THINK SIMILAR

We’ve had nouns being turned into verbs, and now there’s a rash of adjectives being used as nouns. Robert Lane Greene has the diagnosis

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013

"Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should." Advertisers love to push at the edges of taste in language. If this slogan, from 1954, doesn't bother you, you're like most modern folks. But every educated Anglophone knew, when this came out, that "like" couldn't be used as a conjunction, and that this should be "Tastes good, as a cigarette should."

Playing with grammar is an easy way for advertising agencies to grab our attention. Rhetoricians call switching a word from one part of speech to another "anthimeria". One particular way of doing it has caught the copywriters' fancy. Virgin Atlantic is "flying in the face of ordinary". Sky television in Britain invites you to "believe in better". An Asus computer is the answer if you're "in search of incredible". Bergdorf Goodman, the luxury-goods store, is celebrating "111 years of extraordinary". Yes, welcome to quirky. Welcome to edgy. Welcome to nounified.

Adjectives as nouns are, of course, nothing new. Every language has to have some way of moving words from one part of speech to another. And for most of the history of English, the most common way of doing this, and the biggest peeve of the grammar peevers, has been verbing nouns, not nouning adjectives. "To impact" and "to author" bring out allergies in plenty of people. For some of them, even "to contact" is still a Johnny-come-ungrammatical.

But verbing nouns has a long pedigree in English wordplay, as the greatest verber of all testifies. Shakespeare nouned verbs as freely as Pele goaled footballs: "It out-Herods Herod": Hamlet. "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle": Richard II. Clever and audacious at the time, these usages are still striking and evocative today. But Shakespeare also verbed "dog", "channel" and "season", all now routine as verbs. A well-verbified word soon becomes fashionable, then unexceptional. 

Verbing is actually a pretty complicated process. Not everything can be considered do-able, suitable for verbification. You sometimes hear it said that "art is a verb", meaning "art is something you do". But nobody ever says "I arted for hours". Or if they did, they probably pretensioned after that.

But nounification is pretty easy. Shakespeare also played "fast and loose" (Antony and Cleopatra) with adjectives. Your English teacher was lying if she told you that a noun is always a "person, place or thing". Tell that to "reimbursement", "regret" or "reticence", none of which is a thing, really. A noun is simply a word that behaves like a noun. By definition, it is any word that behaves as a noun should; it can be used as a subject or an object in a sentence, for example. And English lets almost anything noun.

"Think different" was Apple’s slogan for the Mac computer, once upon a time. Many thought it ungrammatical: "It's think differently." But Apple didn’t mean "think in a different way". It meant "think of different-ness". When you buy a Mac, think of how much cleverer you are than those mindless masses tapping away at Word on their PCs. As when someone wondering what to eat says "I'm thinking Thai", or an interior designer points at your wall and says "I’m thinking warm and inviting here", Apple's slogan was pressing "different" into service as a concept, and hence a noun, not a truncated adverb.

The problem with nouning adjectives isn't grammar. Anyone who tells you it is needs to read a bit more. It's that the ad industry's rush to new and clever is so obvious. Nancy Friedman, a branding consultant in California, collects scads of nouned adjectives in slogans: "Celebrate your extraordinary." "Go directly to fabulous." "Give exceptional." "Generate positive." "Welcome to possible." Friedman is an acerbic critic of herd-trends in branding and advertising. She also cites all those –ify names (Spotify, Storify, Zenify, Themify). A trend goes from edgy to cliché faster than copywriters notice that they are behind the curve. Any marketers thinking they are the first to noun adjectives are really the last word in overdone.

Grammar play is like free verse, splatter painting or low-fi music. The first to get to the idea grabs attention just by virtue of daring. But the hordes who follow have to have something to say, some real content, not to mention a real product to sell. Just playing around with the medium won’t do. It takes more than unconventional to generate memorable.

Robert Lane Greene is a correspondent for The Economist and the author of "You Are What You Speak"