On language: The unfortunate nominalization of spend and ask

James Kilpatrick
James Kilpatrick

Originally published 27 Oct 2014. James Kilpatrick may have been best known for his syndicated political newspaper 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!

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

  1. Brian Purdy Avatar
    Brian Purdy


  2. brandib1977 Avatar

    At my company, the people who abuse these words this way are the ones who talk a lot, trying to make themselves sound valuable, while they do precious little.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, I’ve seen that in action. Any new leader where I work who starts tossing around words like these, I assume they must not be very good.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        It’s an easy way to spot the lazy climbers.

    2. matt Avatar

      It isn’t just at your company.
      For example, I noticed when my company got acquired by another, the people who were obsessed with the org chart — and their place in it — were the ones that contributed very little to the org of which the chart outlined.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Exactly!! They also tend to be the biggest threats to productivity.

        1. matt Avatar

          This is my observation also. Either it’s endemic to corporate America or we work at the same company. :)

          1. brandib1977 Avatar

            Haha. I expect it’s not just us!

  3. DougD Avatar

    I can get behind “that’s a big ask” because it’s a response to a (hopefully clear) request.

    But I’ve not heard it used as in your other examples, nor have I heard spend used as a noun. Maybe that’s American English.

    Off topic, but one thing that my (American) mother in law lays that drives me nuts is “wasya”, as in “Wasya going to the store yesterday?” I don’t know if that’s a Michigan thing or just her though.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve heard wasya. Not something I use, but I’ve heard it!

  4. matt Avatar

    “Ask” doesn’t need to exist in this usage; we have the word request to serve that purpose. Even DougD, not to pick on him, uses the word request in support of “a big ask” nullifying the need for such atrocities.

    I have used “spend” as a noun in this context: “That was a good spend of five minutes.” I won’t argue it’s not an atrocious abuse of the language; and I won’t argue that hearing a Brit use it similarly means it’s okay. If I heard someone at my company use such terms as in your example, I would forever brand them as an imbecile in my mind.

    I find the “-ize”-ing or “-ive”-ing of words to be another horrible trend (essentially the opposite of what you’re talking about). I’ve heard “Bucketize” as in, “we need to bucketize these requests…” (I’m not sure that clears it up, but it means “sort” or “organize” — FFS say “sort” or “organize”… Did organize come about back in the day because it meant to make something more organ-ed? ARGH!) “Incentivize” is another.

    Please, please, please… just stop trying to sound intelligent when you’re not. Communication typically does not increase with syllables. It’s like putting an M badge on your non-M BMW: those who would be impressed know your car’s not an M; and those who don’t know that, don’t know to be impressed.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes: request and spending. It’s not that hard. I’m not sure what it is about work that makes us want to invent language.

      A phrase I dislike that I use anyway is, “I don’t have visibility into that.” In other words, it’s out of my purview, I don’t have a way to know what’s going on with it.

      1. matt Avatar

        Ah, yes. The involuntary absorption. Or is that a proper noun? The Involuntary Absorption.

        I am fortunate in that I tend to be blunt (I am likewise, often, unfortunate for same, to be honest). But I do get to say “I don’t know” and normally when I fall into such ludicrous ramblings, it’s because I’m making fun of those who think their importance is measured in the volume of nothing that escapes from their mouths.

      2. matt Avatar

        (Also, I know I’m not immune from The Involuntary Absorption” either… not looking down on anyone — I’m well aware I have my own verbal ticks that probably annoy everyone around me… No claim of perfection here!) :)

  5. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    BTW, there’s always “A Way With Words” on NPR, which believe I used to listen to while I was in Indianapolis on Saturday around noon!

    You can place at the altar of corporate business, the misuse and corruption of a lot of the English language. I believe that I remember sometime in the 90’s, hearing that there were over three hundred misuses and wrong definitions, via misuse, of the term “paradigm shift”.

    (Didn’t some web site I read just have a column recently sort of promoting the idea that incomplete sentences and lack of punctuation is ok? Once the flood gates open….).

  6. Marc Beebe Avatar

    I have seen this sort of bawlderization happening for many years. And if one points out that slang terms are not actual words the language criminals point to on-line dictionary entries edited by everyone and their cousin and invent historical context to justify misuse, as well as the fatuous “language is an ever-evolving thing” argument. In fact it’s too often a case of “if you don’t know the right word use one you do know incorrectly – or just make something up, then make up more lies to defend your error”. That sounds an awful lot like what is happening in so many fields these days, especially politics.
    At my age it’s a little disturbing to find my native language is becoming foreign to me.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think things becoming foreign to us is part of aging, and it’s part of why so many of us are ready to go when it’s time — the world isn’t the one we knew anymore.

  7. Gil Aegerter Avatar

    Excellent. The speed at which such these and other such linguistic fads appear has accelerated in the past decade, aided by social media, I think. They are a form of defining clubs and throwing up barriers to using them — if you use these words, you’re one of us and can join. If not, well …

    Then there are the linguistic tics that appear. “Like” has practically taken over young conversation. “Right?” is right behind for a wide demographic. A relatively new one is to answer a non yes-no question with “Yeah … answer answer answer.” It originally seemed to be a way for the respondent to take control of the conversation, essentially saying, “OK, I’ll deign to answer this question even though it is not very good.” Now it has become such a fad that people say it without any meaning at all attached to it. It was just becoming a problem in interviews when I retired from public radio, but now it is endemic there. That alone would have pushed me out the door.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There’s a little bit of tribalism going on for sure when using terms like this.

      Sadly, I have the “Right?” tic.

  8. fotosharp3820ea7ebf Avatar

    “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!”

    Okay then. My 2 questions:

    1) If today is Thursday (or even Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday), is “next Friday” this week or next week? I’m not certain.

    2) If we spend $1 million for marketing this month, will we be on budget? I can’t tell given the available data.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The next Friday thing is a hangup for sure. In the context of this example the actual marketing budget isn’t important to the concept I was trying to illustrate.

  9. J P Avatar

    As one on the outside of business culture looking in, I see these as cute affectations. “Awww, listen to you sounding all businessy.” I want to pat them on the head and send them out to play.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  10. Peter Miller Avatar
    Peter Miller

    Sometimes management speak gets picked up and repeated by the underlings. A layoff might be characterized as a “reduction in force” by management, the subordinates may call it being riffed, which opens up — for the musicians amongst us — jokes involving a guitar riff. And then if you see someone you used to work with at that company you will sarcastically say “I got riffed”. Have become aware recently also that job postings are no longer jobs but “roles”. Amazon announced recently that Amazon was eliminating 15,000 roles.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, one company I worked for called a layoff an “employee action.” Bleh.

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