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Verbalizing

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“Bond doesn’t verbalize a lot.” (Orange Country Register, 2012)

It turns out that the more interesting question is about the verb verbalize, rather than the adjective verbal. Let me explain.

As a copy editor, I have been underlining verbal used to mean “oral” for years. And I have had plenty of opportunities, from student work to university memos to academic articles submitted for publication. Above this underlined use of verbal, I helpfully offer oral as an alternative. In my head, verbal has been the cover term for all things expressed in words; these things could then be written or spoken or signed.

Given how often I encounter verbal used this way, I recently started to think that perhaps it is time for me to stop marking it (much as I did with hone in for home in). I quickly discovered that the moment for me to stop marking this use of verbal was, well, a while ago. I have been persnickety about a use of verbal that is arguably already standard.

In standard dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, the definition “oral, expressed in spoken rather than written words” appears shortly after the meaning “associated with or expressed in words.” And there is no label suggesting a usage issue. The Oxford English Dictionary records this oral meaning of verbal as early as 1617. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern English Usage, notes that “many” view this use of verbal to mean “oral” as a slipshod extension, but in the end he seems more concerned with people who are unnecessarily (in his view) avoiding the word oral because of “prurient connotations.”

With all this time on my hands now that I am not underlining verbal, my mind wandered to the verb verbalize. Does it mean to put into words or to put into spoken words? The online dictionaries from Merriam-Webster and American Heritage report that it means “to express in words” (or “to speak or write verbosely, be verbose” — I must admit, this definition was new to me). But if verbal is ambiguous in terms of whether it refers to any kind of words or spoken words specifically, is verbalize equally ambiguous?

A relatively quick survey of evidence from the Corpus of Contemporary American English suggests that it is often hard to tell. Whereas verbal is sometimes contrasted directly with written (e.g., verbal or written instructions), which reveals that the word means “oral” in that context, verbalize often does not appear with such straightforward clues. For example:

Men don’t verbalize their feelings; they show them. (Cosmopolitan, 2010)

Letting people verbalize their grief opens opportunity for any number of realizations. (USA Today Magazine, 2009)

Sometimes the context makes it clear that verbalize is referring to the act of speaking — but it is very plausible that the verb itself is not restricted to speaking and refers more generally to expressing something through words. Take this example of a teaching activity where the teacher is engaging students in class discussion:

The key aspect of the activity is that the students verbalize the knowledge or rule to be learned … (Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools, 2014)

And in this example, it is clear that the author sees verbalize as referring to expression through any kind of words, given the parenthetical specification:

Have students verbalize (oral) a rationale for any musical thoughts or recommendations. (Music Educators Journal, 2011)

But there are examples where it seems clear that verbalize means “to express through spoken words,” as in this example:

Bond doesn’t verbalize a lot, but he has an internal dialogue, and for someone to do that on the screen, you need a real actor. (Orange County Register, 2012)

One can assume the inner dialogue, because it is described as a dialogue, involves words; the words just aren’t spoken out loud. And here is an example with an implied contrast with the written word:

If someone does this [speak on the basis of anonymity], the comments should not be published or verbalized in the spoken media. (Chicago Sun-Times, 2005)

It looks like verbalize is experiencing the same process of semantic specification that verbal did, such that it can refer to expressing something out loud, in contrast to writing it down. Perhaps the verb vocalize is influencing the development of verbalize, in addition to the now common use of verbal to mean “oral.”

So far verbalize has made this shift under the radar, escaping prescriptive judgment. I am going to suggest that we just keep this semantic shift to ourselves. That way no one has to add to their list of verbal worries (in the broader, all-kinds-of-words sense of verbal) how they are using the verb verbalize.

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