On language: The unfortunate nominalization of spend and ask

James Kilpatrick
James Kilpatrick

James Kilpatrick may have been best known for his syndicated political newespaper column, but I preferred his weekly column about writing and English called “The Writer’s Art.” I loved it when in his column he’d put on his virtual judicial robes and open the Court of Peeves, Crotchets, and Irks, for what followed would be a humorous, incisive invective on foibles of our English language.

Kilpatrick passed in 2010. I miss his column.

I wonder how he’d address a trend I’m hearing that dips from the well of nominalization. I’m in favor of making nouns from other parts of speech when the conversion is necessary or helpful. This is how we get useful words like investigation, which is an ancient nominalization of investigate.

But I don’t think ask and spend need to be used as nouns. To be fair, there’s precedent: etymologists have found occasional uses of these words as nouns going back almost 400 years. It’s like a recurring passing fad. But the poor dears don’t even get the whole treatment, as they are not transformed (as investigate becomes investigation). They are used as is:

Ask: What are the asks here? My ask is that you deliver the project by next Friday. Wow, that’s a big ask.

Spend: Our marketing spend exceeded budget again last month. This month, we anticipate a spend of about $1 million.

This usage makes one sound savvy, in the know. But it also pulls the punch and blurs meaning, making concrete expectations and budgets seem abstract. Ask even carries a passive-aggressive note. What happens when we say exactly what we mean?

Ask: What do you want? I want you to deliver the project by next Friday. Wow, I’m not sure that’s possible.

Spend: We overspent our marketing budget again last month. This month, we plan to spend about $1 million.

Ah, sweet clarity!


9 responses to “On language: The unfortunate nominalization of spend and ask”

  1. Rick Grey Avatar
    Rick Grey

    Savvy? Perhaps. In the way that any role-specific jargon makes people sound like they’re more familiar with (and therefore maybe probably better at) their job.

    To be completely fair, jargon can actually streamline communication, communicating a lot of context and/or information succinctly.

    However, “spend” and “ask” as nouns always sounds like wannabe Executive Douchespeak©® to me. To your point, it actually blurs meaning.

    (Yet I always think it’s kind of humorous when people describe expensive items as “spendy.” Special exemption to stuff I find funny? Sure, let’s go with that.)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I like spendy too, because of its humorous effect. It lacks no clarity or punch, either. This “what’s the ask” nonsense only brings in more weak to-be verbs, bleh.

  2. davidvanilla Avatar

    Indeed, Sweet Clarity! The examples you used are among the most awkward expressions in the language. I think of this as a communications lesson. “Grammar” recalls too many workbook pages. Well done!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks – that’s what I was going for, a splash of cold water on effective communication, not a pinch-faced grammar lesson.

  3. Steve Miller Avatar
    Steve Miller

    Uh-oh. Sounds like someone’s had to spend way too much time in meetings of late…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ding! We have a winner!

  4. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    You’re channelling Orwell! :)


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I could do worse!

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        Yes, indeed, and I share your sentiments. One of the hallmarks of the English language, and one I admire, is its ability to generate new words fairly unrestrictedly. But if we already have a word for something, it seems pointless to reinvent the wheel over and over just to avoid seeming conventional.

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