Verbing Our Way into Common Usage
Capitalization is a style rule rather than a grammar rule. It distinguishes a word as something special. To varying degrees, in English we generally cap:
- Proper nouns
- Acronyms and initialisms
- Headings and headlines
- The first word of a sentence
- The first word in a bulleted or numbered item
When proper nouns are used as adjectives, we tend to keep the capitalization. But what about proper nouns used as verbs?
Recently I debated this point on Twitter with linguistics graduate student Lauren Ackerman, a.k.a. @VerbingNouns. Ackerman had published this tweet:
@VerbingNouns: Xeroxing? RT @NickIBIS I think writing “I Liked that on Facebook” is the first example of a proper verb. Like a proper noun but more verbal.
My response was of the knee-jerking type:
@ebrenner: No, no, no. Once it’s a verb, it’s an action. There’s no ownership involved. No caps in verbs, please!
But Ackerman brought up an example that made me pause:
@VerbingNouns: How to deal w/ things like “He has Michael Jordaned his career several times now”? Seems a bit prescriptivist to proclaim No Caps.
After enough use, a verbed proper noun becomes a common action. Witness mesmerize and bowdlerize. But when does a term get to that point?
Certainly it does when a dictionary lists the term as a lowercased verb. The American Heritage Dictionary is fairly rigorous in listing verbed brands such as Google and Xerox as trademarked names, not as verbs. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, however, lists both as verbs, noting that google is often capitalized when it’s used as a verb.
But what if the term in question isn’t listed in your house dictionary?
I emailed Ackerman to get her thoughts. She told me:
If … the verb is being used for effect and the author may have made it up, then capitalizing the proper name seems rational to me. That is, I have never heard someone say that they were Ponzi-ing … their way to richness and notoriety, but if they did, capitalization makes sense because it’s a proper name turned into a verb.
Writing is about communication, remember. As you edit, consider whether your audience will understand the verb if it’s lowercased. In the Michael Jordaned example, readers could miss the connection if the capitals were absent. Leaving them in makes sense, then. But people generally don’t think about Elbridge Gerry when they use gerrymander or, as Ackerman noted, Thomas Bowdler when they use bowdlerize. Hence, those terms have lost their capitalization.
All of this puts aside the problem of trademarks. Some trademark owners can be adamant about discouraging their trademarks from being used as verbs. Other owners will try to specialize common verbs for actions related to their trademarks, as with Facebook and like. To learn how to deal with these situations, check out my Ask the Editor column in the upcoming December–January issue of Copyediting, due out November 28, 2012.