Limber Up Because English Is Flexible

If you hate it when nouns are used as verbs, it's time to consider that the words that and up can be many different parts of speech.

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #545
English is flexible


Anthropologist Edward Sapir once wrote, “unfortunately, or luckily, no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammars leak.” Sapir was talking about the irregularities of language. For me, this leakiness is especially evident in what I think of as doppelgrammar words.

Many of our most common words have come to serve more than a single grammatical role, so a word serving one part of speech will often have a homonym—a grammatical doppelganger—that serves as a different part of speech. Often this arises from what is called functional shift, when we take a noun and make it into a verb as in to adult or to gym. This shiftiness makes it hard, and perhaps impossible, to think of a word as having just one categorization.

Here’s an example. Recently, a friend told me that her daughter’s teacher had told her to never use the word that. She wondered if the advice was legit.

What Part of Speech Is ‘That’?

It depends, I said, which that we are talking about. This humble four-letter word can serve as a pronoun, adjective, conjunction or even an adverb. When we say “Hand me that,” the word is functioning as a demonstrative pronoun, referring to something oriented away from the speaker (as opposed to this). But if we say, “Hand me that book,” it is functioning as an adjective, though again indicating orientation. If we say “Have you seen the person that was just here,” the word is a pronoun again, a relative pronoun linking the noun person to the clause that was just here. Whew.

That can also be a straight up subordinating conjunction introducing a clause functioning as a noun: “I told you that I would be right back.” This that is the one that writers often cut to make prose move along more quickly: “I told you I would be right back” is often preferred on grounds of conciseness. This is what my friends’ daughter’s teacher was talking about. And, last but not least, that can even be an intensifying adverb, as in “Yes, it is that complicated.”

Now, we might quibble about these characterizations—perhaps the adjective that and the demonstrative pronoun that are related, “Hand me that” being a reduced form of “Hand me that book.” But the larger point is pretty clear: our simplest words serve more than a single function. Grammar leaks, and words have doppelgangers.

Some Verbs Can Be Both Helping Verbs and Main Verbs

That is not the only word that does double (or triple or quadruple) duty. The words have, be, and do, for example can be auxiliary verbs (you may know these as "helping" verbs because they "help the main verb") or the main verbs themselves. In “I have just arrived,” the word have helps the main verb (arrived), but in “I have a question,” it is the main verb.

‘Up’ Can Be Many Parts of Speech

Sometimes words are so common that we don’t even think to question their status. Take the word up. It’s a preposition, right? "I walked up the block for a cup of coffee." But up can also be an adverb as in "He jumped up." Or it can be part of a compound verb "We fixed up the house" or "She wrote up the report." Up can even be used as an adjective or verb: "It was an up day for the markets" or "The university has upped tuition again." The stereotypical characterization of up as a preposition doesn’t do justice to its flexibility.

English Words Are Often Flexible

The flexibility and homonymy of English words is pervasive: words like yesterday, today, and tomorrow can be nouns or adverbs. Compare "Tomorrow is another day" with "I’ll finish the work tomorrow." The word who can be an interrogative pronoun (“Who left?”) or a relative one (“I saw the person who you mentioned”). Before and after can be prepositions or subordinating conjunctions: "I left after class" or "I left after I saw them." Well can be an interjection or an adverb, as in "Well, I never would have believed that!" and "The old car runs well."  And of course, you and they can be singular or plural pronouns.

So if you expect a word to have a unique meaning or function, you are likely to be disappointed. Words are pressed into service for new functions all the time and the list of such grammatical doubles goes on and on.

Sometimes, though, the status of a word becomes a matter of minor controversy. A librarian I know was called out on social media for using fun as an adjective (a fun event). "As a librarian, you should know better," her on-line scolder remarked. Well, fun has been an adjective for quite some time. Others get annoyed about the shift of super from adjective status to intensifying adverb (as in “She was super smart”).

And a few years ago, the media was abuzz with concerns about the word because being used as a preposition (as in "because reasons" or "because science") rather than sticking to its more traditional role as a subordinating conjunction (“because language changes”). People who thought the usage was an abomination when they first heard it were using it regularly within a few weeks, at first ironically and then routinely. And Oxford Dictionaries lists these uses of because, super, and fun, tagging them—for now—as informal.

So before we get too judgmental about nouns being used as verbs, or adjectives being used as nouns or as adverbs, let’s take a moment to appreciate the flexibility of the parts of speech. As Edward Sapir put it, the multiplicity of ways in which we express ourselves may be a "welcome luxuriance" or "an unavoidable and traditional predicament." Which it is may depend on our temperament.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford University Press blog and is included here with permission.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for Grammar Girl

Edwin Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?" (OUP, 2009), "Bad Language" (OUP, 2005), and "The Logic of Markedness" (OUP, 1996).

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