The Ambicategoricality Problem

A New York Times Magazine article said: “More than anything, Madden has reinforced a comfortable remove between what we watch on screens and the savagery actually taking place on real fields.” In the print version, the main display type was “How the Madden video game lets fans think they understand N.F.L. football games — even as it keeps them at enough remove to still enjoy the sport (maybe).”

How many of you fumbled while reading that, maybe having to reread it? How many of you stumbled on the word “remove”?

You’re used to seeing “remove” as a verb meaning “take away.” But here, “remove” is used as a noun, meaning “distance” or “remoteness,” to indicate a separation between fans and the sport of football.

When people are used to seeing a word being used as one part of speech, it may take them a second to realize it’s being used a different way. 

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Many words in English can be either nouns or verbs: think “contact,” “boast,” “police,” “probe,” etc. Most of the time, it’s clear to readers whether you’re using it as a noun or a verb. But sometimes it’s not clear, creating what language researchers call “the Ambicategoricality Problem.” A reader who sees a word and assumes it’s a verb, only to discover later in the sentence that it’s a noun, may have to back up and start again. And if you haven’t figured it out by then, that’s not a good thing.

“Remove” has been a noun meaning “a step or two from” since at least the early 17th century, but readers overwhelmingly experience it as a verb. It’s not “wrong” to use a word like “remove” in an unfamiliar role; the only “rule” to prohibit someone from using the word as an unfamiliar part of speech is the golden “rule” that written communication should be clear.

The “verbification” of traditional nouns like “contact” or “probe” and the “nounification” of traditional verbs like “medal” and “fail” are the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But language evolves when people repurpose a “traditional” word and give it another role. It just may take time for it to catch on, if it ever does. “Verbing” and “nouning” have been nouns since the mid-18th century, for example, the noun “verbification” has existed since the late 18th, and “verb” has been a verb since early in the 20th. (The verb “noun” hasn’t yet made it into the major dictionaries, nor has the noun “nounification.”) 

Sometimes, using the verb instead of the noun makes prose tighter and gives it more impact. “She said she would plan the trip” is stronger than “she said she would provide a plan for the trip.” The nuance is needed sometimes since “he said he would support the candidate” is not quite the same as “he said he would provide support for the candidate.” And sometimes, using the noun instead of the verb works, too. “The builder’s development will provide affordable housing” can be more accurate than “the builder will develop affordable housing.”

The real danger comes when words that can be nouns or verbs appear too close to each other. “The man who whistles tunes pianos” could take readers a long time to figure out, because both “whistles” and “tunes” can be both nouns and verbs. It’s particularly difficult because both are being used as verbs, and two unrelated verbs rarely appear together. Worse, “whistles tunes” is a “collocation,” words that seem to go naturally together.

When nouns and verbs switch roles and confuse readers, we call them “vouns” and “nerbs.” These unfortunate juxtapositions create what’s called “syntactical ambiguity” or a “garden-path sentence,” taking readers down the wrong road.

In headlines or display type, as we and others have written, such ambiguity is known as a “crash blossom,” from a headline that read “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.” Both “crash” and “blossom” are “vouns” and “nerbs,” and it’s not immediately clear that “crash” in this case is being used as a noun, not a verb.

You don’t have to “remove” ambicategoricality every time, but you need to keep a “remove” between a desire to impress audiences with vocabulary and the ability to confuse. Whistle tunes to yourself before imposing them on others.

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