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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Words That Move (and Words That Don’t)


by Bridget McKenna

Remember fourth grade? That’s probably around the time a teacher first
said to you “Verbs are action words. Nouns are things.” You’d already
been using language for a lifetime, but since you acquired language
naturally and unconsciously, you might never have thought about it in
just that way before: there’s a class of words that describes things,
and another that describes action. It was a useful lesson, and now that
we’ve put fourth grade behind us, let’s learn something new.

Your teacher was right: verbs are action words. The actions they
describe are processes—ongoing deeds that occur over time, have duration
(and therefore a beginning and an end) and are subject to change. We
read, we eat, we drink, we sleep, we wake, we walk and run and work and
play, and all these are processes. We can start doing them, stop doing
them, do them differently.

    Nouns Are Things

Nouns are things—also true. And things are not processes. A word that
defines a thing does not describe or imply movement. We can probably all
agree that your eyeball, cup, fork, nose and watch are all things, and
as such their names remain the same regardless of their state of rest or
motion. That said, it’s also true that you can eyeball something, cup
it, fork it, nose it, or watch it, so nouns can, over time, become
verbs, thereby acquiring means of motion—wheels, if you will.

There’s another trick we do with words that’s sometimes less useful,
however—the trick of taking the wheels off a verb so that it sits there
like a brick. And once we’ve done this, we often continue to believe
that the verb has become a noun—that the process has become a thing—that
something that moves has become frozen in time. And sometimes we trip
over that brick when we least expect it.

When we change a verb into a noun we “nominalize” it. The process is
“nominalizing,” which results in a thing called “a nominalization.” So
“nominalization” is itself a nominalization. See how easy this is?

    Detecting Nominalizations

If you’ve studied NLP you’ve probably learned a bit about how to
recognize the difference between a natural noun—a noun that has always
and ever described a thing—and a nominalization. Even if you haven’t,
it’s fairly simple. For one thing, natural nouns make no sense when you
put the word “ongoing” in front of them. You can have an “ongoing
investigation,” but not an “ongoing toast rack.” And because
nominalizations don’t describe real things, they can’t be put into a
wheelbarrow. You could, for instance, put cats in a wheelbarrow (though
I don’t recommend trying this at home), but not rage, craving, or even
thoughts. These words describe ongoing processes that are subject to
change over time, not things that occupy space.

Nominalizations have a way of limiting us in our thinking: once we’ve
defined something we can sometimes find it difficult to re-define it. So
when we think of something like “love” as a noun, we give it the
attributes of a thing: we assume we can have it or be denied it, that
someone else can give it to us, or we can give it to them; that it can
be bought, sold, traded, bargained for, gambled with, withheld, stolen
or destroyed in much the same way as a baseball. Loving, on the other
hand, is something we do or do not do. It’s an action—a process with
duration (and therefore a beginning and end) and is subject to change.
I’m curious: how does thinking about it like that change the way you’ve
been thinking about “love…?”

    Problems As Processes–Or Things?

If you listen to a person (including yourself) describe something they
perceive as a problem, one of the patterns you might hear is that of
problems described as nouns, including nominalizations. People seldom
perceive their problems as ongoing processes with duration, but are more
likely to describe them as solid, real objects they possess:
“I have persistent unhappy thoughts.”
“I have a phobia.”
“I have a habit I’d like to break.”
Sometimes the thing you’re thinking of as a problem is something you
don’t have, but wish you did:
“I want success.”
“I want a better relationship.”
“I need confidence.”

In both cases, you’re attempting to get rid of a thing, or get a thing,
and in neither case does the thing exist per se. What does exist is an
ongoing process through time. But when we see something in our life as
beyond our power to change, there’s a good chance we’ve frozen an
ongoing process into a nominalization, and having come to think of it as
a thing, we’ve ceased to see the movement in it.

    A Neat Trick

You can test this yourself by observing the images you make when you
think of something you’re perceiving as a problem. If the image isn’t
moving, de-nominalize your description and see if it changes. Rather
than “having” persistent thoughts, notice what you’re thinking, and how
you’re thinking it. Rather than wanting a “better relationship,” notice
how you’re relating to others. Turn those phony nouns back into verbs.

When you describe a problem with a noun, consider whether you’ve taken a
process that occurs through time, and frozen it into a thing that just
sits there in the middle of your life like a bump in the road. Putting
wheels on that bump may make it a lot easier to move. Changing the thing
back into a process may make it easier for you to see the possibility of
change. Nominalizations are metaphors*, and we respond to them
metaphorically. You can give me your promise, for instance, but then you
might break it. Since a promise isn’t a thing, it can’t be given or
broken in reality, but we don’t operate in reality, and we certainly
don’t make language there.

    You’re Not Alone…

So next time you hear someone describe their problem as a thing, take a
moment to discover whether you can put some wheels on it. Because as
long as you realize you’re doing something, you can always do something
else, can you not?

* …but then, all language is metaphorical, even and perhaps most
importantly those parts we don’t recognize as being metaphorical. If
that makes your head spin, you’re not alone.

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