More fun with verbs that aren’t exactly verbs

So, in this surprisingly popular recent post, I was talking about verbs that join up with adverb/preposition words to form meanings that aren’t related to the constituent words. Those, as you recall, are called phrasal verbs, and examples are things like get out, carry on, and set forth.

Two comments about phrasal verbs: yes, you were all correct, the post about versions involving “set” said 60,000 WORDS were used to describe 580 EXAMPLES of phrasal verbs using “set,” which makes far, far more sense than the way I read that at first, as 60,000 different examples. So, I’m glad to have that sorted out, and thank you to everyone who pointed to the correct reading of those numbers.

Second, I think I understand out why words like “on” and “out” count as adverbs in phrasal verbs when they are obviously prepositions. That’s because in a phrase like, “Set the apples on the table,” the preposition is doing stuff related to the nouns, while if there are no nouns, then the thing that used to be the preposition is doing stuff related to the verb. Poof, it’s now an adverb. I think this is still a little peculiar and arguable, but I’m pretty sure that’s the thought behind defining those words as adverbs when they occur in phrasal verbs. (I didn’t look it up, though; this just seems like a reasonable explanation for this re-definition of “on” as an adverb.)

But, the point is, once one begins thinking about verbs that aren’t exactly verbs, you can have worlds of fun with words like that. There’s one obvious example that is completely different from phrasal verbs. This is the gerund.

She is studying for exams. –> studying is the present participle; eg, it is a verb.

Studying is not her favorite thing to do. –> studying is a noun, which is why it is a thing; eg, it is a gerund.

And this reminded me of a Lingthusiasm podcast I was listening to recently, about verbs, and the way anything can be verbified, although some words verbize more easily than others. You can and should decide whether something is a verb or a noun by looking at what it is doing in the sentence and whether it behaves like a verb or like a noun. Thus, if you say, “I’m adulting today, but tomorrow I plan to cat,” then you’re using both “adult” and “cat” as verbs. They are doing verb things. If you change the tense of the sentence, then those words change the way verbs ought to change: “Yesterday, I adulted, but today, I am catting.”

And THAT reminded me of using EXACTLY THIS technique when I was writing my master’s thesis, which was then published in the American Journal of Botany. I linked to it in case you are dying to read an article written in Exceedingly Boring Academic Style. The other author was my advisor, but all the writing was mine. But the reason I bring it up is that this was the article that forced me to learn the difference between effect and affect.

I don’t mean just “learn the different meanings.” I knew the different meanings. I mean how to use them correctly even though both words start to look wrong 100% of the time when you keep using them over and over. There are no good synonyms, both get used a thousand times in related contexts, and it is enormously tedious to have to think about which form to use each time you need one or the other. A quick wordcount indicates that I used “effect” in the linked paper 73 times, and “affect” only eight times, which is a remarkable bias toward the noun form and suggests that alternate words or phrases are easier to come up with for the verb.

Regardless, when you are writing academic prose, you have to get this right every single time or you will look like an idiot. Yet, as we all know, when you think about something of this kind too much, everything starts to look wrong and you lose the ability to recognize nouns even though you have been handling nouns just fine in literally hundreds of thousands of sentences since you first learned to talk. The way to make this much less tedious is to (a) know which is the verb and which is the noun; and (b) do a very fast is-this-a-verb check each time you use one. The check is exactly as suggested above: you check whether the word is acting like a verb:

Alterations in the architecture of competing individuals or species, which can occur under enhanced UV-B, may effect light interception and photosynthesis.

... which occurred under enhanced UV-B, effected light interception and photosynthesis.

The word did the verb thing. You want the verb form. Change it to “may affect” and move on.

Changing the tense of the sentence forces the verbs to reveal themselves. This is a very fast way to confirm the verb-hood of a word so that you can quit worrying about it. I did in fact literally switch sentences and phrases from present to past and back again in order to confirm which form I wanted. I mean, in my head, not on the screen. With practice, you learn to do this check so fast it’s almost like you didn’t do it at all. Less than a second. With more practice, you train the back of your brain to just pick the right word every time without needing to pay conscious attention, and as far as I know, this particular mistake is one I never make anymore, even when I’m typing “cyprus” instead of “cypress” or “pebble” instead of “people.” Which happens all the time. But even now that I am constantly typing “has” instead of “had” — it’s not my fault, listen, the keys are right next to each other — but what I’m saying is, effect and affect, I still seem to have cold, way down deep where my brain really believes it.

The verb check is more reliable than a noun check, because the quickest, easiest noun check is “Does the word have an article in front of it?” Because if it does, it’s doing noun things, right? But lots of times, “effect” doesn’t take an article.

Effects of parental competition and UV-B exposure on the next generation were estimated as offspring germination success, growth, and flower, fruit, and seed production. 

Look, no article, so you can’t quickly confirm that “effects” is a noun that way. But you can easily change the sentence to present tense and confirm that way that “effects” doesn’t change and therefore it isn’t a verb, eg, it’s a noun.

I realize perfectly well that you can also just know what nouns are and what verbs are and do it that way. I’m saying that changing verb tense will work even if your brain is largely nonfunctional because you have used “effect” 73 times in your paper and by this time, it looks simultaneously right and wrong every time you use it.

AND this also works to separate participles from gerunds, should you ever happen to want to do that.

She is studying for exams. –> She studied for exams –> studying did the verb thing. It is a verb.

Studying is not her favorite thing to do. –> Studying was not her favorite thing –> studying did not do the verb thing. It is a noun.

And so when the Lingthusiasm episode talks about verbifying words, this is great! It’s great to think of verbs as words that do verb things and nouns as words that do noun things, and if you teach kids about that, then when some instructor in a college composition class asks, “Where’s the verb in this sentence?” or “Does this sentence have a verb?”, then the kid will know how to tell. It’s not about memorizing what a gerund is. It’s about looking at a sentence and seeing the -ing word is doing the noun thing, not the verb thing, so boom! It’s a noun, meaning a gerund.

Skiing down difficult slopes scares me. Reading is a favorite hobby. Today, I want to cat. Carry on, Private. To be, or not to be, that is the question. –> You can spot the verbs every time because they do verb things. Whatever sort of looks like it might be a verb, if it doesn’t do verb things, it’s not a verb at the moment.

The Lingthusiasm episode does different things with verbs; it’s all about hanging the rest of the sentence on the verb. That’s neat to think about too and if you’re not yet listening to Lingthusiasm, then if you have a boring drive over Christmas, this is the perkiest, most chipper podcast I can think of — good for staying awake, and as a plus always interesting.

If you have a favorite podcast, drop it in the comments! Driving = boring boring boring, at least if you are driving alone. Always happy to hear about other podcasts that I might like to try.

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5 thoughts on “More fun with verbs that aren’t exactly verbs”

  1. I didn’t get around to commenting on your post about phrasal verbs, but I used to point out to students that it was important to get prepositions (or adverbs) right because there is a vast difference between “go on,” “go down,” “go on down,” and “go down on.” I don’t do that anymore, as I don’t want to make people uncomfortable with sexual references in class (wait, can I still speak of “the copulative ‘to be'”?), but it used to get a big laugh, and much better attention to prepositions in papers.

  2. I do that tense switching trick when I’m unsure about lay / lie, among others. It’s so true that it all looks WRONG after staring at it for too long!

  3. I’m glad to hear other people do this! I recommend shifting tense to students if I think it might be useful, but I don’t know if they ever try it.

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