The great verb shift

We Americans are fond of creating verbs from nouns. We speak of how the war “impacts” the president’s popularity, how the schools “mainstream” children and how a company can “leverage” its high bond rating. Bryan A. Garner calls this functional variation, “the ability of a word to shift from one grammatical function to another.”

Garner also writes about phrasal verbs, which are noun phrases turned into verbs. We had one of those in a story (American dream leads many here) Sunday:

Eric and Cristina Middleton house-hunted in the Washington area for a year before finally giving up and moving to Cary in June.

Instead of hunted for a house, we used a shortcut: house-hunted, probably derived from a noun phrase, house hunt. The verb struck me as jargon, like something a real estate agent would use. (That doesn’t mean that it is bad, just that it’s a term particular to an occupation or business.) Journalists learn early to avoid jargon, but we ignore that lesson when it suits our purpose. You could argue that the verb house-hunted worked because it told readers exactly what the subjects had done.

In general, though, any jargon (like slang and off-color words) can make readers stop and neglect the rest of a story.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.