Loan Ranger

Money can change a noun to a verb

The reporter seemingly couldn’t make up his mind. In an article about a mayor’s financial problem, the reporter used a number of verbs to describe how the mayor had “borrowed” money from the campaign:

The mayor’s “personal financial problems have raised questions about how he was able to lend his mayoral campaign $20,000 in April …”

“State law allows candidates to loan their campaign’s money …”

“On April 12 he lent $20,000 of his own money to fill the still-lean coffers of his mayoral campaign …”

“He “loaned himself $10,500 in April 2006 …”

The reporter was merely reflecting the overall confusion, or lack of understanding, over how to use “loan” and all of its variants.

Many style guides are pretty absolute, if not unified. The Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage both want “loan” only as a noun, with “lend” as the verb. The Chicago Manual of Style is a little more subtle and permissive: “Lend is the correct term for letting someone use something with the understanding that it (or its equivalent) will be returned. The verb loan is standard only when money is the subject of the transaction.”

The CMOS limit of the verb “loan” to financial contexts implies but does not explicitly state that “lend” should be used when the item changing hands is nonfinancial or figurative—be it a book, ears, or a tenor. Increasingly, though, people are using “loan” as a verb regardless of what is being borrowed.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “loan” as a verb fell out of favor in England after the seventeenth century. Because the provinces were still using it, the very proper British turned their noses up at it. Usage authorities well into the twentieth century continued to disdain the verb “loan” as a lowly Americanism, even though some of the critics themselves were American. But “loan” as a verb is now considered standard American English (although only when money is involved). Because “lend” and “loan” have become virtually interchangeable in practice, it’s only a matter of time before all uses of “loan” are considered standard. The style guides are spitting into the wind.

Similarly, the New York Times, AP, and CMOS all agree that “lent” is the only past participle allowed, even if “loan” is permitted as a verb. So why do so many people use “loaned”?

“Loaned” is the way the past tense would be formed if “loan” were a regular verb. But, as we’ve seen, “loan” isn’t considered a verb at all by many, so its past participle is not only not regular, it’s nonexistent to some usage authorities and dictionaries. That despite usages of “loaned” that The Oxford English Dictionary says go back to the sixteenth century. It’s another wind-returned bit of spittle. (“Lended,” which is showing up occasionally, is still just plain wrong.)

Unless your style guide absolutely so dictates, it’s perfectly OK to use “loan” as a verb, though you might want to restrict its usage to money to avoid offending the sticklers. For the past tense, go ahead and use “loaned,” unless your usage guide forces you to give it up for “lent.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.