Wednesday, February 21, 2018

To be or not to be, a verb


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In my last article (published in the Daily Express of December 11, 2012) I referred to the erroneous use of the word "endeavour" as an adverb, e.g. in the expression "to try one's endeavour best", and I pointed out that the word "endeavour" can only be properly used as a verb or a noun. I got a few comments from people who obviously read my articles, wondered why they had not seen anything from me for some time and expressed the hope that I would not lay off for so long again.

I must admit that I am gratified by the comments I often get about my articles and I am grateful for suggestions by people for things to write about. I am indeed grateful to one lady in particular, a former colleague at The University of the West Indies, who gave me some very interesting suggestions, one of which has to do with the misuse of the word "air-condition" in terms of its part of speech which I will get to later on. I must also admit that not all comments I get are positive, but those that are not I take in stride. Some of them are indeed useful and cause for reflection on my part.

There are many words to which we take the liberty of assigning parts of speech that are different from their correct usage. My very first article in this series referred to the misuse of some technical words that has become all too common in everyday speech and writings. I dealt with the word "galvanise" in an entire article, and pointed out that the word is a verb and is neither a noun nor an adjective.

I complained that what is even worse is the complete misuse of the word "galvanise" to refer to corrugated sheet. I explained that galvanise means to coat with zinc, to give it its original classical technical definition, or to coat with aluzinc, to be more technically up to date. To corrugate is to form into a regular pattern of crests and valleys, as demonstrated in the sinusoidal geometric profile (the wavy shape) of galvanized sheet commonly used for roofing in the Caribbean. Therefore the corrugated asbestos sheets that were used for roofing in earlier times were certainly not "asbestos galvanise" and the semi-translucent plastic corrugated sheet is just that; it is definitely not "plastic galvanise", even if one were to take the liberty of nominalising (using as a noun) the verb "galvanise".

A common word on which we impose a different part or speech is "hot" in the term "to hot the food", or more colourfully "to hot up the food", rather than to heat the food, in which case we use "hot" as a verb instead of confining its use to its proper part of speech as an adjective.

English is very accommodating and forgiving, and she allows a wide range of liberties and impositions, if I may be allowed to personify the language. Verbalising nouns and adjectives is quite common and acceptable in many cases but there is a limit, so to speak. One need not verbalise another part of speech if a suitable verb already exists to fit the bill, as it were. In the example above the use of "hot" as a verb is totally unnecessary as the very apt verb "heat" exists.

Another curious example from the kitchen is the use of "grater" as a verb in the expression "grater the coconut". There really should be no need to explain that one uses a grater (a noun) to grate (the verb) a coconut, or carrots or cheese for that matter.

The two examples (of verbalisation) above are unnecessary and are in fact grammatically wrong as most people of even modest literacy recognise. However other very common misapplications of parts of speech are all too prevalent even among more educated members of the population.

A noteworthy misuse is the term "air-condition", which, like "galvanise", is often used as a noun, when in fact it is a verb, literally meaning to condition the air. It is a very common mistake that is made by many people whom one would normally expect to know better, even engineers and other technically trained and technically-minded people.

More specifically "air-condition" refers to the control of the temperature of the air, very often its humidity also and quite often its quality as well, usually in an enclosed or partly enclosed space, mainly for the comfort of humans and/or the preservation of equipment. However air-conditioned spaces have been used for animals other than humans, mainly horses and dogs. Some of us may remember the infamous exposé of the lavish lifestyle (and some) of an American evangelist, and his wife, who had air-conditioned kennels for their dogs. It is reputed that a Trinidadian had also used ill-gotten gains to house his dogs in such comfort. They certainly slept in style.

But let us let sleeping dogs lie and get back to the topic at hand—air-condition. It is therefore grammatically wrong to say that the air-condition is off or it is not working. In such instances one should use one of the nouns "air-conditioner", "air-conditioning unit" or "air-conditioning system", as the case may be.

Interestingly "air-condition" is used in the case of cooling the air as opposed to heating it, although in both cases the air is conditioned and both processes are part of the same very important sub-discipline of mechanical engineering referred to as HVAC—Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning.

The Americans have made an art of transforming parts of speech, particularly verbalising nouns, such as "to medal", i.e. to win a medal at a sporting event. This particular use took a while to catch on as many other American words and expressions. But American English and its influence is another story, a topic for several articles.

—Clement Imbert is Professor of Engineering in UWI's Faculty of Engineering at St Augustine