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.


  1. I take it that the judge is trying to say that “subject” is a past participle; he wants to read the phrase in question as “not subjected to revision or change.” Though “subject” as a past ptc was perfectly acceptable at least for some speakers of Early Modern English, as the OED records:
    1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 211 [He] hath subiect all thynges to hym, & put them vnder his fete. 1533 GAU Richt Vay 50 S. Paul vritis in the first chaiptur to the Ephesians, God hes subiect al thing onder his feit.
    I blame fuzziness of English morphology more than I do the ignorance of the individual speaker. Since there are so many zero-ending forms in the language, a speaker can easily “read” an adjective (subject) as a verbal form (subjected) or as any other part of speech when the syntax of the sentence does not forbid it.

  2. Not to change the subject, but if subject is the verb, verb must be the predicate?

  3. Surely the whole point of a metaphor is that it breaks the rules? The only reason the phrase “faith is a verb” is meaningful is because “faith” is of course not a verb (although, to those who believe “faith is a verb”, the concept of “faith” would be better described through verbs than nouns). The only people who would appreciate the metaphor enough to use it are the people who understand the grammar behind it.
    The argument here seems to be that there’s an illiterate judge, and therefore we should deprive ourselves of a meaningful and useful metaphor. I can’t even see the connection between the two things — I’m pretty sure the judge didn’t become confused after being exposed to the “X is a verb” construct one too many times.

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