How many English words are verbs?

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How many English words are verbs?

Post  Vincent Law on Sun Dec 02, 2012 3:58 pm

While nouns and adjectives make up 75% of the words in the English language, verbs only account for about 14%, according to Oxford (estimates only, based on main entry words).

However, this estimate does not take into account words with senses for different word classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.). For example, snowplow is tallied as a noun, but it could also be tallied as a verb: “I will snowplow the driveway.” Thus, the estimate of 14%, or only 1 in 7 words, must be quite low, because converting a noun into a verb is fairly common in English (not necessarily true in every language).

The business of transforming a noun into a verb goes by many names: verbing, verbification, morphological conversion, grammatical shift, functional shift, zero-derivation, etc. Whatever we call it, one thing is certain: It provides for a great deal of versatility and flexibility of expression. If Oxford’s tally of verbs included multiple senses for each given main entry, the number of verbs in the English language would rise, significantly.

And even though it is possible to convert words across grammatical categories, as from an adjective (green) into a noun (the putting green), verbing is by far the most common type of grammatical shift.

In “You’ve Been Verbed” Anthony Gardner writes: “Mothers and fathers used to bring up children: now they parent. Critics used to review plays: now they critique them. Athletes podium, executives flipchart, and almost everybody Googles. Watch out—you’ve been verbed.” (Update: Also see 10-27-2012 NYT post by Dr. Helen Sword, Mutant Verbs).

Nonetheless, there is some logic to the pie graph pictured above, despite the missing grammatical conversions. It is not surprising that nouns and adjectives outnumber verbs. We can apply one verb to a slew of nouns. For example, the possibilities are endless with the verb fix. Theoretically, we can "fix" any noun that exists!
Vincent Law
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