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My friend Steven Levine wrote me a little while ago with a small question about English — about the verb process, accented on the second syllable, meaning 'to go, walk, or march in procession' (theOED's definition). Steven was familiar with the verb from Morris dancing, where a certain amount of proCESSing goes on. As Steven wrote:

There is a form of Morris dance called a "processional" — which means just what you'd think, a dance that moves the team along, usually at a brisk pace. You dance processionals when you are in a parade.

Among Morris dancers, I have often heard the verb "process" (accent on the second syllable) used to described doing this. "We're going to process down Nicollet Mall after we finish dancing at the library."

But then he found himself writing the word for the first time and noticed the homography problem: there's another verb process, accented on the first syllable. That drove him to the dictionaries, where he found no trace of proCESS. Was this just Morris dancer jargon? Should he avoid using it outside the Morris dancing community? If so, how (with proceed, for instance)? And should he avoid it in writing (for fear of ambiguity)?

Ask Language Log comes to the rescue!

[My apologies to the many dozens of people whose queries on points of English grammar and usage I haven't answered yet. When queries get answered and by what means (e-mail, ADS-L posting, or Language Log posting) is determined by a decision procedure in which sunspot activity and the I Ching play large roles.]

In brief: (1) not just Morris dancer jargon; (2) probably safe to use in the larger world; (3) proceed won't do, and the other alternatives are longer and blander; and (4) not a problem in writing.

On (1): though smaller dictionaries mostly seem not to have proCESS, the OED has it, with citations from 1814 to recent years. It's a back-formation, from procession, and for that reason is likely to have been deprecated; back-formations start their lives, by definition, as innovations, and usage critics are, typically, hostile to innovations. (I haven't had the heart to search through peeve compendia — ?peevendia — for rage at proCESS. In small doses, I find this material entertaining, but then I just get dispirited.)

[Digression. Note that back-formations — which provide compact expression for complex ideas — are often deprecated by the same usage critics who worship the god of Brevity, via admonitions like Omit Needless Words. Taken at face value, these two judgments are simply contradictory. But as I've pointed out several times before, almost all of this advice begins with judgments of taste, that some expressions are deficient in some way and so should be prohibited. Then come the after-the-fact rationalizations, appealing to "umbrella rules", principles like Innovate At Your Peril (innovations should not be accepted unless there is no existing way to express the idea easily), Include All Necessary Words, and Omit Needless Words. These umbrella principles are appealed to on a case-by-case basis, using whichever one will fix on the critic's favored usage.]

Back to uses of proCESS. The verb is actually rather common in current usage, mostly (of course) in contexts where processions are an expected thing. Not just Morris dancing, but church processions:

The entire congregation will process from the church to a nearby vegetable garden at the end of the service. Prayers will be said for a bountiful harvest. (link)

Afterwards, the children will process from church carrying flowers, making their way to the Mary statue in front of the church, where … (link)

and, oh my goodness, academic processions, where website after website uses the verb:

Seating is available on a first-come first-served basis. Graduates will process from the University Center on campus to the arena. (link)

At the conclusion of the Ceremony, the Platform Party, Academic Council, academic staff and students will process from the Auditorium. (link)

This makes sense. In contexts where processions are an ordinary thing, people will want a verb, a single-word verb, to refer to what they do. In general, what you might call "contextual brevity" is a very strong force: families, work groups, groups of friends, and all sorts of other social groupings will craft their vocabulary so as to make topics of common interest easy to talk about, via lexical innovations of many sorts, clippings, and so on. Why should anyone want to object to this?

Usage critics sometimes object to these specialized usages in general, as "unnecessary innovations", "barbarous jargon", and the like. More often, they are enraged when the specialized usages leak into wider usage, typically via metaphor, as in this example:

The course will process from big philosophical to minute practical issues. After we become familiar with some examples in the recent literature, … (link)

On to point 2. Even if people haven't experienced proCESS (or don't remember having done so), they'll almost surely be able to figure out what it means in context. Examples like the church and academic ones above would be hard to misunderstand, unless you were just flat determined not to understand anything you wouldn't say yourself. (If that's your situation, you need therapy. That's a pathological form of grammatical egocentrism.)

So I see no reason to steer clear of proCESS.

Now point 3. Even if you're determined to expunge proCESS, it's not easy to see what you should do.

Steven reported that some sources seemed to suggest proceed. This really won't do. Proceed is a fancy version of go/walk/etc. in this context, and it lacks the in-a-group, in-line components of proCESS.

The other alternative is a movement verb plus in a procession: go/walk/move/march in a procession. Aside from the fact that are longer than proCESS, the movement verbs aren't entirely satisfactory. Go is really bland; people who tell you to Use Vivid Verbs would hate it. Walk and move are also too unspecific; the people in a procession aren't just walking or moving someplace, they're going together, in concert. And march is too specific; these are not military parades. In fact, proCESS seems just right to me.

On point 4: should you worry that process in the movement sense will introduce ambiguity into written text? (Steven is a technical writer, so this is a day-to-day issue for him.) I think not.

As the OED explains, in current usage proCESS is intransitive (We processed from Hamilton Hall to Burr Hall) — earlier, it had transitive uses — but PROcess is mostly transitive (except in omitted-object constructions like He needed time to process 'He needed time to process his feelings'). So there's very little chance of confusion. Steven should feel free to write as he will.



  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    Maybe I'm just on an OT kick today, but if you call your "umbrella rules" constraints, we could just say that difference between proscriptivists and innovators is a difference in the relative ranking of the IAYP constraint with some expressivity constraint — the ability to express yourself properly with your language.

  2. Richard said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    Hmm, I'm now inspired to write "The party will proceed in procession down the street."

  3. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    Ryan: I think you're missing the point that the S&W crowd do not *actually* use those umbrella rules as constraints, but as ex post facto rationalizations for simple prejudiced rejection on stylistic judgment.

    "Word/syntax X sucks, therefore it is bad. Which of the 'rules of usage' can be invoke to prohibit it?"

    This is especially evident given that many of the "rules" so invoked are, in fact, mutually exclusive and cannot be successfully applied in real life.

  4. John Cowan said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    "sucks, therefore it is bad"

    I love it.

  5. Freddy Hill said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    I was trying to process "to process (int.)" by using it in a sentence, and bumped into the following video:

    There is no doubt in my mind that in the second part of the video these ninjas are "processing." What about the first half? It does not seem that whatever he's doing meets the definition of the verb "to process." What is he doing, short of a fool of himself?

    And by the way, Wikipedia tells me that Morris dancing actually means "Moorish dancing," a common practice in Spanish town fests. Thank you, LL!

  6. Nate said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    With respect to point 3, I (half-jokingly) suggest a hybrid of your examples: "proceed in procession". It's unambiguous and carries a nice pompousness that will look good in commencement handbills.

  7. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

    "sucks, therefore it is bad". Ouch, that didn't come out right. It was meant to be something along the lines of "I think it sucks", or "I don't like it" and it got sorta squished during production.

    "I don't like word/syntax X, therefore it is improper." is closer to my intent.

  8. Meesher said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    I recall reading an explanation of "proceed" meaning "walk in step," in the context of police patrolling – I believe it was in a Terry Pratchett novel. If that has any wider traction it could mean what we want it to mean.

    Also, I'm very much pro-"sucks, therefore it is bad." Is there any literature on "pro-" as a direct substitute for "in favor of" before multi-word phrases? I never used to use it but picked it up from a friend.

  9. James Wimberley said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    Not really on-topic, but I'm irresistably reminded of Rudyard Kipling's line in The Elephant's Child: "That very next morning, when there was nothing left of the Equinoxes, because the Precession had preceded according to precedent…" Technically, I suppose the Precession should have proceeded, and so should the graduation procession in which you processed, according to processionary precedent. While processionary caterpillars are a major forest pest.

  10. Sili said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 8:19 pm


    Sure you must mean "Wikipeevia"!

    Sorry. I just had to get that out of my system.


  11. Nathan Myers said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    Last year a friend was pushing her daughter on a rope swing. As tire swings do, each iteration followed a slightly different path, peaking progressively around a circle. This swing was so constructed that at a certain point in this process, if not arrested, her daughter would hit her head on a tree trunk. I noticed this was about to occur and said, "look out, she's precessing!". Needless to say, her daughter's head struck the tree trunk anyway.

    Let this stand as a grim warning against promiscuous back-formation.

  12. Jukka Kohonen said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 6:40 am

    I find it interesting that the when one or another of the mutually contradictory umbrella rules is invoked, it is also often based on one or another of Zwicky's Illusions – which incidentally come in pairs: Recency/Antiquity, Frequency/Infrequency, In-group/Out-group.

    Thus, X sucks because it is Recent (therefore Corruption). But if some nasty descriptivist points out that X was already common in the 17th century – well, then X sucks because it is Antique (therefore Obsolete).

    Similarly, X sucks equally well whether it is Infrequent (therefore Odd) or Frequent (therefore Overused). And X sucks because it is only used by the Out-group (those barbarians), or because it is only used by the In-group (us barbarians).

  13. john riemann soong said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

    Anyway, would this be the only case in English where stress distinguishes a true minimal pair? This doesn't count reduced vowels. "Address" is often cited to me but I don't really buy into it because we can still distinguish the two forms by the presence or absence of reduced vowels (which came about due to stress), not to mention their parts of speech.

    Sili: You're not raging against the Project, are you? :p

  14. John Wells said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

    I have both "process" verbs in my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary:

    process n; v 'treat, subject to a ~' — stressed on the first syllable
    process v. 'walk in procession' — stressed on t elast syllable

    My father was an Anglican clergyman, and to pro'cess was the usual term for walking in procession up the aisle.

  15. Aaron Davies said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    @soong, how about "frequent", where the verb is stressed on the second syllable as in "The Wild Rover" ("an alehouse i used to frequent")? Or "pervert", also a noun/verb pair?

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    And what to make of "separate", which drops one vowel completely, reduces the other, *and* shifts stress?

  17. John Cowan said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    "Process" has [a] for me, whereas I would pronounce "proCESS" with [o] ~ [@] in the first syllable. So no minimal pair goodness.

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