Grammatical Conversion in English:
Some new trends in lexical evolution
by Ana I. Hernández Bartolomé and Gustavo Mendiluce Cabrera
Universidad de Valladolid
nglish is a very productive language. Due to its versatile nature, it can undergo many different word formation processes to create new lexicon. Some of them are much lexicalised—such as derivation or compounding. However, new trends are pointing up in the productive field. This is the case of the minor methods of word-formation—i.e. clipping, blending—and conversion. As they are recent phenomena, they have not been much studied yet. Even scholars differ in their opinions about the way they should be treated. There is only one point they all agree with: these new methods are becoming more frequently used. For example, conversion will be more active in the future, and so, it will create a great part of the new words appearing in the English language (Cannon, 1985: 415).
Conversion is particularly common in English because the basic form of nouns and verbs is identical in many cases.
This paper will attempt to analyse in depth the behaviour of one of these new word-formation methods: conversion. It is probably the most outstanding new method in the word-formation panorama. It is a curious and attractive subject because it has a wide field of action: all grammatical categories can undergo conversion to more than one word-form, it is compatible with other word-formation processes, and it has no demonstrated limitations. All these reasons make the scope of conversion nearly unlimited.
2. Definition, terminology and characteristics
"Conversion is the derivational process whereby an item changes its word-class without the addition of an affix" (Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, 1987: 441). Thus, when the noun 'sign' (1) shifts to the verb 'sign(ed)' (2) without any change in the word form we can say this is a case of conversion1. However, it does not mean that this process takes place in all the cases of homophones (Marchand, 1972: 225). Sometimes, the connection has to do with coincidences or old etymological ties that have been lost.. For example, 'mind' (3 and 4) and 'matter' (5 and 6) are cases of this grammatical sameness without connection by conversion—the verbs have nothing to do today with their respective noun forms in terms of semantics (ibid.: 243).
Conversion is particularly common in English because the basic form of nouns and verbs is identical in many cases (Aitchison, 1989: 160). It is usually impossible in languages with grammatical genders, declensions or conjugations (Cannon, 1985: 430).
The status of conversion is a bit unclear. It must be undoubtedly placed within the phenomena of word-formation; nevertheless, there are some doubts about whether it must be considered a branch of derivation or a separate process by itself (with the same status as derivation or compounding) (Bauer, 1983: 32).
Despite this undetermined position in grammar, some scholars assert that conversion will become even more active in the future because it is a very easy way to create new words in English (Cannon, 1985: 415). There is no way to know the number of conversions appearing every day in the spoken language, although we know this number must be high (ibid.: 429). As it is a quite recent phenomenon, the written evidence is not a fully reliable source. We will have to wait a little longer to understand its whole impact, which will surely increase in importance in the next decades.
The terminology used for this process has not been completely established yet. The most usual terms are 'conversion', because a word is converted (shifted) to a different part of speech; and 'zero-derivation', because the process is like deriving (transferring) a word into another morphological category with a zero-affix creating a semantic dependence of one word upon another (Quirk, 1997: 1558). This would imply that this affix exists—because it is grammatically meaningful—although it cannot be seen (Arbor, 1970: 46). Other less frequently used terms are 'functional shift', 'functional change' or 'zero-marked derivative' (Cannon, 1985: 412), denominations that express by themselves the way the process is considered to happen.
Conversion is extremely productive to increase the English lexicon because it provides an easy way to create new words from existing ones. Thus, the meaning is perfectly comprehensible and the speaker can rapidly fill a meaningful gap in his language or use fewer words (Aitchison, 1989: 161). "Conversion is a totally free process and any lexeme can undergo conversion into any of the open form classes as the need arises" (Bauer, 1983: 226). This means that any word form can be shifted to any word class, especially to open classes—nouns, verbs, etc.—and that there are not morphological restrictions. Up to date, there has only been found one restriction: derived nouns rarely undergo conversion (particularly not to verbs) (Bauer, 1983: 226). This exception is easily understood: if there already exists one word in the language, the creation of a new term for this same concept will be blocked for the economy of language. For example, the noun 'denial' (7) will never shift into a verb because this word already derives from the verb 'deny' (8). In that case, the conversion is blocked because 'to deny' (8) and '*to denial' would mean exactly the same. However, there are some special cases in which this process seems to happen without blocking. This can be exemplified in the noun 'sign' (1), converted into the verb 'to sign' (2), changed by derivation (suffixation) into the noun 'signal' (9) and converted into a new verb, 'to signal' (10). In this case there is no blocking because these words have slight semantic differences (Bauer, 1983: 226-227).
It must be pointed out that the process of conversion has some semantic limitations: a converted word only assumes one of the range of meanings of the original word. For example, the noun 'paper' has various meanings, such as "newspaper" (11), "material to wrap things" (12)... The denominal verb, though, only contains the sense of putting that material on places like walls. This shows the converted item has only converted part of the semantic field of the source item.
The aim of conversion varies with the user. Adults convey it to use fewer words, whereas children perform it in order to be understood, although they frequently produce ungrammatical utterances (Aitchison, 1989: 161). Anyway, it always helps to make communication easier. Thus, trying to gather this double functional raison d'être we have compiled our corpus of examples from international newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times or Newsweek, and popular literature, such as the teenagers' magazines Smash Hits and Teens. The complete list of extracts can be found in the appendix.
There are many cases in which the process of conversion is evident. Nevertheless, conversion is not as simple as it may seem: the process is easily recognisable because both words are graphically identical; the direction of this process, though, is sometimes nearly impossible to determine. This is not very important for the speaker: he just needs a simple way to cover a gap in the language. As this paper tries to give a comprehensive vision on conversion, it will attempt to establish the direction of the process. Therefore, both the original category and the derived one will be mentioned.
The criterion to establish the original and derived item has been taken from Marchand (1972: 242-252). It focuses on several aspects:
a. the semantic dependence (the word that reports to the meaning of the other is the derivative)
b. the range of usage (the item with the smaller range of use is the converted word),
c. the semantic range (the one with less semantic fields is the shifted item)
d. and the phonetic shape (some suffixes express the word-class the item belongs to and, if it does not fit, this is the derivative).
After this analysis, intuition is still important. Verbs tend to be abstract because they represent actions and nouns are frequently concrete because they name material entities. Conversion is quickly related to shift of word-class. With this respect, it mainly produces nouns, verbs and adjectives. The major cases of conversion are from noun to verb and from verb to noun. Conversion from adjective to verb is also common, but it has a lower ratio. Other grammatical categories, including closed-class ones, can only shift to open-class categories, but not to closed-class ones (prepositions, conjunctions). In addition, it is not rare that a simple word shifts into more than one category.
3.1 Conversion from verb to noun
We shall first study the shift from verb to noun. It can be regarded from seven different points of view (Quirk, 1997: 1560). These subclassifications are not well defined in many cases. The same pair of converted words can be placed into two different categories depending on the subjectivity of their meaning. Nouns coming from verbs can express state of mind or state of sensation, like in the nouns 'experience' (13), 'fear' (14), 'feel' (15) or 'hope' (16). Nouns can also name events or activities, such is the case of 'attack' (17), 'alert(s)' (18) and 'laugh(s)' (19). The object of the verb from which the noun is derived can be observed in 'visit' (20) (with the sense of that which visits), 'increase' (21) (that which increases), 'call' (22) and 'command' (23). In the fourth division the noun refers to the subject of the original verb. Examples of this kind are 'clone' (24) (the living being that is cloned), 'contacts' (25) or 'judge' (26). Other nouns show the instrument of the primitive verb, like in 'cover' (27) (something to cover with) and 'start' (28). Finally, a place of the verb can also be nominalised, like in 'turn' (29) (where to turn) or 'rise' (9).
3.2 Conversion from noun to verb
Verbs converted from nouns have also many subclassifications (Quirk, 1997: 1561). They can express the action of putting in or on the noun, such as in pocket(ed) (30) (to put into the pocket), 'film(ing)' (31) (to put into a film) and 'practice' (32). These verbs can also have the meaning of "to provide with (the noun)" or "to give (the noun)", like 'name' (33) (to give a name to somebody), 'shape' (34) (to give shape to something) or 'fuel(s)' (35). The verbs belonging to the third division will express the action done with the noun as instrument. It can be exemplified with 'hammer' (36) (to hit a nail by means of a hammer), 'yo-yo' (37) (to play with a yo-yo) 'dot' (38) or 'brake' (braking) (39). Another group of verbs has the meaning of to act as the noun with respect to something, as exemplified in 'host(ed)' (40) (to act as the host of a house). Other subclassification has the sense of making something into the original noun, like in 'schedule(d)' (41) (to arrange into a schedule) and 'rule' (42). The last group means to send by means of the noun, that is the case of 'ship(ped)' (43) or 'telephone(d)' (44) (in an abstract sense).
3.3 Conversion from adjective to verb
Adjectives can also go through the process of conversion, especially to verbs. De-adjectival verbs get the meaning of "to make (adjective)". It can be easily seen by means of examples like 'black(ed)' (45) (to make black), 'open' (46), 'slow(ing)' (47)... In some cases, when these transitive verbs are used intransitively, a secondary conversion may happen (Quirk, 1997: 1561-1562), as it will be explained later on.
3.4 Conversion from a closed category to any other category
Closed-class categories can also undergo conversion. Although their frequency is much less common, the process is not ungrammatical. All morphologic categories have examples of this kind (Cannon, 1985:425-426). Prepositions are probably the most productive ones. They can easily become adverbs, nouns and verbs. This is the case of 'up' (48 and 49) and 'out' (37 and 50). Conversion to noun may as well occur in adverbs like in 'outside' (51) and 'inside' (51); conjunctions, as regarded in 'ifs' (52) and 'buts' (52); interjections and non-lexical items, like 'ho ho ho's' (53) and 'ha ha ha' (54); affixes such as 'mini-' (55) can appear as noun (56) and proper noun (55).... Conversion to verb is frequent in onomatopoeic expressions like 'buzz' (57), 'beep' (57) or 'woo(ing)' (58). Finally, phrase compounds can appear as adjectives, such as in 'borrow-the-mower' (59), 'down-to-earth' (60) or 'now-it-can-be-told' (61).
4. Partial conversion
Conversion from noun to adjective and adjective to noun is rather a controversial one. It is called 'partial conversion" by Quirk (1997: 1559) and Cannon (1985: 413) and 'syntactic process' by Bauer (1983: 230). This peculiar process occurs when "a word of one class appears in a function which is characteristic of another word class" (Quirk, 1997: 1559). Most of these cases should not be treated as conversion but as nouns functioning as adjectives and vice versa.
4.1 Conversion from noun to adjective
There are some clues, though, to make sure conversion has taken place. In the case of adjectives coming from nouns, the hints are quite easy: they can be considered as cases of conversion only when they can appear in predicative as well as in attributive form. If the denominal adjective can be used attributively, we can affirm conversion has happened. If it can only appear predicatively, it is merely a case of partial conversion. 'Mahogany music box' (62) can be used in an attributive way, "the music box is mahogany". This implies 'mahogany' is a denominal adjective. However, in the predicative phrase 'antiques dealers' (63) we cannot treat 'antiques' as an adjective because the attributive form of this expression is ungrammatical (*dealers are antique). Another way to make sure we are in front of a case of conversion is to change a word for another similar one. For example, in 'Dutch Auction' (64) we are sure the word 'Dutch' is an adjective because it has the specific form of adjective. Therefore, in 'South Jersey Auction' (65) or 'Texas Auction' (66) we can affirm these are cases of denominal adjectives.
4.2 Conversion from adjective to noun
Adjectives can also shift into nouns, though it is not very frequent. It mainly happens in well-established patterns of adjective plus noun phrase. Nominalisation occurs when the noun is elided and the adjective is widely used as a synonym of an existing set pattern. This could be the case of 'a Chinese favorite' (67).
The adjective nature in cases of partial conversion is evident, though. They are nouns from the point of view that they appear in the same syntactic position. Their grammatical nature, though, is a different one. These adjectives can still be changed to the comparative and superlative form (adjective nature). This can be exemplified in 'worst' (68) and 'merrier' (69). However, these adjectives cannot behave as nouns: if their number or case is changed, they will produce ungrammatical sentences. This can be seen in the case of 'more' (69) in cases like "*the mores we get". If the '-s' for the plural is added to any of these items, we would get ungrammatical sentences. The case of 'cutie' (70), though, could be argued. It seems to be much used and established within certain groups. This could have converted it into a lexicalised example of adjective to noun.
5. Conversion within secondary word classes
Up to this point conversion has only been considered as a shift from one grammatical category to another. However, these are not the only cases where it may happen. "The notion of conversion may be extended to changes of secondary word class, within the same major word category" (Quirk, 1997: 1563). This process has no clear terminology; for example it is called 'change of secondary word class' by Quirk (1997: 1563) and 'conversion as a syntactic process' by Bauer (1983: 227). Within the field of conversion, it has not been much studied because it is less evident than the classical conversion. Some scholars argue that these cases are products of syntactic processes, and so, they may not be considered as part of word-formation (they shift within the same grammatical category but not to a different one) (Bauer, 1983: 227).
5.1 Conversion within noun categories
The noun category can undergo four different kinds of secondary conversion (Quirk, 1997: 1563-1566). First, an uncountable noun can shift to a countable noun, like in the case of 'supplies' (71). It can also happen the other way round, a countable noun can become an uncountable one by becoming abstract, such as in 'cabaret' (72), 'chief' (73) and 'touch' (74). A third case occurs when a proper noun is converted into a common noun, as can be seen in 'diesel(s)' (75) (person's name), 'Bordeaux' (76) (usually related to high-quality French wines but not necessarily made in that particular city), 'yo-yo' (77) (trademark) or 'Stradivarius' (76) (famous maker of violins). Thus, this category can be rephrased as "a product of the (proper noun)". The fourth and final type happens when nouns shift from their static nature to a dynamic meaning when they follow the progressive of the verb 'to be'. Examples of this kind are 'student' (78), 'president' (79) and 'trouper' (80). These cases assume the meaning of "temporary role or activity". This fourth type is a product of the dynamic nature of the tense of the verb; it is not a characteristic of the noun by itself. This means that these nouns would return to their static nature by eliding the progressive form.
5.2 Conversion within verb categories
Verbs may undergo four different types of conversion. The first one happens when an intransitive verb is used transitively. This type has the meaning of "to cause to (verb)". Examples of this kind are 'worked a computer' (81), 'stop the manual recount' (82) and 'run the day-to-day operations' (83). Transitive verbs can also be used intransitively, that is the case of 'closed' (84). This category has been previously converted from adjective to verb, and, afterwards, it has experienced a secondary conversion from transitive to intransitive verb. In this sense, the verb would change the meaning from "to make close" (85) (transitive use) to "to become closed" (intransitive use) (84). A third type involves intransitive nouns converted into copulas. Examples like 'sat frozen' (86), 'grew silent' (87), 'were nailed shut' (88) or 'go global' (89) are quite current in daily conversations for the economy of language. In the case of 'sat frozen' (86) the strongest meaning remains with the verb, while, in the other two examples, the resulting meaning of the adjective prevails over the verbal one. Finally, verbs also shift form a monotransitive nature to a complex transitive one. Verbs commonly used with a unique object—direct or indirect—shift their behaviour and take more than one complement, as it can be seen in examples (90), (91) and (92). In 'won him the award' (90), the verb 'win' takes an indirect object and a direct one, although it usually takes only one direct one. The verb 'make' in 'make it a cabaret' (91) takes two different direct objects as well as the verb 'find' in 'find it very satisfying' (92).
5.3 Conversion within adjective categories
The adjective category can only be converted in two different ways. Like in the case of nouns, the static nature of adjectives can shift to a dynamic one because of the influence of the progressive form of the verb 'to be', such as in 'accused' (93). The other case happens when non-gradable adjectives turn into gradable ones. This category, though, is rather difficult to find. This gradation happens in 'incredulous' (94).
5.4 Conversion within adverb categories
Adverbs may also undergo secondary conversions within themselves. For example, the adverb 'still' can have a temporal sense (37) or be a manner adverb (95).
6. Marginal cases of conversion
There are some few cases of conversion in which there are slight non-affixal changes. These can be considered marginal cases of conversion (Bauer, 1983: 228-229). Although the shift takes place, they are called "marginal" because of the alterations produced in the word. Words belonging to this category are a close and long-established set. This marginal group can be divided regarding two different aspects: the pronunciation and the word-stress (Quirk, 1997: 1566).
6.1 Slight changes in pronunciation
With respect to pronunciation, there are some nouns ending in voiceless fricative consonants /-s/, /-f/ and /-θ/ which are converted into verbs with the voicing of the final consonant into /-z/, /-v/ and /-δ/, respectively2. For example, the noun 'use' /-s/ (96) shifts to the verb 'to use' /-z/ (97) without any change but the voicing of the final consonant. There are also some examples in this category that have a change in spelling for historical reasons. This is the case of the noun 'advice' /-s/ (98), which began to be written with 'c' in the 16th century (Oxford English Dictionary, 1979, vol. I: 139), whereas its corresponding verb 'advise' /-z/ (99) did not change its original spelling. Similarly, the noun 'belief' /-f/ (100) changed from 'beleeve' to 'beleefe' in the 16th century, "apparently by form-analogy with pairs like grieve grief, prove proof" (Oxford English Dictionary, 1979, vol. I: 782), while the verb 'believe' /-v/ (101) kept the original 'v'. In all those cases the change in graphic form corresponds to the shift in sound nature from a voiceless to a voiced consonant. Therefore, the voicing is also represented graphically. This category is no longer productive.
6.2 Slight changes in stress
The other marginal type has to do with the stress pattern. There are some bisyllabic verbs which shift to nouns or adjectives with a change in word stress from the verb distribution /-´-/ to the noun and adjective pattern /´—/ (this stress shift also affects the phonetic pattern, especially the length of the vowels involved). These are the cases of the verb 'conduct' (102) /kən'dVkt/ to the noun 'conduct' (103) /'kQndVkt/, from the verb 'protest' (104) /pr@'test/ to the noun 'protest' (105) /'pr@Utest/, or from the verb 'increase' (106) /iŋ'kri:s/ to the noun 'increase' (107) ('iŋkri:s/. This distinction is not kept in all the varieties of English and it tends to be lost. However, the shift of stress is still productive, as the following quotation from the entry corresponding to 'increase' in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary shows (2003: 387):
The stress distinction between verb -´- and noun ´— is not always made consistently. Nevertheless, 85% of the BrE 1988 poll panel preferred to make this distinction (as against 7% preferring ´— for both verb and noun, 5% -´- for both, and 3% ´— for the verb, -´- for the noun.
There is a great amount of phrasal verbs which are being nominalised with a change in the stress patterns, such as in 'layoffs' (108), 'outbreak' (109) or 'outlets' (110).
Most new words are not as new as we tend to think. They are just readjustments within the same language, like additions to existing items or recombination of elements. This is where the field of action of conversion may be placed, and that is why this type of morphological studies reveals interesting aspects in the diachronic evolution of the English language.
There are evident cases of conversion from one part of speech to another, unclear cases in which the grammatical category is not definitely shifted, secondary changes within the same word and marginal cases where the change has produced slight modifications.
The real examples provided indicate the high frequency of this process. It is quite a common phenomenon is everyday English. In addition, it is not a great source of problems for nonnative speakers and translators because the meaning of converted items is easily recognisable. However, nonnatives and translators are strongly advised to be taught conversion so that their passive knowledge of it can be turned into an active skill, with the subsequent lexical enlargement for their everyday communication.
1 Hereafter, the figure in brackets refers to the number of example as classified in the appendix containing our corpus of examples.
2 All the phonetic transcriptions were taken from the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.