun of), verbify and become a candidate -- always assuming those are actually what your neologisms mean. Perhaps I have no imagination. –  Andrew Leach Aug 15 '12 at 13:02
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@AndrewLeach Just because you can do something, son, doesn’t mean that you must or even should. The ability to apply derivational morphology to create things like verbify doesn’t stop people from verbing at will. And yes, I just sonned you. :) –  tchrist Aug 15 '12 at 13:07
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Note that "english" also is something (twisting, spinning) you impart to a ball or body, and is also a decorative finish. So it is already verbed, and OK, and not Anglicizing. –  horatio Aug 15 '12 at 15:14
    
+1 I think Tolkien is an excellent example of a bad writer, so it's good that you brought him up in the context of this question. ;) –  Henrik Erlandsson Oct 31 '12 at 18:56
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The ratio of words that work as verbs if you put "to" in front of them is much smaller in reality than you might gather from trying a few nouns. I would advise against taking the few examples that do work as anything remotely approaching a rule.

Playful language works in humor, of course, and is enjoyable if done well. But if you do not intend humor, you should strive to learn the language as well as you can manage — and express yourself as unambiguously as the language allows.

For "to example", there is a similar expression: "to demo". This is an abbreviation of "to demonstrate", derived from the noun "demonstration". You show someone an example, usually of a product. The correct verb from the noun "example" is "exemplify".

A good alternative to "to (noun)" is "to use a (noun) to (process)" or "to use a (noun) on (subject/object)".

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