August 29, 2006

Science is... a verb??

From an article in Salon last week about Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society:

We've got to get past this idea that science is a thing. It isn't a thing like religion is a thing or a political party is a thing. It's true that scientists have clubs. They have banners and meetings and they drink beer together. But science is just a method, a way of answering questions. It's a verb not a noun.

And faith is a verb, and God is a verb, and fashion is a verb, and happiness is a verb... and so on and so on and so on.

It has become clear to me that there's no point in railing against this trope, or telling these people to get the dictionary out. They cannot conceivably think they are talking about the correct part-of-speech classification of words. They don't need or want a dictionary. When they say "is a verb" they clearly mean something like "is something that must be engaged in, or be engaged with, as an active practice".

And that would be fine, except that for grammarians such as me it is a sad reminder of how the unworkable old definitions of terms like "noun" and "verb" still hold sway, nothing having changed in a century, and not much in a millennium.

It absolutely is not the case that you can coherently define lexical categories this way — nouns as words that name things, verbs as words for actions, adjectives as words for qualities, prepositions as words for relations between things, and so on. It simply does not work. It part of an ancient theory of grammar that is not just sick but dead on arrival, like the phlogiston theory of combustion. Only grammar never had its chemical revolution as far as the general public is concerned. Some time in the future the prevailing nonsense about grammar, on which the "is a verb" snowclone is based, has to be replaced by one that works, and the non-linguistic public has to be convinced (if there is ever to be sensible public discourse about linguistic matters) that the revised view provides a more sensible and coherent theory. This is not going to be easy.

[Many thanks to Jonathan Lundell and Tam K for the tipoff.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 29, 2006 04:42 PM