"Not a verb" is not an argument

« previous post | next post »

This morning, when I checked out the website of The Atlantic, I saw an article by Megan Garber with the headline, "Gifting Is Not a Verb":

Megan has written perceptively about language before, notably in her piece from last year, "English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet," which played a large role in bringing attention to the emerging use of "because" — shortly thereafter recognized as the American Dialect Society's 2013 Word of the Year. (Some might argue that the new "because" isn't a preposition; Geoff Pullum defends that classification here and here but says it actually was one all along.)

The article itself is a seasonally appropriate exercise in word aversion, and Megan quotes one of Mark Liberman's posts on the topic to try to understand the source of her intense dislike of "gift" as a verb. But the headline goes much further, declaring that it is not a verb, despite the fact that the article clearly demonstrates that it is a verb, even if it's one that many people don't care for.

I griped on Twitter about this, but since I'm well aware that journalists are rarely in charge of their own headlines, I directed my ire at The Atlantic:

Megan responded to my cranky tweet right away, but she assumed I was complaining about the use of the verbal noun "gifting" in the headline rather than the bare verb "gift." The headline was then "fixed" on The Atlantic website, changed to "Gift Is Not a Verb":

Note, too, that the dek was also changed, from "the verb brings out the worst of us" to "the word brings out the worst of us." But the article itself (correctly) refers to "gift" as a verb on multiple occasions, e.g.: "Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that the mere existence of 'gift'-as-a-verb is hindering the cause of humanity?" The headline, even after the change, completely contradicts this.

Megan and I continued to hash it out on Twitter.

I refer in the last tweet to @nixicon, an account set up by James Callan (aka @scarequotes) to document how often people claim on Twitter that some word is, in fact, "not a word," or at least "not a real word." The motto of @nixicon is taken from Stan Carey's excellent 2010 blog post, "'Not a word' is not an argument."

In his post, Stan considers "not a verb" to be a close relative of "not a word" argumentation, pointing to a website, notaverb.com, that has been set up to decry "login" and other verb-particle fusions. But more often when people stigmatize verbings, they have a problem with noun-to-verb conversions like "gift." (For more on adverse reactions to denominal verbs, see my 2010 On Language column about "podiuming," as well as Arnold Zwicky's numerous verbing posts, including one on "gifting.")

But perhaps I'm just indulging in meta-peevery, getting peevish about peevology. Megan says the headline, understood in context, is "a colloquialism (a la 'x is not a thing')." That construction is worth looking into — it's related to "Is x even a thing?" or "How is x even a thing?" (Both of these came up in the comments on Mark Liberman's 2011 post, "What does 'even' even mean?") Call it a colloquialism, call it hyperbole — or in this case, maybe call it clickbait, designed to stir the passions of the "not a word" crowd.


  1. Allan L. said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    'Tis better to give than to gift.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    I would argue that "gifting", without a syntactic context anyway, is indeed not a verb but a noun. A noun that describes an action, but still a noun. And indeed the examples that start off the article are noun uses. Which makes the headline technically accurate, but yet inaccurate both in what it's meant to convey, and as a reflection of the article. (Although I admit I don't know what the thinking of linguists is as far as -ing words that aren't lexicalized nouns which are functioning as nouns, and if they still count as verbs in some sense.)

    The article itself, on the contrary, only uses the word verb in association with "gift", not "gifting", and calls "gifting" an action-word.

  3. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

    "It's an argument rather than a statement."
    "It's a colloquialism."

    In other words, "I don't want you to examine my peeving too closely because I know it's irrational and I can't actually defend it."

  4. GeorgeW said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    The OED thinks that 'gift' is a verb with citations dating to the 15th century.

    [(myl) And also, from Mary Shelley's Introduction to the second edition of Frankenstein:

    Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.

    Or Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab:

    132  Nature, impartial in munificence,
    133  Has gifted man with all-subduing will.

    Or Charlotte Brontë's Villette:

    Place now the Cleopatra, or any other slug, before her as an obstacle, and see her cut through the pulpy mass as the scimitar of Saladin clove the down cushion. Let Paul Peter Rubens wake from the dead, let him rise out of his cerements, and bring into this presence all the army of his fat women; the magian power or prophet-virtue gifting that slight rod of Moses, could, at one waft, release and re-mingle a sea spell-parted, whelming the heavy host with the down-rush of overthrown sea-ramparts.

    Or Louisa May Alcott's My Contraband:

    It was the captain, and some new terror seemed to have gifted him with momentary strength.

    And Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse

    My former sad experience, as you know, has gifted me with some degree of insight into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart, through which I have wandered like one astray in a dark cavern, with his torch fast flickering to extinction.


  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    One of the odder things about the article is its forthright concession right up front that gift-as-a-verb fills a legitimate need, because the verb "give" has a broad scope with "give as a gift" being only one of its many possible meanings. ("Donate," on the other hand, has an even narrower scope than give-as-a-gift.) So the question left in my mind is whether some other coinage (or adaptation of pre-existing word) to fill the give-as-a-gift gap in the lexicon would also have attracted peeving/aversion (because of the marketingspeak/transactionalism/etc. complaints, which would presumably be equally available) or whether it was something specific about the particular word (such as the noun-to-verb transformation) that did it.

  6. Bobbie said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

    Somebody put on their cranky pants this morning!

  7. Richard said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    Well, actually, that headline is not even wrong.

  8. thecynicalromantic said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

    I'm a little confused about why she brought up "not a thing." The article seems to be complaining precisely that it is a thing, and she'd rather it weren't.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    Come to think of it, there's probably a standard rhetorical/hyperbolic construction in English of the form "X is not [even] a Y" meaning something like "X may technically be a Y, but it is not a proper/admirable/respectable/suitable-in-context kind of a Y." The famous Crocodile Dundee "that's not a knife" line would be one example. To complain about the literal inaccuracy of the statement might reflect a misapprehension of its genre. Although to be fair to Mr. Zimmer, the general prevalence of confusion in the popular mind between language-as-it-is and language-as-someone-thinks-it-ought-to-be is such that "rhetorical device not meant literally" is certainly not the only available explanation for sentences of this form on this topic.

  10. hector said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Well, my theory is that if one becomes irritated by a trendy word, it's because someone in one's life — a relative, friend, or co-worker — overuses that word in an exasperatingly irritating manner, so one becomes sensitized, and every use of that word by anyone else just makes the irritation flare up.

    I don't think this is the same thing as the "peevery" usually discussed on this site, which involves people who want life to be more orderly and have more rules, preferably of an arbitrary nature. Rather, it's an outgrowth of the inescapable fact that people irritate one another.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    I would like to propose "giftery".

    But I won't.

  12. maidhc said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    Are the "gifting" opponents also against phrases like "She was gifted with a talent for music", "She was musically gifted"?

    Nathan Myers: Is a giftery a place where gifting is done, like a brewery or a carvery?

  13. RP said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    In my first year of secondary school, one of the more intellectually challenged teachers told the school assembly, amongst other things, that "there is no such word as 'can't'" (because, she said, you can do anything if you put your mind to it). To back up her statement, she claimed that the word "can't" couldn't be found in any dictionary, and – bizarrely – promised a Mars bar to anyone who could find it in one.

    I was immediately suspicious and quickly found "can't" in more than one dictionary, but when confronted, Mrs G. said that the Mars bar had just been a figure of speech and she was unable to give one out because school rules would not allow it.

  14. Howard Oakley said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

    To gift a gift is a gift given, but a given is rarely a gift.
    (Although in most contexts it may be more direct to use the verb 'give' than 'gift', there is no reason to peeve over either.)
    (And I really like the Danish word 'gift', which means both 'poison' and 'married'. Such as sardonic language!)

  15. nicoleandmaggie said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    Reminds me of a huffington post headline on something completely unrelated that basically was:

    Eye catching difficult to believe political headline

    Story: Eye-catching difficult to believe political headline. Not.

  16. John Roth said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

    @Ellen K.

    I think you're confusing the part-of-speech category with the word's function in the sentence. Older Latin-based English grammars would have called this usage a gerund, that is, a verb used for functions in a sentence that are usually filled by a noun: subjects and objects.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    December 12, 2014 @ 10:22 pm

    No, John Roth, me giving my relatively uneducated opinion does mean I'm confusing two things. Nor does disagreeing with you. And, anyway, it's all a matter of human labeling. It's a matter of how we choose to think of such words, not any inherent quality.

  18. Mark Mandel said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 1:19 am

    Ellen K., you most infelicitously dropped a not:

    “No, John Roth, me giving my relatively uneducated opinion does ^ mean I'm confusing two things.”

  19. uebergeek said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 4:03 am

    I think part of the annoyance is that "gifting" seems to have emerged into popular usage for no apparent reason. "Texting" came about to describe a new activity that people had only recently started to do. But people have been giving gifts forever, and nobody seemed to feel the phrase "giving gifts" was somehow inadequate. Since the process of gift giving hasn't changed, it's unclear why people felt the need for a new (or at least newly popular) term to describe it. "Gifting" also sounds like the word it replaces: "giving." This sonic similarity, combined with the lack of an obvious necessity for the word, may lead some people to assume that users of "gifting" are "just trying to be cute" rather than participating in an organic evolution of language.

  20. maidhc said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 5:02 am

    uebergeek: I think part of the annoyance is that "gifting" seems to have emerged into popular usage for no apparent reason.

    Another similar example is "farewelling", which seems to be popular in Australia. (Here is an example.) People have been bidding farewell for ages. Do we suddenly need a new verb?

    One could example countless similar usages, were one so inclined.

  21. Robot Therapist said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 6:12 am

    Interesting that the older uses of "gift" as a verb (added in red by Myl to GeorgeW's comment) are all of abstract things (strength, will, insight) that might be described as "giftedness", as in, "he is a gifted individual" meaning possessed of unusual abilities.

    It seems to be that people particularly react to the verbing of a noun when they think that THERE IS ALREADY A PERFECTLY GOOD VERB FOR THAT [emphasis theirs]. So "to text" is okay, because otherwise we have to say "to send a text"; whereas "to gift" is annoying because we can just say "to give".

  22. Robot Therapist said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 6:16 am

    @RP "Mrs G. said that the Mars bar had just been a figure of speech" … lie down on the couch … has this left with with a love, or a hatred, of teachers, or of Mars Bars?

  23. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 6:27 am

    Robot Therapist: But, 'give' and 'gift' are not synonymous. A waiter does not gift a customer their coffee. 'Gift' has a much more restrictive meaning. 'Gift,' I think, is generally transitive where 'give' is usually intransitive.

  24. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    'Gift' in this sense has been established for a long time in Scottish English. I think it was typically used, not so much of gifting presents at Christmas etc., but of gifting something to a museum or the like. It has, as GeorgeW says, a narrower sense than 'give', which can just mean 'hand over' (the example I normally use is 'If I give you a five-pound note can you give me change in coins?') ; and it can be used transitively, which means that 'giving gifts' isn't a perfect equivalent.

  25. Levantine said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    uebergeek, "gifting" is not a simple replacement for "giving". "The king gave the duke a goblet" is not the same as "The king gifted the duke a goblet" (and neither do the verbs sound alike in that form). I'm not saying that "to gift" expresses anything that other words can't, but to dismiss it as unnecessary is simplistic, particularly given that English often offers multiple words and expressions for the same meaning.

  26. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    "The king gave the duke a goblet" is not the same as "The king gifted the duke a goblet"

    I think 'gifting' has the connotation of a permanent transfer of ownership for gratis where 'giving' can be a temporary loan and there can be a quid pro quo.

  27. Levantine said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    Or it can imply a more deliberate act of transfer that is framed as such. Perhaps the duke permanently kept the goblet in both cases, but it's only in the second that we can be sure that the king formally gave it to him as a present.

  28. Tim Morris said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    "Gifting" is a well-established term in cultural anthropology, for formal giving that cements reciprocal or patronage relationships. I imagine one direction of the term has been from that specialized academic vocabulary into general English.

    Also, I'm pretty sure (but open to correction) that English "gift" and the word "Gift" for poison in German and the Scandinavian languages are cognates. In both senses, it's something you get from somebody else; in one case it's a very unpleasant surprise :)

  29. Darrell Duke said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    "Regifting" is popular usage among the middle classes of the US mountain west. I never heard "gifting' that I recall.

  30. uebergeek said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

    "Verbing weirds language." -Calvin


    Interestingly, unlike 1993 Calvin, I don't remember when "'access' was a thing" – i.e. not yet a verb. And I'm plenty old enough. In twenty years, will nobody remember that "gift" wasn't always commonly used as a verb?

  31. uebergeek said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Levantine: '"gifting" is not a simple replacement for "giving".'

    True, but my point was that "gifting" has only recently come into popular usage. Yet the act of gift giving isn't new. So why now? What prompted this *recent* change in usage?

    I think the rise of "gifting" appears to many people to not be motivated by anything external, as words like "texting" obviously are. So they may assume that it's some sort of affectation on the part of people who use it. (However, I have another theory, which I'll put in a separate comment.)

  32. uebergeek said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    My Grand Hypothesis On Why This Is All Happening Now:

    maidhc points to the word "farewelling" as another example of a word that seems to have spontaneously appeared recently, absent any apparent recent external changes impacting the act in question – i.e. "saying farewell."

    The example maidhc posted is:

    Interestingly, it's a tabloid headline — a situation in which words are often tweaked for the sake of impact or brevity.

    But what about popular usage? What types of popular communication nowadays could be impacted by concerns of impact and brevity?

    Let's see: Texting, chat, PM, blog comments, emails… you get the idea.

    Could the emergence of terms like "gifting" and "farewelling," in the absence of any apparent change to their referents, be motivated by the growth of concise text-based communication?

  33. DaveK said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    The first book on linguistics I ever read was Edward Sapir's On Language. He made a point that English likes a lot of room between words. If two words are too similar (like "good" and "goodness") one will drop out of popularity. Maybe the same thing is happening with "give" that's happened with "lend"–the verb is being restricted in meaning and replaced by the noun in other contexts. I find it interesting, but not being a peever, I don't gift a crap.

  34. uebergeek said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    Darrell Duke: "'Regifting' is popular usage among the middle classes of the US mountain west. I never heard "gifting' that I recall."

    Yeah, that's a good point… "Gifting" probably derived from "regifting." "Regifting" seemed to emerge as a meme in the past ten years or so, when the activity became acceptable or even laudable in the face of economic downturn, environmental concerns, etc. The popularization of the activity created the need for the new term.

    Once you've got "regifting" in your mental lexicon, it's logical to eventually start saying "gifting." But the people who are annoyed by the word perhaps haven't internalized that evolution and think of "gifting" as a word that people just started saying "for no reason."

  35. Levantine said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    uebergeek, given (!) that the verb "gift" has been in use for centuries, why do we need to account for it as a derivation of "regift"? The fact that it's become more widely used in everyday language (most historical instances in Google Books are rather literary) may have something to do with the fact that, in today's increasingly commercialised world, we talk and write a great deal about gift-gifting ("gift" is a favourite verb on shopping television).

  36. Mark Mandel said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    Both sources could apply; why not?

    AAMOF, America in general is just catching up to the the Show on this. Some of us (Tolkien fans) have had the noun "mathom" since the late sixties.

  37. Mark Mandel said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    (Damn typos) Shire, not Show!

  38. Levantine said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

    Mark Mandel, you have a point — both sources could apply.

    Also, I noticed a typo of my own: I meant "gift-giving", not "gift-gifting"!

  39. Brett said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

    @uebergeek: In the largely-forgotten computer game Journey, it is a plot point that a word in an ancient inscription that is translated from the ancient wizard language as "enter" or "access" is actually a noun, even though it appears to be a verb. (And it appears to be a verb because you start off reading the wizardly inscription left to right instead of the correct right to left).

    Moreover, I also tend to agree that the recent popularity of "gifting" arose from "regifting." I noticed "regifting" on the rise in the early 1990s. I recall it even being featured in a Saturday morning cartoon one of my younger brothers was watching around that time. My impression is that frequent use of "gifting" followed a few years after, followed by the uninflected "gift." By 2000, they were all common enough that I no longer found them startling, although I am still not completely acclimated to them.

  40. Levantine said,

    December 13, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

    I found a 1982 publication already noting the rising use of "gift" as a verb. I've cut and pasted the relevant snippets under the line below (and here's the URL for the first snippet: https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#tbm=bks&q=%22we+usually+think+of+gift+as+a+noun%22).

    As for "regift", Wikipedia claims that the term was popularised (not to say coined) by a 1995 episode of Seinfeld. Whether or not this word has contributed to the spread of the verb "gift", the latter has evidently been on the rise for some time.


    We usually think of "gift" as a noun, though it has long been recorded in lexicons as a verb. OED records "gift" in the sense of "make a present of" as early as 1619, though noting that it is "chiefly Scottish." In recent years this sense has enjoyed something of a vogue, starting with gossip columnists ("So-and-so gifted her with a twenty-carat diamond.") and has appeared widely in advertising.

  41. uebergeek said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 4:48 am

    levantine: "given (!) that the verb "gift" has been in use for centuries, why do we need to account for it as a derivation of 'regift'? "

    We don't need to; it's just one possible explanation for "gifting's" recent rise in popularity. The original post was about people being annoyed about the use of gifting as a verb – which implies they are annoyed about its recent emergence into popular usage. This led to speculation about *why* people might be annoyed by "gifting." Even assuming they didn't realize it already existed as a verb, it seems to engender more annoyance than words like "texting" ever did. So I am suggesting possible explanations for why "gifting" might annoy people more than the emergence of other verbs into common usage.

  42. Nathan Myers said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

    @maidhc: No, and not like cutlery neither. Like popery, dopery, mopery, skullduggery. But if it's like revelry and pageantry, not ending in "e" means it should be "giftry", which doesn't appeal to me at all.

    So maybe giftation. Or giftification. Or gifticacy. Aggiftation. Giftiary. Giftition. Giftariation.

    None of which I am actually suggesting.

  43. Catanea said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    I'm slightly peevish about "gifting" as a more elegant or popular replacement for simple giving…but slightly more peevish about the disappearance of presents. Nobody seems to gift anybody with a present. Only gifts. I like giving and receiving presents. Sometimes I even present presents instead of merely giving them.
    Just too old fashioned?

  44. Mark Mandel said,

    December 14, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    Quasi-fieldwork note: A friend and I just went to a craft show. Afterwards over a drink and a nosh we compared purchases. She showed me some glittery nail polish and other small items she'd bought in quadruplicate for her nieces, and said "They're sure to like these. And if they don't they can always regift them to someone else." (Nothing like an exact quotation, but she used the word in question pretty much like that.)

  45. ohwilleke said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 12:51 am

    A lot of blame for the ugly verb "to gift" belongs to the legal profession and its financial planning kin, who use the term in the context of gift and estate tax planning. In that context, one has to be careful to distinguish lifetime gifts from gifts at death, and "gifting" is a word used to refer to the former, albeit a clunky one.

  46. Levantine said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 1:19 am

    uebergeek, I guess I'm questioning the notion that it's a recent phenomenon, even if we ignore the usage's long-standing literary existence. My last comment mentions a source from 1982 that tells us that the "to gift" was already becoming quite prevalent in everyday contexts over thirty years ago. This isn't to say that "regift" hasn't played a part in cementing this development, but the chronological evidence would suggest that "regift" (evidently a more recent word) owes its own existence to the increasing use of "gift" as a verb. Indeed, why else do we have "regift" at all? Shouldn't the coinage have been "regive" if, as people are claiming, "give" is sufficient to do the job of "gift"?

  47. BZ said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    Odd that I've never heard of this alleged verb except fantasy stuff about gifting you with magical powers, which sounds purposely archaic to me, but is clearly relate to the adjective "gifted". Notice that in that usage you don't gift something to a person, rather you gift a person with something.

  48. Alicia said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 3:12 am

    MYL, can you look into a color other than orange-y red for your comments? I appreciate the impulse to differentiate the comment from the comment on the comment, but that color is very hard on the eyes!

  49. Robin said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 1:52 am

    Spanish speakers must think "gifting" peevers are hilarious, what with the perfectly standard distinction between dar and regalar.

  50. Keith said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    Rest assured that you are not the only person to use the word "present".

    But isn't the verb "regalar" derived from the noun "regalo"?

RSS feed for comments on this post