The Notorious “Not-A-Verb” List

book_sqGetting What You Want from Your Science Writing, Part V
Like all editors, the science editors at Promega each have pet peeves about language usage and writing, and you can often find us engaged in animated discussion about usage of the word “utilize” or “employ.” We maintain the corporate style guide for writing and usage, and we provide many resources for Promega employees who find themselves composing at the keyboard.

One of my favorite writing resources is our “Not-A-Verb” list. While I am an avid proponent of using active, specific verbs in writing (and not nominalizing them), there are some words that are simply NOT verbs.

For instance:

  1. Aliquot: Do not “aliquot” your samples. Rather, “divide your samples into single-use aliquots.”
  2. Electrophoresis: Samples should be “analyzed by electrophoresis” or “separated by electrophoresis.” They are not “electrophoresed.”
  3. Coverslip: Use “coverslips were placed on the slides” not “the slides were coverslipped.”
  4. Vial: Do not “vial”, but rather, “put your material into a vial.”
  5. Blank: Do not “blank” the instrument. Instead, “Create a blank sample to set your baseline value.”
  6. Batch: Do not say “sample loss due to high-throughput batching”. Batch when used as a verb is considered a variant of “bach”. Bach means “to live alone as a bachelor”. Not sure how you would do that in a high-throughput manner.
  7. Productize: Please no. Create a new product. Convert into a product. But do not productize. Please don’t.

Of course, no commentary on English usage is without controversy. Here are two terms that seem to generate some discussion:

Priority: To quote the Webster’s II New College Dictionary that sits on my desk, “Many condemn the use of prioritize on the grounds that it is jargon, but in recent times it has become firmly established in English at all levels of speech and writing.” That said, when the word “prioritize” creeps into writing, the writing begins to sound officious. How much nicer it sounds simply “to determine your priorities.”

Impact: When I was a student, I was told by one English teacher that impact is not a verb, ever. And, in her class, it wasn’t. However, language evolves. Today using impact as a verb is acceptable; however, most writers agree that impact as a verb has specific meanings. The first meaning listed in every source I checked is “to pack firmly together.” So, unless that heat wave in Chicago is going to pack all the citizens of the city together like sardines in a tin can, perhaps the weather forecaster would be better to say that a heat wave is going to affect Chicago.

The most common second definition for impact as a verb is “to strike forcefully”. So, returning to our weather forecast, it is indeed possible for a tornado to impact a small town in Iowa, but why not say strike instead? Strike conjures a more vivid picture.

However, as I indicated, language evolves, and the online Webster’s dictionary lists “to affect or influence” as the second definition of the verb impact. I checked two other online dictionaries, MSN Encarta and Your Dictionary.com, and while they both listed “to affect or influence” as a possible usage of the verb impact, they indicate that it is not a preferred usage.

Isn’t language fun? In your reading, writing and editing, have you encountered any other “not-a-verb” words? Tell us about them.

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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

19 thoughts on “The Notorious “Not-A-Verb” List

  1. Are you sure that “Aliquot” is not a verb? I know it hasn’t been in the past but, as you say, language evolves and I think aliquot may have become verbified.
    Ethan

    • Hello Ethan,
      I’m flattered that you commented on my blog post. Yes, you’re right, “aliquot” is quite commonly used as a verb in conversation, but I’m not convinced that usage has been overwhelmingly accepted. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, “aliquot” is accepted when used as a verb.
      Now, about the word “verbified” in your comment…;-0
      Michele

  2. I shudder at the use of the word “impact” rather than “affect”. However, I am resigned to hearing it continuously as its use in this fashion is widespread.

    As a rule of thumb, I ask myself does it work like the correctly titled movie “Deep Impact”? In this film, large asteroid was predicted to strike the Earth, thus the appropriate use of the word. Regardless of the word’s evolving use, I stubbornly hold onto the position held by Michele’s teacher for using “impact”.

    Sara

  3. Michele,
    I liked this post. I would like to see a similar someone address the use of other somewhat vague words in life science marketing. There are many I can think of but as an example the word “robust” is used extensively to describe life science products. As a marketer in life sciences I do a fair amount of market research and I have seen that even scientists use it to describe products! I am always shocked when they do because I doubt you would get the same definition twice if you asked five researchers. I’ll look forward to future posts.

    • Hi Scott,

      You have a great idea for a post. I did see a marketing piece that listed “robust” as one of words in a top 10 list of jargon filled, empty meaning words used in marketing (not just science marketing). Another word that bothers me, but I think I’ve lost the battle, is “homogeneous”. In drug discovery, marketing folks and scientists use it to refer to assays that can be performed entirely within one well of a multiwell plate; but that isn’t what the word homogeneous means when you are talking about solutions. At any rate, thanks for the comment. I’ll see if I can put together a post.

      Michele

  4. I appreciate these points in general (I hope I never see anyone use “vial” as a verb), but I also noted that the suggested replacements invariably used many more words than the verbalized nouns.

    • Hi Kathleen,

      In general I edit to remove extraneous words. However, when the additional words clarify meaning for readers (especially when I am concerned about non-native English speakers), I opt for clarity over brevity. In a case like “separated by electrophoresis” versus “electrophoresed”, I see no reasonable argument for not adding the two extra words.

      Michele

  5. I was just searching on how to phrase in an email that I “aliquotted” a solution into, well, aliquots, when I realized how absurd that sounded! Then I thought over the many times I’ve tried to explain to someone that I had “aliquotted” samples and determined that I needed to find out if the word aliquot had tenses. Much to my dismay, I discovered that it wasn’t even truly a verb. However, to my delight, you phrased it quite well. I would argue that there is some use for aliquot as a verb in the sense “to aliquot”, or “you should aliquot”, but there are really no other means to say it without sounding silly. I’ll likely continue to say that “I should aliquot the sample”, but I promise, no more “aliquotting” or “aliquotted” for me!

  6. The verbing of nouns is not the trouble. Consider horsed, manned — elegant literary uses, along with unhorsed, unmanned. But notice these are in the passive voice. The trouble with verbing aliquot, etc. is that it takes the active voice, and it’s frankly absurd for an aliquot to perform an action. There’s the trouble. You must define a problem before you can solve it.
    The trouble with impact is somewhat different. The language has no need of an ugly substitute for the generic verbs affect and influence. Most commonly, impact is used as a weasel-verb by which writers escape the effort of specifying the kind and degree of effect one thing may have on another.
    “Nuclear testing would impact the ecosystem.” No, it would degrade, despoil, contaminate, poison, destroy . . . . He or she who uses impact as a verb in its figurative sense is lazy, confused, ignorant, pompous and contemptuous. One wouldn’t want to brand oneself so openly, would one?

    • Hi Hugh,

      You bring up interesting points. However, I would have to see actual examples of sentences where “horsed” and “manned” or their “un” counterparts are passive verbs and not predicate adjectives used with forms of the verb “to be”. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of an example of them as passive verbs, and in my abridged dictionary “manned” is listed as an adjective (a manned space station), not as a verb. Further looking online does find acceptable usage for “man” as a verb in the sense of guarding (He manned the security post.–active verb) or as “to strengthen or brace” (She manned herself for the onslaught of reporters’ questions–again active). In both of those examples, the writer could choose far better verbs.

      “Horse, horsing, and horses” are listed as verbs. No example sentences are given; however, one of the definitions is “to haul or hoist energetically”; “horse” in that sense could certainly be used as an active verb, although I doubt few readers would be familiar with the intended meaning (Three men horsed the over-sized trunk up the stairs.) So, I’m not convinced that the problem is an active/passive problem. I think it is more basic: taking a word that is intended for use as one part of speech and borrowing it for another. This is particularly a problem when one discipline borrows terms from another discipline, or when the popular press tries to simplify complex topics without truly understanding them.

      All of that said, language evolves and words gain new usage as time moves forward.

  7. Hi Mike,

    I’m guilty of the “googling”, at least in speech, but I do try to avoid it in writing.

    However I just did some checking online and the Merriam-Webster dictionary ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/google lists “google” as a transitive verb ).

    And this arts technica blog (http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2006/07/7198.ars ) has an interesting entry about Google’s concern that becoming “just another verb” could damage their trademark protection.

    So just to be safe I’ll note that Google is a trademark of Google.

    Michele

  8. I remember when “impact” became popular as a verb. It was during the 1980’s, the era of “power”-stuff: “power suits/ties”, “power ties”, “power breakfasts/lunches”. Everybody was “power”-obsessed, and the verbs “affect” and “influence” just did not convey as much, well, “power”. You wanted what you/your product/your idea to do more than just “influence” — how wimpy! You wanted to IMPACT the bottom line/the market, blah blah blah.

    It must have been all that cocaine.

  9. When I was a kid growing up in England I had an English teacher who forbade us to ever use the word got. Received a present, arrived home, understood it, was given a D, deserved punishment. Impact is another word I am sure he would have gotten mad at.

    • Hi Gordon,

      “Got” is one of those words that gets on a lot of people’s nerves. I understand in the UK that the past participle “gotten” is never used; that form is used quite often in the US, and is what students are taught is correct: get, got, gotten. Truthfully, I think “got” should probably be avoided, and the writing will be stronger without it.

      Michele

  10. Great article, thanks for writing it!

    An interesting twist on the topic is the legal issue of making a trademarked noun into a verb. “Xerox” instead of “copy”; “Google” instead of “search”. When this occurs the holder of the trademark can lose protection if it can be shown that the holder make insufficient attempts to protect the mark

    • Hi Jeff,

      That is so true. “Google” has made it into some dictionaries; however, Google(R) is still enforcing the appropriate use of their trademark in some instances.

      Michele

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