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Column: A Word, Please: How to bend the rules of English and get away with it

One of the coolest things about the English language is how flexible it is.

Verbs can be used as nouns. Adjectives can pinch hit for adverbs. Prepositions can fill in for conjunctions. Nouns can be used as adjectives and vice versa. And though sometimes this means bending the rules in a way that would have hurt your grade-point average back in the day, many of these out-of-the-box uses are hardly rule violations. In fact, they’re well-established features of the language — so well established most even have names. Here are some terms that explain how one part of speech can work as another.

Attributive nouns. If you’ve ever been to a shoe store, a paint store or a hardware store, you’re a beneficiary of our language’s flexibility. Shoe, paint and hardware are all nouns. But they’re not working as nouns when they modify another noun, for example: store. Modifying nouns is normally a job for adjectives. But as we see every day, nouns can also function attributively, meaning as modifiers. That’s when they’re called attributive nouns.

Gerunds. “Walking is great exercise.” “Seeing is believing.” “Finding your way in life requires hard work.” Each of these sentences starts with an “ing” word that’s normally considered a verb: walking, seeing, finding. But if you look at what they’re doing in these sentences, each is functioning as the subject of a verb: “is,” “is” and “requires,” respectively. Verbs can’t be subjects of other verbs. Only nouns can do that (technically, noun phrases, but we’ll save that term for another day). An “ing” word derived from a verb but functioning as a noun is called a gerund.


Participial modifiers. There are times when an “ing” form of a verb is neither a verb nor a gerund, for example in “We took a walking tour.” Here, “walking” isn’t functioning as a verb, but it’s not functioning as a noun, either. What’s it doing, then? It’s modifying the noun “tour.” The term for this is participial modifier. The name is your clue that these forms derive from verb participles — either an “ing” participle, which is called a progressive participle when it’s used as a verb phrase like “I was walking,” or a past participle like “botched” or “frozen,” as in “botched operation” and “frozen tundra.”

Verbing of nouns. In an old episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer calls out to daughter Lisa: “Beer me!” Obviously, “beer” is a noun. But Homer uses it as a verb. Yes, this is a playful usage — taking liberties in a way you won’t find justified by any dictionary. But other times, this verbing of nouns means using the language in well-established, legitimate ways. For example: to club something, to house something, to fax something, to hammer something. These verbs rooted in nouns have been around long enough to warrant full membership in the verb club.

Flat adverbs. People hate to hear this, but it’s a simple fact that you can go slow. You can move quick. You can think different. You can talk nice. These are called flat adverbs — words used adverbially even though they’re classed as adjectives and lack the “ly” tail found on classic adverbs like slowly, differently and nicely. Some of these you’ll even find in the dictionary as adverbs. “Slow,” for example, is classed as an adverb as well as an adjective.

Prepositions as conjunctions. Many years ago, a tobacco company touted that its product “tastes good, like a cigarette should.” People were troubled by this, but not for the reasons they would be today. Smoking was okey-dokey, but using “like” in place of “as” was shocking — at least to some sticklers. Traditionally, “like” is considered a preposition, and prepositions can’t introduce whole clauses such as “a cigarette should.” Technically, that’s a job for a conjunction. But it turns out that “like” is a conjunction as well as a preposition. So objections to this use are as antiquated as those vintage cigarette ads.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at