So how did “the buzz” get started?
The first time my friend Hope asked how comfortable I would be with the buzz on “making the ask,” I had to pause. The meaning was clear – we were discussing making direct solicitations on behalf of a non-profit – but her use of the verb, “to ask” as a noun was new to me, and also impressive. First, it made her sound like an expert at “making the ask.” Second, the verb form of the question “Are you comfortable asking for money?” seemed tacky by comparison.
“Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns” by Henry Hitchings recently appeared in the New York Times in print and online. In his article, Hitchings explains that “the ask” and other verbs-as-nouns such as “Do you have a solve for this problem?” and “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar” are examples of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun.
“The reveal” that comes at the end of a detective show on TV is another example. So is “the buzz.” Bees buzz, but humans usually read the buzz or watch it on TMZ.
Why do verbs-as-nouns come across in speech and writing as somewhat annoying or pretentious? Maybe because they sound like slang or industry jargon, the product of a lazy mind, or a type of sentence structure discouraged by teachers, according to Hitchings.
In fact, teachers try to steer us away from another turn of the verb, the one that involves a morphological change, such as when “to investigate” becomes the noun “investigation.” Your teacher would point out that it’s livelier to write “Mary investigated the empty house,” vs. “The investigation of the empty house was done by Mary.” Teachers also tend to dislike straight conversions of verb-to-noun, as in the case of “the ask.”
Hitchings, the author of three books about language and history, makes a good argument that despite the usual bias against nominalization, it has its place. He explains that there is a psychology behind what’s going on:
Why say “solve” rather than “solution”? One answer is that it gives an impression of freshness, by avoiding an everyday word. To some, “I have a solve” will sound jauntier and more pragmatic than “I have a solution.” It’s also more concise and less obviously Latinate (though the root of “solve” is the Latin solvere).
Hitchings message, which is good news for those of us who communicate for a living, is that “it is simplistic to have a blanket policy of avoiding and condemning nominalizations.” After all, he points out, “ask” has been used as a noun for a thousand years. And though they may be aesthetically unpleasant to some, verbs-as-nouns can help you achieve a desired effect or nuanced meaning.
One last question: does the verb-as-noun question impact writing more or less than the noun-as-verb process? “Verbing” is another language conversion that drives some people crazy. Anybody want to dialogue about that?
Patti Testerman is owner of Testerman Communications. Patti is an award-winning copywriter and creative director with a background of 20 years in print and interactive communications at agencies, corporations, and as owner of Testerman Communications. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Delaware.