Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Underestimated Verb and Morphological Reasoning

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I discuss verbs, including the verb-forming suffixes -ize, -ify, -ate,and -en, the verb-forming prefixes be-,  en-/em- and sometimes de-, and verbs that started life as a noun and underwent grammatical shift, as in table/ to table. 

In a Web search, I found that Amazon can "betterize" their recommendations, someone “argufied somethin’ fierce,” and someone else is "preparing to speechify." The Exploratorium addresses the psychology behind how to cute-ify any creature, simply by making the eyes bigger, the body plump or fluffy, etc.

Action verbs advance the plot, in life and in literature. Only the verb can stand alone as a complete sentence: "Go!" But verbs can be the very devil. In each instance below, the verb went awry:
  • “How do you know if you don’t measure if you have a system that simply suckles kids through?”
  •  “You know, this issue doesn’t seem to resignate with the people.”
  • “They have misunderestimated me.”
(Bushisms, Weisberg, 2001)

How many English words are verbs? While nouns and adjectives make up 75% of the words in the English language, verbs only account for about 14%, according to Oxford (estimates only, based on main entry words).

However, this estimate does not take into account words with senses for different word classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.). For example, snowplow is tallied as a noun, but it could also be tallied as a verb: “I will snowplow the driveway.” Thus, the estimate of 14%, or only 1 in 7 words, must be quite low, because converting a noun into a verb is fairly common in English (not necessarily true in every language).

The business of transforming a noun into a verb goes by many names: verbing, verbification, morphological conversion, grammatical shift, functional shift, zero-derivation, etc. Whatever we call it, one thing is certain: It provides for a great deal of versatility and flexibility of expression. If Oxford’s tally of verbs included multiple senses for each given main entry, the number of verbs in the English language would rise, significantly. 

And even though it is possible to convert words across grammatical categories, as from an adjective (green) into a noun (the putting green), verbing is by far the most common type of grammatical shift.

In “You’ve Been Verbed” Anthony Gardner writes: “Mothers and fathers used to bring up children: now they parent. Critics used to review plays: now they critique them. Athletes podium, executives flipchart, and almost everybody Googles. Watch out—you’ve been verbed.” (Update: Also see 10-27-2012 NYT post by Dr. Helen Sword, Mutant Verbs).

Nonetheless, there is some logic to the pie graph pictured above, despite the missing grammatical conversions. It is not surprising that nouns and adjectives outnumber verbs. We can apply one verb to a slew of nouns. For example, the possibilities are endless with the verb fix. Theoretically, we can "fix" any noun that exists!

How does morphology help us understand verbs?
Source: Vocabulary Through Morphemes (Ebbers)
Sentence order helps us understand grammatical function. In addition to sentence order, suffixes--and some prefixes--provide syntactic information. For example, words that end with –ize tend to be verbs, as in verbalize. Words that end with –ion tend to be abstract nouns, as in education and television. Words that end with –ic tend to be adjectives, as in exotic, heroic. The chart shows derivations of drama, formed by adding various suffixes. Read more about derivational suffixes.

When there is no verb-forming suffix, for example when the noun table is transformed to a verb, "Let's table the discussion" we must rely on sentence order to determine word class. Read more about words with multiple meanings, including suffix-less zero-derivations).

How is a verb formed, morphologically? A verb could be a morphologically simple word, with only one morpheme: run, eat, sleep. It could be morphologically complex, composed of more than one morpheme. This includes compound words that are verbs: downsize, whitewash, kickbox. A handful of derivational suffixes create verbs. I list them below.
  • -ate, as in evaporate, calculate, demonstrate (more words)
  • -ize, as in analyze, revitalize, theorize (more words)
  • -ise (the British spelling for –ize) as in exercise
  • -ify, as in justify, oversimplify, pacify, electrify (more from Word Detector)
  • -en, as in moisten, sharpen, shorten (but not earthen, silken, etc.)

Prefixes can form verbs, too. The prefix en- creates verbs like endanger, enjoy, endear. This prefix is also spelled em-, as in embody, empower (see post on assimilated prefixes). Adding the prefix be- transforms a noun to a verb, as in befriend, bewitch, besiege. The prefix de- sometimes forms verbs, as in derail, defrost, and dethrone.

Reading research, morphological insight, and verbs: Researchers use contextualized (and sometimes isolated) invented words that contain real derivational suffixes to see whether or not older children (and adults) understand, even just subconsciously, how the derivational suffix indicates grammatical category. I have used the same process in my dissertation work, using real words and also invented words. Two examples from my test wordPLAY are shown below:

Can the rain ___?   vapor         vaporize      vapors         vaporizing 

We will ____ it.       borkize       borkous      borkment      borkly

Researchers have consistently found that poor morphological insight explains poor vocabulary knowledge: After all the other usual suspects have been accounted for, there is still a difference between students of high versus low vocabulary, and that remaining difference is partially explained when we factor in morphological knowledge. This difference begins in the primary grades and continues through high school and college for some students (e.g., Berninger et al. 2010; Carlisle, 2000; 2010; McBride-Chang et al., 2005, etc.; Singson, Mahony, & Mann, 2000, etc.).

What should students do? Learn words? YES! But also, learn ABOUT words--how they work, how they are formed, how to play around with them. And READ. And TALK. Absorb words, and their patterns. 

That's all. It's summer, almost. It's Sunday, spot on. Why not go outside and verb?

PS. Read more about the suffix -ify in Don't Be Iffy on -ify and see the worksheet that goes with it. Also see Teaching Verbs and Confronting the Skunk, by Georgia Scurletis, at Visual Thesuaurs.


Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010). Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39(2), 141-163. 

Carlisle, J.F. (2000). Awareness of the structure and meaning of morphologically complex words: Impact on reading. Reading and Writing,12, 169-190. 

Carlisle, J. F. (2010). Review of research: Effects of instruction in morphological awareness on literacy achievement: An integrative review. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(4), pp. 464-487. 

McBride-Chang, C., Wagner, R.K., Muse, A., Chow, B.W., & Shu, H. (2005). The role of morphological awareness in children’s vocabulary acquisition in English. Applied Psycholinguistics, 26, 415-435. 

Singson, M., Mahony, D., & Mann, V. (2000). The relation between reading ability and morphological skills: Evidence from derivational suffixes. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal,12, 219–252. 

Weisberg, J. (2001). George W. Bushisms. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster.


  1. I have misunderestimated the verb. J

  2. Brad Bessett6/23/2012

    I'm one who verbs. Would that make me a verbifier?

    We use Jabberwocky. My guys guess what the words mean. Now I will also have them guess the part of speech.


    1. Excellent idea, Brad. Jabberwocky rocks the language beat, hands down.


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