That Noun-Verb Thing

Many years ago, I started teaching the English language and, as a result, learned much more about my mother tongue than I’d ever picked up at school. The more I learned, the more I fell in love (a novel experience for me – usually, enduring mystery is the clincher), and the more I wanted to know. I embraced all forms of English, welcomed them to the fold, while firmly promoting a standard I held dear. A standard based fairly and squarely on my parents’ and Eric Blair’s.

After a while, I became an examiner. It’s probably the work I enjoyed most. Meeting, and listening to, people from around the world, whilst assessing which exam board profile they fit, was both challenging and frustrating. I tried to be as flexible as possible, within the rules, to accommodate varieties of English which were mutually comprehensible. I have never been a hardliner with language: change ensures survival, and it’s that quality of English which has paid me adequately well over the years. Some colleagues were not so tolerant. An oft-repeated, post-exam, heated discussion was ‘that noun-verb thing’. Colleagues unfamiliar with iTunes would erupt into rage over a candidate using ‘gift’ as a verb.

To be fair, when I’d first encountered it, the American trend for making nouns into verbs had caused me to shudder (occasionally, it still does – ‘to desk’, anyone?). However, as with other changes, I realized that I needed to acknowledge it to deal with it. Ignoring what we don’t like does not make it go away. English is user-led, another secret to its survival and success, so respect for the user shows respect for the dictionaries of the future. A usage is coined, people adopt it, people like it, it endures, it enters the dictionaries.

Yesterday, I reflected on ‘that noun-verb thing’ again. There was a Greek General Election, billed as an opportunity for Greece to rethink itself and its relationship with the outside world. Going the rounds on social media was a Greek cartoon – easily translated and immediately understood. A man at a podium asks the crowd in front of him ‘Who wants change?’ Everyone raises their hand. Then, he asks ‘Who wants to change?’. No-one raises their hand.

This speaks to all of us. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi; if we want change, we have to be that change. Acknowledge it, take ownership of it. The verb activates the noun. Let’s do it!


The Gerund

On being, doing and having.

My parents valued language, it was a dear commodity at home, and I grew up surrounded by books and adults who could, and did, read and who could, and did, voice opinions on what they read. Television arrived in our household long after the printed word had stolen my heart and captured my imagination.

Thanks to this preparation, plus one year at a private Montessori school, by the time I arrived at my state-run primary school at the age of four, I could read and write. School was strict and an A grade in any subject was hard-won. It was a war I was willing to wage for the English language (especially as my mother took a very dim view of low marks, indeed).

Within the subject of English, marks were awarded for ‘Reading’, ‘Composition Oral/ Written’, ‘Spelling’ and ‘English Progress’. Teachers’ handwritten comments did not have to match the mark awarded – you could be described as ‘outstandingly good’ and still receive a B (as I did). It took until I was nine to get As across the board: ‘An excellent year’s work has been concluded with test results which are outstanding for a child of Jane’s age’.

Thereafter, my English marks didn’t fall below B+ (apart from one year when my class teacher was trying to persuade my mother I needed private tuition; tuition from that same teacher, of course). On reaching junior school, I gained A for effort and 1 for achievement in English all the way and from there was sent on my way to high school at the age of 13. By this time, I’d already had several years of French tuition at home (from my mother) and at school. I’d taken to that, too.

Now, here’s the thing – the way we were taught both languages was very different. At the outset, English was taught by rote – methodical reading, copying and testing. Correct spelling was highly prized. Slowly but surely, however, politics eroded my English language learning. I increasingly fell back upon the knowledge of my privately-educated mother to fill in the ever-growing chasm between teachers who maintained that grammar was a dirty word and my desire to know more of the language I loved.

By the time I was 14, the closest to an English grammar explanation a pupil could drag out of any teacher in public was that a verb was ‘a doing word’. Desperate for enlightenment, I followed my Latin and French classes with increasing fervour – here, we were being shown into the secret workings of language. Thanks to the grammar translation and audio-lingual methodology then being used to teach those languages, the ‘just express yourself!’ exhortations of successive English ‘teachers’ faded away. I was weaned from my mother’s parsing of sentences (for which, I remain thankful) the day I realized a gerund was not a mutant rodent companion for my sister’s hamster.

I have since spent time teaching English to speakers of other languages, many of whose knowledge of the inner workings of their own language (thanks to state education systems which value their pupils’ intelligence) has helped them greatly in acquiring the new one. In the process, I continued my own education – still striving to improve on the paucity of information doled out almost reluctantly at school.

On being, doing and having. My language; understanding to make it mine.


The Causative Have

It’s been years since I last taught in a language classroom. I don’t miss it, though I did enjoy it. I still hope my students learned as much about life and language through study as I did through teaching. This week, I have been reminded of a feature of the English language which often gave learners difficulties: the causative have. We have something done for us.

We started out in life having most things done for us. Ideally, we then weaned ourselves off this dependence to a stage when we could do most things for ourselves. That is, until a decline in acuity dictated an increase, once again, in dependence. Exceptions were the rule; if you were wealthy, for example, you could pay to have anything done for you at any time. However, this pre-dated built-in obsolescence.

Many consumer goods (and human relationships, but that’s another story) are now seen as automatically disposable. Bought in the moment, that supercheap dress from the high street will see you through a couple of summer parties before you throw it out, right after you change out last year’s smartphone. In real terms, we’ve never had it so cheap. Or have we?

Here, I must state that I am a pre-dated, unreconstructed causative have fan. Why? I was raised to take care of myself and to take pride in that. I was also raised to take care of my belongings. I own very little, but what I do have is useful and/ or attractive. With my eyesight failing, my to-have-done list is growing. I am lucky enough to be living in the same place as skilled people who can help out.

In Rhodes, in the south-eastern Aegean, it is still possible to find a (wo)man who can. I hope that their days are not numbered, but know that their numbers have dwindled over the past thirty years as the juggernaut of consumerism has rumbled through. So, what reminded me of the causative have? A dress and an earring.

I had a favourite pair of earrings and lost one in London a few years ago, I couldn’t bear to part with the remaining earring and so, eventually, found a silversmith who could make another one. The small workshop is run by a father and his two sons. They did such a great job, it’s impossible to tell which earring is the replacement and which one the original. Even better, I couldn’t have made it myself for the price (as my Gran would have said).

More recently, I bought a dress from a charity shop in London. Saw it, liked it, took it. It didn’t fit, well, it did, but not the way I wanted. Returning to Rhodes, I asked around for a tailor and was pointed in the direction of an unmarked house down a side alley in the medieval part of town. Inside, there sat a very small elderly man at a sewing machine in what appeared to be chaotic conditions. It was organized chaos. I told him what I wanted and he did exactly that. In fact, he did it so well that I couldn’t see the difference until I tried the dress on at home. Gran would have been very pleased with the cost, too.

So, I had an earring made and had a dress altered. That caused me to meet new people, learn more about my surroundings, mind my language, save money and smile.