Sunday, April 19, 2009

I think I got it!

In my April 12 post (What does William Safire "do?") I wondered what Safire meant by "we are living in syntax." It suddenly dawned on me, perhaps because it's Sunday: he was playing off the phrase living in sin! Get it? Living in Yes, folks, the Ravin' Maven thinks that using "phrasal templates" such as don't do X is (kind of?) like living in sin. You know, like, it's wrong. And you'll go to Hell for doing it.

At least he does have a sense of humor, even if he doesn't know much about the science of language. For example, in his book Fumblerules, published way back in 1991 or thereabouts, he includes the rule:
Don't verb nouns.
OK. But the rule itself, as he gives it, wouldn't make sense if it weren't possible and easy to "verb nouns" in English (let's table that motion; take 'em downtown and book 'em; etc.).

This pattern represents what some linguists call a zero-derivation: A verb can be derived from a noun by adding a zero suffix. Or prefix- it's zero, so who cares? I do prefer suffix, though, since most derivational affixes that change the lexical category of the word they attach to appear to be suffixes: to walk (verb) > walker (noun); slow (adjective) > slowly (adverb); ugly (adjective) > ugliness (noun); and so on.

Of course, this doesn't work in all languages; for example, try simply declaring that the Spanish word libro (book) is a verb. Can't be done. This is because, while all languages share some rules with all other languages (universal grammar), all languages also have rules that are shared with only some, or perhaps even no, other languages.


  1. As soon as English shed its derivational suffixes, verbing nouns and nouning verbs, and doing both to adjectives became the way the language works. People don't really object to it; they only object to *new* examples.

  2. libro 'I am a book', libras 'thou art a book', él libra 'he is a book', ...


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