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Being a Verb

On Tuesday, March 6, the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia sponsored a lecture by an interdisciplinary artist and educator, Amy Franceschini. Her title was “Art Is a Verb.”

Now, I am of course going to do my pedantic duty qua grammarian: You wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t go ape, or at least bristle a bit. But first let me briefly note that I am not too stupid to understand what she meant: Art doesn’t just sit there like a thing, it’s a practice, something you have to do. I know all that.

But my duty calls. There is a crucial point I really must hammer home, pounding the lectern with my fist occasionally: These semantic notions like “something you do” as the basis for defining verb, or “person, place or thing” as the basis for defining noun, are utterly hopeless, notwithstanding their centuries of use. Combustion, for example, is definitely something that happens, and not in any sense a thing; but combustion is a noun. Linguists have been pointing this out since the early 1930s. Leonard Bloomfield’s Language (1933) in an excellent example. But nobody listens and nothing changes. The prevailing concept of “verb” is the one that was current hundreds of years ago.

How do we define such terms if not by reference to their meanings? Well, grammatical terms have to be defined on a basis of grammatical facts. Verbs inflect for tense, and for agreement in number and person. They function as heads of verb phrases (predicates).

Consider the following examples of the contrasting ways nouns and verbs behave syntactically (I asterisk the two ungrammatical examples, highlighted in pink):

ROOT CATEGORY EXAMPLE
art Noun Art is important.
Verb *We arted all afternoon.
cart Noun Carts are useful.
Verb We carted it away.
dart Noun He threw the dart.
Verb The mouse darted out.
fart Noun I heard a fart.
Verb Somebody farted.
hart Noun He shot a hart.
Verb *Somebody harted.
part Noun It has several parts.
Verb They parted soon afterward.
start Noun Let’s make a start.
Verb They started soon afterward.

 

It’s actually hard to find short, simple nouns in English that cannot be used as verbs—that’s one of the reasons the semantic test is such a disaster. But Amy Franceschini did manage to hit on one: Art occurs as a noncount noun (I like art), and a count noun (The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts), but very definitely never as a verb:

*The children arted a lot.
*He was a banker but he is now arting.
*I have never arted.
*She arts in San Francisco.

Cut it any way you like, art just ain’t in the Verb category.

Yet "art is a verb" gets about 90,000 Google hits, associated with many people other than Franceschini; and if you Google the phrase "is a verb" you’ll find it suffixed not only to art but to numerous other nouns: beauty, bird, Christ, coupon, creative, design, faith, free, friendship, God, happiness, Hollywood, leadership, life, quality, science, service, summer, and many other things, all allegedly verbs. Is this an outbreak of insanity, or is there some other explanation?

There is another explanation. The sad truth is that grammar as an academic subject is at such a low ebb that when mentioned in the public arena it is mushed down into a soft, confused, semantically flavored pablum. Nouns are confused with concrete objects. Adjectives are confused with insulting descriptions. Passives are confused with sentences that conceal agency or responsibility, or simply anything containing a form of the verb be. And naturally, verbs are confused with actions or pursuits.

Public discussion of grammar is in roughly the state that public understanding of chemistry would be if the periodic table still read “air, water, earth, fire.” It is in the state that public understanding of aeronautical engineering would be in if educated adults believed that airplane wings flapped and had feathers. It is in the state that public understanding of human biology would be in if…

Hey, this could be a fun game. But I digress. Let me get back to my duty.

Amy, please, just say what you mean. Don’t do the grammar thing. Say that art is practical, should involve you in doing things. But please—humor me—please don’t say that it’s a verb.

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