LINGUIST List 10.105

Fri Jan 22 1999

Disc: Adjectives to Verbs

Editor for this issue: Jody Huellmantel <>


  1. E. Bashir, Re: 10.97, Disc: Adjectives to Verbs
  2. Mike_Maxwell, Re: 10.84, Disc: Adjectives to Verbs

Message 1: Re: 10.97, Disc: Adjectives to Verbs

Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 08:56:46 -0500 (EST)
From: E. Bashir <>
Subject: Re: 10.97, Disc: Adjectives to Verbs

The example "embiggens" cited by Sean Witty, calls to mind many other
English verbs from adjectives, e.g.: with the prefix en-, enlarge,
embolden, enable; with the suffix -ify, clarify, etc; with the suffix
-en, whiten, blacken. 

E. Bashir, Visiting Lecturer
Dept. of Asian Languages and Cultures
3070 Frieze Bldg.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Office Phone: 734-764-0214
Dept. Phone: 734-764-8286 (messages only)
Fax: 734-647-0157
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Message 2: Re: 10.84, Disc: Adjectives to Verbs

Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 09:27:33 -0500 (EST)
From: Mike_Maxwell <Mike_MaxwellSIL.ORG>
Subject: Re: 10.84, Disc: Adjectives to Verbs

A week or so ago (LINGUIST 10.84), I submitted a posting about what
seemed to me to be an unusual use of an adjective as a verb ("I
Newed the file"). There's been some discussion of this question
posted to LINGUIST List, and I've received some personal emails, which
I promise to summarize. But I would like to clarify what puzzled me,
as apparently I didn't make it quite clear.

First, let me put to one side some things that I was not talking
about. There are quite a few noun-verb pairs, and some adjective-verb
pairs, that are in common use (e.g. you can find them in the
dictionary). It is also quite common to derive a verb from a noun or
an adjective using an overt suffix. Finally, there are noun-verb
pairs that differ in stress. Under one approach, the stress
difference is a result of the differing categories (the final syllable
of nouns being extrasyllabic, perhaps); under another approach, the
stress difference is the affix (suprafix). (Or maybe these approaches
aren't really different.) All of these things seem to be different
from what I was asking about.

What I was asking about, is the fact that it is not uncommon in
English to coin a new usage of a noun as a verb, _without any overt
suffix_; but it is very uncommon (perhaps impossible) to coin a new
usage of an adjective as a verb _without any overt suffix_. So a
friend of mine once said, "You can verb anything." I can say, "Let's
blackboard (or nowadays, whiteboard) this problem." Or if someone is
thinking of replacing their old monitor with one of those new LCD
monitors, I can say "They want to LCD their computer." Or if the
Senate should suddenly decide to allow us all to watch their debates
(even more boring than commercials), I could say "They televisioned
the debates." That one sounds a little stranger than the other
examples, probably because there is already a perfectly good verb
"televise", which blocks the verb "television" (in Aronoff's sense of
"block"). All of these are novel uses, at least to me (I can't recall
ever having heard them before); and they don't have any overt
verbalizing affix (although they can take verbal inflection: "They
finally LCD'd their computer.").

As I was trying to think up examples, I realized that most of the
nouns that have been recently added to English already have
well-attested verbs: keyboard, mouse, email, stonewall (or maybe this
came in as a verb), etc. Another indication of the productivity of
noun --> verb conversion.

On the other hand, novel uses of adjectives of verbs seem rare,
perhaps nonexistent. If someone paints their house, you can't say
*"They whited/pinked/greened their house." If someone gains weight,
you can't say *"They heavied themselves." Several people have pointed
out that in the example I brought up ("I Newed the file"), "New" is
not really an adjective--it's the name of a menu choice, and therefore
more like a noun. (Or perhaps this is the old usage-reference
distinction.) Well, if "New" is not (based on) an adjective in that
example, then it makes my point even more strongly: instead of novel
uses of adjectives as verbs being rare, they're nonexistent! (At
least in my personal data corpus.) While novel uses of nouns as verbs
are if not common, at least not impossible.

At least one person has suggested that the reason novel Adj-->Verb
conversions are rare is that adjectives are less common than nouns.
True, but why should conversions of adjectives that do exist be
impossible? Another explanation might be that conversion of Adjs to
Verbs without overt an affix is blocked (in the Aronoff sense) by the
existence of deadjectival verbs with affixes (*red as a verb because
of 'redden'--and of course "She redded up the house" comes from
something else). But even when there isn't blocking, you still can't
use an adjective as a verb: *"The physicist wants to possible
faster-than-light travel" (or *"Einstein impossibled faster-than-light 

So in summary, here's my puzzle: why is it easy to use a noun as a
verb in English, but difficult or impossible to use an adjective that
way (without an overt verbalizing affix)?

 Mike Maxwell
 Summer Institute of Linguistics
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