Ask Language Log: preference as a verb

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Jessica Mason Pieklo, "Texas GOP Considers Turning State Into Tax Dodge Over Contraception Mandate", RH Reality Check 1/30/2013 (emphasis added):

To be considered constitutional, a state tax generally cannot discriminate against interstate commerce. Broadly speaking, the Supreme Court has taken that to mean that any tax which, by its terms or operations, imposes greater burdens on out-of-state goods, activities, or enterprises than on any competing in-state goods, activities or enterprises violates the Commerce Clause and will be struck down. The basic logic of this conclusion is pretty clear—states shouldn't be able to simply preference their own industries at the expense of others if those industries touch or are part of national commerce.

AC asks:

Is this use of "preference" as a verb commonplace? It didn't sound right to my ear. We already have the verbs "prefer" and "show preference".

In COCA, the lemma preference (in all its forms) occurs 12,036 times in 464 million words, for an overall frequency of 25.94 per million. But I could only find four examples of preference used as a verb, which would be less than 1 per 100 million words — and three of the four come from one speaker (Dr. Stephen Schneck, interviewed by Bill O'Reilly):

Well, actually Bill, as you pointed out, Catholics are obliged to preference the poor in regards to public policy. And if you look over the speaker's record, it seems to me that in fact over the years he hasn't been preferencing the poor in regards to public policy.
If I could go back to another point, I would like to point out that from the perspective of Catholic social teachings, the government has a responsibility to step in to preference the poor when, in fact, private measures aren't sufficient to care for that.

There were reports of Google penalizing those nascent competitors, of Google preferencing its own sites that competed.

So the verbal form of preference does exist, but it's certainly not very common. In the original example, though, neither prefer nor show preference to would quite work: "states shouldn't be able to simply preference their own industries at the expense of others". The commerce clause doesn't forbid states from "preferring" their own industries, it just prevents them from acting in certain ways on such preferences. And I presume that many forms of "showing preference to" local industries are also permitted — say including them in an exhibit at the state capitol, or sending a delegation to help sell them overseas.

Update — A quick survey of Google Scholar hits for preferencing suggests that this is primarily a term of art in finance, accounting, economics, etc., with a minor extension into sociology. (Though perhaps theology is not adequately represented in the Google Scholar index…)

Update #2 – KP sent this:

Today's "Ask Language Log: preference as a verb" really caught my attention, so I posted my thoughts and followed up with one of the speakers you featured, Stephen Schneck. Feel free to post his response (excerpted below) if you think readers will find it useful:

In the standard English terminology of Catholic social teachings is the "preferential option for the poor."  If I had been more careful in my on air speech, I would probably have said "Catholics are obliged to give preference to the poor" and similarly in the other passages. That said, I suspect that a search of Catholic social justice literature could turn up other uses of "preference" as a verb, since such usage falls more easily from the tongue than cumbersome constructions about a "preferential option."

What a fascinating field of study!

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31 Comments »

  1. Fred H said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 9:45 am

    But "reference" has found its way (unfortunately) into the language as a verb, so why wouldn't "preference" do the same?

    [(myl) Similarly conference; and we even see papers with titles like "Citizenship and the performance of credibility: Audiencing gender-based asylum seekers in US immigration courts", or "The violencing of masculinity and the masculinization of violence". Let's face it, any noun can be (and usually has been) verbed.]

  2. Boyd Garrett said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    If I had been responsible for writing that sentence, I would have used the phrase "give preference to." To my ear, that gives the proper connotation without depending on such a non-standard verb.

  3. Bruce said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    Perhaps it's similar to the use of "reference" as a verb, e.g. "Please make sure to reference the relevant journal articles" …

  4. Bruce said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    Ninja'ed by Fred

  5. Mike said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    Sounds a lot like the verbing of "privilege" circa the 1990s.

  6. Joffré said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    "Preference" as a verb is also used in politics where a preferential ballot is in place (where voters rank candidates in order of their preference.)

    In Australia, for example, The Australian can run this headline and not raise an eyebrow: "Labor looks to preference Libs over Greens"

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    "Privilege" is what I thought of too. I wonder if that's what someone was targeting, sometime, and preference leaked in to the language that way.

  8. Kevin Psonak said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    Phonetically, "preference" closely resembles "privilege," a standard term for "to grant… a right or immunity to" (OED, "privilege, v."). Maybe Schneck picked one over the other when he had something like this in mind: [pr + non-low, non-high, front vowel + labiodental fricative + (optional epenthetic V) + alveolar approximant + non-low, non-high, non-back V + voiced alveolar consonant + fricative]. Also, maybe Schneck briefly considered the collocation "privilege the poor," nearly a convergence of the antonyms "privileged" and "poor," but judged "preference the poor" more rhetorically suitable.

  9. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    While it may be that "prefer" or "show preference to" wouldn't carry quite the right meaning in the original statement, "preference" is vulnerable to the same objections. "Privilege", as Rod Johnson notes, would work better to convey Mr. Pieklo's intended meaning (and it would work well for Dr. Schneck, too).

    [(myl) Maybe so, but preference-the-verb is already widely used in some quarters for exactly this sort of thing, and has been for many decades. So why should we waste time looking for alternative formulations?

    Also, Jessica Pieklo would probably prefer Ms. to Mr. ... ]

  10. Ed Rorie said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    As Calvin once said to Hobbes, "verbing weirds language."

  11. Jeff Carney said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    I like it. "Prefer" sounds more like an attitude than a behavior, so it is not a better choice. "Preference" as a verb seems like a natural reduction from "give preference to" or "treat preferentially," especially in the contexts Mark points out, where the writing is often terse.

  12. Mike T said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    Here's another questionably verbed word from the article:

    "another example of lawmakers in the state arguing to extreme their power under the 10th Amendment"

    And one from another article by the same person:

    "if it simply "dis-associated" itself from the out-of-state doctors that the hospitals refuse to credential"

    http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/02/01/mississippi-argues-to-court-somebody-else-will-perform-abortions-jackson-clinic-0

  13. Ted said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    "Credential" as a verb meaning "give credentials to" is well-established. Google "Ambassador credentialing ceremony" for many examples.

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    "Privilege" as a verb is different: it already exists in Latin as privilegiare, and OED cites a 1475 translation to that effect.

    As regards "-ence" verbs, "sentence" is very old (OED: ca. 1400, Latin sententiare), so it seems like a perfectly good precedent for the others.

  15. Dick Margulis said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    Perhaps the writer was reaching for "advantage" (states shouldn't be able to simply advantage their own industries) and just missed. That seems to be a fairly common usage.

  16. Ø said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    Another verbed "-ence" noun is "inference".

  17. Ø said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    silence

  18. stringph said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    I agree with Jon Weinberg – 'promote' or 'privilege' would be far more comprehensible. What is the verb 'preference', a fairly obscure term of art according to the academic articles Mark points to, doing in a colloquially-written news article? Whatever happened to choosing familiar words in preference to technical or unfamiliar ones when the meaning is no different – is that now a waste of time?
    Given the use of 'extreme' as a verb (not 'extremize' or 'maximize') in the same article, this just looks to me like inaccurate writing — pitching on a word with almost, but not quite, the intended meaning, tone and syntax.

  19. Jeff Carney said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    I too am more surprised by the use of "extreme" as a verb. OTOH, I read the whole article and the one cited my Mike T. I do notice the absence of some commas that I would normally consider "required," and she has a habit of writing "try and" where most of us would write "try to," but overall I find her style fairly accomplished and for the most part quite clear. So I'm willing to credit the author as having made these choices consciously and with some thought. Terms of art or idiosyncrasies, I couldn't tell you. But I do not believe she is aiming and missing.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

    I agree about "extreme" as a very. Why not use the existing "embiggen"?

  21. David L said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    This strikes me as the kind of usage that not infrequently emerges from the business/contracting/government world. Random example here.

    Contract preferences, in gov-speak, can mean set-asides for minority-owned business, veteran-owned, and the like. So "preferencing" a category of industries or companies means awarding contracts according to formal rules intended to give advantage to certain classes of contractor. Whereas "preferring" would just mean giving business to your friends and dodgy people who buy you expensive dinners. Which would be bad.

  22. Mark F. said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    Just because verbing is a well-established part the language, it doesn't follow that it's unreasonable to find it distasteful almost every time you see it. I personally don't have that strong a negative reaction, but I think it's the sort of thing where a little goes a long way.

    Really this isn't specific to verbing – to varying degrees this applies to a lot of kinds of word derivation. When I read, a novel word, even if derived from a productive process, will slow me down. That might be a good thing; it might make me smile. But there is a point of cognitive overload. There are questions of taste about good writing, and the mere fact that "preference" as a verb is a part of the language says no more about whether you should use it than the availability of pleated slacks says about whether you should wear them.

    Personally, I think the whole paragraph should be revised for clarity and flow. Doing that would have included using "give preference to," unless I actively wanted to promote "preference" as a verb (for which a case can be made since the question of when you can or should preference different entities comes up a lot in policy discussions).

  23. Rubrick said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

    I'm quite willing to acceptance such usages.

  24. Chris said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

    What I like best about these -nce verbs is what happens when you start forming participles and gerunds from them. It can be so difficult, for example, to decide whether one means "through acceptance" or "by accepting," and now, at last, we can coin a middle option.

  25. Steven said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    I used to work in the bankruptcy field where "preference" is a legal term referring to a kind of payment where one creditor receives a payment from the debtor to the disadvantage of other creditors. However, lawyers and judges will talk about a debtor "preferring" one creditor over others with regard to such a payment. I've never heard of anyone saying that a debtor "preferenced" a creditor. All of which is to say, for what it's worth, that I don't believe preference as a verb has entered the bankruptcy lexicon yet. Though perhaps that will change.

  26. Steve Schneck said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 8:29 am

    My apologies for creating a neologism, if I did. Please understand the circumstances. Bill O’Reilly was alternately yelling at and grilling me on air. :-)

    In the standard English terminology of Catholic social teachings is the “preferential option for the poor.” If I had been more careful in my on air speech, I would probably have said “Catholics are obliged to give preference to the poor” and similarly in the other passages. That said, I suspect that a search of Catholic social justice literature could turn up other uses of “preference” as a verb, since such usage falls more easily from the tongue than cumbersome constructions about a “preferential option.”

  27. Kevin Psonak said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    I emailed the discussion to Stephen Schneck at The Catholic University of America, and he responded:

    In the standard English terminology of Catholic social teachings is the “preferential option for the poor.” If I had been more careful in my on air speech, I would probably have said “Catholics are obliged to give preference to the poor” and similarly in the other passages. That said, I suspect that a search of Catholic social justice literature could turn up other uses of “preference” as a verb, since such usage falls more easily from the tongue than cumbersome constructions about a “preferential option.”

  28. Barbara Partee said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

    Steve Schneck, please don't feel you should apologize!! English wouldn't be what it is without its great penchant for neologizing, and linguists love to think about interesting examples and see what generalizations they can find about them, and linguists and non-linguists alike can have interesting discussions about when and why some neologisms provoke negative reactions, at least in some people, and on and on … . So I would rather say thanks for provoking that interesting discussion!

  29. Roger Lustig said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 1:38 am

    "Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband."
    –Ephesians 5:20, King James Version

  30. Roger Lustig said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 1:38 am

    Make that Ephesians 5:33.

  31. Glen Gordon said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Verbing a noun is so commonplace in all sorts of languages that it's of little linguistic concern, although the process is still intriguing.

    In Chinese, the grammatical distinction between word categories are fuzzy as it is (eg. 在 zài may mean 'to be at' as a verb, 'at' if translated as a preposition, or even '(the state of) being at' when interpreted in a more 'nouny' way). In French or Japanese, I notice the noun is more often verbified by an accompanying use of "to do" (eg. *faire* le recyclage, benkyoo o *shimasu*) but is that really so different?

    I get the impression in this case however that "to preference" is in the same bag as other over-synthesized words like "to potentialize" or "to conversate" which are used by speakers to seem more erudite, although this can naturally backfire too. I suspect the otherwise unnecessary derivation eventually justifies itself by increasingly restricting itself to more specific environments. So if it proves to be "primarily a term of art in finance, accounting, economics, etc." then this validates my general hunches about language.

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