Language Log has been the site of an ongoing debate between linguists who think it’s a perfectly normal use of metaphor to say, eg, “faith is a verb” (Geoff Nunberg) and linguists who think that, on the contrary, it displays an egregious and potentially harmful misunderstanding of grammatical categories (Mark Lieberman, Geoff Pullum). Now Geoff Nunberg switches sides, and I (having been on the fence, waiting to see a convincing argument) have to go along with him. “X is a verb” is not just a cliched metaphor:
In a piece I wrote a few years ago for American Lawyer, I mentioned a decision by a Florida district court in a patent infringement case that turned crucially on the claim that the decoder key to a cable TV subscriber box was “not subject to revision or change.” The court concluded that subject was used in the claim “as a verb (in the passive tense),” and identified the relevant dictionary sense as “to cause to undergo,” as in “He wouldn’t subject himself to any inconvenience.” And on that basis, the court ruled that “not subject to change” meant that the decoder key could be changed but would not be changed. (See TV/COM International v. MediaOne of Greater Florida, No. 3:00-cv-1045-J-21HTS (M.D. Fla. Aug. 1, 2001)).
Judicial incompetence doesn’t come much grosser than that: it’s fair to say that someone who doesn’t know how to read a dictionary entry has no business adjudicating cases that call for interpretation of language — which is to say, damn near all of them. But courts are full of judges who have no more knowledge of grammar and meaning than the half-remembered dicta they learned at the end of Sister Petra’s ruler. Let’s by all means continue to flog these things, even at the risk of sounding like pedants.
I find myself forced to agree.