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Chapter VIII. Conversion and confusion of the parts of speech

One of the chief results of the foregoing attempt at a systematic classification of the eight parts of speech and their various subdivisions should be a realization that all words do not lend themselves at all times to clear-cut distinctions. Words shift from one part of speech to another by the process of conversion; at times a word becomes a sort of hybrid, functioning as two different parts of speech at the same time and fusing them together; and sometimes a word is so utilized that this fusion or confusion produces uncertainty in the mind of the speaker or writer. [...]

When Sweet used the word conversion in his New English Grammar in 1892, he was one of the first grammarians to employ the term in its more restricted grammatical sense and perhaps one of the first to revolt against a tendency to put every word into a hard-and-fast classification as a part of speech. Since that time there has been a more general recognition of the shifting character of the Modern English parts of speech and of the almost puzzling flexibility that this one characteristic of Current English gives to the language. [...]

A. Conversion

Conversion has already been defined as " a shift from one part of speech to another." But this functional change has also been observed in a shift from one kind of noun to another, or one kind of verb to another, or one kind of adverb to another; and it seems logical to regard conversion as functional change not only between the parts of speech but also within each part of speech. It should be insisted also that conversion and derivational change are two distinct processes; derivational change by the use of prefixes and suffixes shifts words between the parts of speech, and also within each, by producing different forms, as, for example, the adjective wide, the noun width, and the verb widen, whereas conversion makes no change in the form of a word but only in its general functions. And, finally, it is necessary to recognize various stages of conversion; in 'The poor are with us always' the adjective is not completely converted into a noun, but in 'He sold his goods finally' the adjectival value of good has disappeared so completely that the word can take the plural ending -s like any other noun. When a word has changed its function to such an extent that it is capable of taking on new inflectional endings, then the process of conversion may be considered complete. Moreover, conversion may be regarded as complete when a word has been substantivized to the point where it can be modified by adjectives, as in the others, a lunatic, good reading; or verbalized to the point where it can be modified by adverbs, as in telephone soon, motor often.

a. Interchange of nouns and verbs in Current English is so common a form of conversion, as in a run and to run, a try and to try, 'to make a go of it' and to go, that further discussion should be unnecessary.

b. The substantivation of adjectives has always been an important process in English and is active today. Some of the earlier substantivations have been so long established as nouns that English-speakers no longer realize that they ever were adjectives; in many instances, however, the substantival use of the adjective is only temporary, and as soon as the need is past, the word reverts to its usual adjectival function. [...]

There are two stages in the substantivation of adjectives: the more complete, when the word can be declined like any other noun; and the less complete, when declension is not yet possible. The most advanced stage has been reached by the old native or borrowed adjectives in aliens, the ancients, belles, the commons, elders, goods, innocents, negro spirituals, nobles, pagans, privates, a quarterly, the ritual, sides (early meaning as adjective 'wide'), and thoughs. All the collective names like American, Asiatic, Bostonian, and Chinese are substantivized proper adjectives. Many older participles are today nouns, such as a compact, the deceased, a drunk, dug-out, fact, fiend, friend, a grown-up, the illustrated, her intended, left-overs, Occident, Orient, and primate. Sometimes even the compound adjectives are so completely substantivized as to be capable of declension, as, for instance, Black and Tans, hand-mades, two-year-olds.

Adjectives are usually still in the indeclinable stage when they become collective nouns like the aged, the dead, the halt and the blind, the infirm, rich and poor, the wealthy, young and old.

с. The interchange of concrete, abstract, and collective nouns, such as battery, circle, and shaving, has already been commented upon. The verbal nouns in -ing often take the plural -s endings when they become concrete, as in earnings, filings, findings, shavings, sweepings.

d. The verbal noun in -ing, often known as the gerund, is sometimes confused with the verbal adjective, known as the participle. Ordinarily there is no reason for confusion when the gerund is used in nominative constructions, as in 'Seeing is believing'; but in objective constructions, after a verb or a preposition, there is often a fusion of adjectival (participial) and nominal (gerundial) functions which causes uncertainty regarding both the proper classification of these -ing words and the correct syntactical uses of them. [...]

e. Commonization is merely the process of making a common noun (or a verb or a common adjective) out of a proper noun (name). Since it has added largely to the English vocabulary, it will be considered in detail later. But it is too important a phase of conversion to be entirely passed over in this present survey. At first some familiar name of history or literature is used figuratively, and a man is called a gay Lothario, a Shylock of greed, or a Solomon of wisdom. If the idea needs frequent expression, the term becomes more and more common, until we find embedded in the English vocabulary such words as a guy (from Guy Fawkes), to hector, a jehu, or maudlin (from Magdalen). So place-names likewise yield common nouns, giving, for example, buncombe, spelled also bunkum (from Buncombe County, North Carolina), currants (from Corinth), wienies (from German Wien, English Vienna).

f. When the relative and interrogative pronouns which and what, the demonstratives this, that, yon, and yonder and various indefinites like many, some, and each are used as modifiers of nouns, the conversion may be regarded as complete and the term prenominal adjective an appropriate one. They are pronouns when they stand in place of nouns, and adjectives when they modify nouns, and it is always possible to distinguish clearly between the two functions.

g. The varying use of who, which, and what as relatives introducing subordinate clauses, as in 'I saw the man who brought it', and as interrogatives introducing questions, as in 'Who brought it? ', may well be considered in a discussion of conversion, since their functional shift changes their pronominal classification.

h. The same thing may be said of those compound pronouns like myself and themselves which function as intensives when they follow in opposition, as in 'I myself will go' or 'I will go myself", but as reflexives when they become the objects of verbs, as in 'They have hurt themselves'. [...]

i. When the same form is used for both adjective and adverb as in the case of better, high, low, right, well, and wrong, only the function of the word determines which part of speech it is. So the adjective of 'He looks well'is converted into an adverb of manner in 'He sings well'.

j. The auxiliary verbs be, have, do, and will can be converted into notional verbs by a simple change of construction. As long as they are used with verbal forms, as in be going, have finished, do wish, will come, they are auxiliary, or helping, verbs; but when they are used with nouns, pronouns, adjectives, or adverbs, as in be sick, be away, have need, do well, and will a thing, they become notional verbs.

k. Active verbs are converted into passives when they are used in such a manner as to indicate that the subject is really acted upon, as in 'How did it clean? 'and 'It dyes beautifully.'

l. When a preposition such as about, by, down, in, on, or over has an object, as in 'in the box', its prepositional status is unquestioned; but when it has no object, as in 'Come in', it is certainly an adverb. […]

m. The gradual conversion of adverbs of manner like awfully, likewise, simply, and surely into adverbs of degree of assertion is a fairly common process in English. From the careful use of the word simply as an adverb of manner in 'He spoke simply and clearly' it is but a step to the colloquial use of it to show degree of intensity in 'He was simply wild'. [...]

n. Several conjunctions become prepositions when they are followed by objects instead of clauses or other coordinate constructions. Some grammarians call the coordinating conjunction but a preposition in 'I saw no one but his father', although others consider it still a conjunction; certainly for is a preposition in 'tea for seven'. Likewise the subordinating conjunctions after, as far as, before, ere, since, and until become prepositions in such constructions as after dark, before night, and until noon. It is this interchangeable character of these words, no doubt, that is responsible for the objectionable use of the prepositions except, like, and without as conjunctions in such sentences as 'Don't take it except (unless) I give you permission', 'He plays like (as) I do', and 'He couldn't come without (unless) I brought him'.

The italicized words in the following jokes and extracts are formed by derivation. Write them out in two columns: A. Those formed with the help of productive affixes. B. Those formed with the help non-productive affixes.

1. Willie was invited to a party, where refreshments were bountifully served.

" Won't you have something more, Willie? " the hostess said.

" No, thank you, " replied Willie, with an expression of great satisfaction. " I'm full."

" Well, then, " smiled the hostess, " put some delicious fruit and cakes in your pocket to eat on the way home."

" No, thank you, " came the rather startling response of Willie, " they're full too."

2. The scene was a tiny wayside railway platform and the sun was going down behind the distant hills. It was a glorious sight. An intending passenger was chatting with one of the porters.

" Fine sight, the sun tipping the hills with gold, " said the poetic passenger.

" Yes, " reported the porter; " and to think that there was a time when I was often as lucky as them 'ills."

3. A lady who was a very uncertain driver stopped her car at traffic signals which were against her. As the green flashed on, her engine stalled, and when she restarted it the colour was again red. This flurried her so much that when green returned she again stalled her engine and the cars behind began to hoot. While she was waiting for the green the third time the constable on duty stepped across and with a smile said: " Those are the only colours showing today, ma'am."

4. " You have an admirable cook, yet you are always growling about her to your friends."

" Do you suppose I want her lured away? "

5. Patient: " Do you extract teeth painlessly? " Dentist: " Not always — the other day I nearly dislocated my wrist."

6. The inspector was paying a hurried visit to a slightly overcrowded school.

" Any abnormal children in your class? " he inquired of one harassed-looking teacher.

" Yes, " she replied, with knitted brow, " two of them have good manners."

7. " I'd like you to come right over, " a man phoned an undertaker, " and supervise the burial of my poor departed wife."

" Your wife! " gasped the undertaker. " Didn't I bury her two years ago? ”

" You don't understand, " said the man. " You see I married again."

" Oh, " said the undertaker. " Congratulations."

8. Dear Daddy-Long-Legs.

Please forget about that dreadful letter I sent you last week — I was feeling terribly lonely and miserable and sore-throaty the night I wrote. I didn't know it, but I was just coming down with tonsillitis and grippe...I'm in the infirmary now, and have been for six days. The head nurse is very bossy. She is tall and thinnish with a dark face and the funniest smile. This is the first time they would let me sit up and have а реn or a pencil. Please forgive me for being impertinent and ungrateful.

Yours with love.

Judy Abbott

9. The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive, New York, is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard… Through the rich interior of this mansion Mr. Pett, its nominal proprietor, was wandering like a lost spirit. There was a look of exasperation on his usually patient face. He was afflicted by a sense of the pathos of his position. It was not as if he demanded much from life. At that moment all that he wanted was a quiet spot where he might read his Sunday paper in solitary peace and he could not find one. Intruders lurked behind every door. The placewas congested. This sort of thing had been growing worse and worse ever since his marriage two years previously. Marriage had certainly complicated life for Mr. Pett, as it does for the man who waits fifty years before trying it. There was a strong literary virus in Mrs. Pelt’s system. She not onlywrote voluminously herself but aimed at maintaining a salon... She gave shelter beneath her terra-cotta roof to no fewer than six young unrecognized geniuses. Six brilliant youths, mostly novelists who had not yet started...

5. Find words with the adjective-forming suffix -ly and not less than 20 words with the homonymous adverb-forming suffix. Say what these suffixes have in common and in what way they are differentiated.

Deduce the meanings of the following derivatives from the meanings of their constituents. Explain your deduction. What are the meanings of the affixes in the words under examination? (Consult supplementary material).

reddish, adj.

overwrite, v.

irregular, adj.

illegal, adj.

retype, v.

old-womanish, adj.

disrespectable, adj.

inexpensive, adj.

unladylike, adj.

disorganise, v.

renew, v.

eatable, adj.

overdress, v.

disinfection, n.

snobbish, adj.

handful, n.

tallish, adj.

sandy, adj.

breakable, adj.

underfed, adj.



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