November 17, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: functional shifts & an update on bullets

Posted in bullets, functional shift at 6:45 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Functional shifts

A reader writes:

Subject: Joint Degree Accepts to Date

I’ve noticed the truncation of nouns — or perhaps the amputation of their suffixes.

The Subject line above:  “accepts” instead of “acceptances”  and there are others: “consults” instead of “consultations” and “invites” instead of “invitation.”

Maybe you can do a piece on this.

Okay, here goes.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to say about this ‘truncation of nouns,’ and I didn’t know how to start.  I was at a loss until I can across an old column by the late, great William Safire, and then I had my ‘eureka’ moment. Eureka! I don’t think that this is about the ‘truncation of nouns’ at all, although that argument could easily be made (new words developed through truncation are common, e.g., ’gym’ from ‘gymnasium’ and ‘exam’ from ‘examination’). I think, however, what we have, here, is a functional shift, which is when the word stays the same but becomes a different part of speech. In this case, I think we are seeing the verbs—accepts, consults, and invites—being used as the nouns—accepts, consults, and invites. They look just the same but, generally, are pronounced differently; as nouns, the emphasis is on the first syllable—as verbs, the emphasis is on the second or third syllable.

I thought of another one: the noun, ‘disconnect,’ represents a functional shift of the verb, ‘disconnect.’ And there is the noun, ‘construct,’ from the verb of the same name. Functional shifts occur more frequently for nouns becoming verbs (think of the dreaded verb, ‘impact,’ and think of the functional shift next time you go to ‘google’ something or other) than it does for verbs becoming nouns, but that is what has happened in this case. Words that have changed this way are usually considered colloquialisms when they are first used, and gradually, they creep into the mainstream. They sound ugly and awkward when you first hear them, but you get used to them as they become more prevalent. I am very familiar with ‘consults’ as a noun, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I feel the same way about ‘disconnect’ and ‘construct’ and certainly would feel funny talking about a ‘disconnection’ or a ‘construction.’  That just sounds awkward. I have referred to ‘invites’ myself, but I would only use it casually and probably only in conversation. And then there’s ‘accepts.’ I had never heard it before I read this reader’s note, and as far as I am concerned, it has not left the ugly and awkward stage yet. While there may come a day when ‘accepts’ falls trippingly off my tongue, right now, it just sounds horrid.

Finally, I know in the past that I have ranted about some of these functional shifts (think again of ‘impact’ and using ‘dialogue’ as a verb), and I don’t know if I’ve mellowed with age (I doubt it, I still won’t use ‘impact’ as a verb or ‘data’ as singular), or if it’s just the case that I have become more familiar and comfortable with these constructs. Still, it will be quite a while before ‘accepts’ as a noun find its way into my vocabulary.

Tip 2: Update on bullets

Last week, I provided a set of guidelines on using bullets effectively. I think the timing was fortuitous, because not long after I received this.

A reader writes:

Perfect timing with the bullet topic … I’m editing slides where the person is using bullets, but on one slide they have a numbered list. The lead-in is that three types of meditation were used, then they are listed 1, 2, 3. Not sure if the formatting will stay, but here’s what it looks like –

Aim 1 is to compare 3 varieties of meditation:

  • 1) transcendental meditation
  • 2) breath watching meditation
  • 3) walking meditation

I think in this part they need to get rid of the bullets (or not use numbering). To use both seems odd.

First, I have to say that I made up all that stuff about meditation; I wanted to change the topic of the presentation so that the email was not identifiable (I don’t want anyone to get in trouble with his or her colleagues).

Second, yes, of course it looks odd. It looks extremely odd. That’s because it’s completely WRONG. You would never use BOTH bullets and numbers together on a slide. Choose one or the other. And, unless there is an easily recognizable hierarchy or order, I would stick to bullets. We don’t want to imply anything that we don’t mean.

Third, a couple of our guidelines were not used in the slide. The first letter of each bullet should be capitalized, and each line should end in a period.

[NOTE: I am still not completely satisfied the second guideline there, especially with bullets this short. I’ll keep thinking it over.]

But you have to admit that the slide looks better like this:

Aim 1 is to compare 3 varieties of meditation:

  • Transcendental meditation.
  • Breath watching meditation.
  • Walking meditation.

Enough said.

1 Comment »

  1. Rachel Ann said,

    I loved your article on functional shifts. I came across it because a friend posted something on her fb page about how a noun (inbox) had started being used as a verb (to inbox someone). I responded how language changed, then gave a link, and did some more research, and came to your blog. Now I have a new favorite blog.


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