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Iconicity in Action (Singulative Deverbal Nouns)

Occasionally, matters usually reserved for treatment in professional linguistic journals spill over into the mass media. This was illustrated by Henry Hitchings’ recent essay, “Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns” (The New York Times, Sunday Review, March 31, 2013), which is rich in illustrative detail but fails to explain the difference between what he calls Type A nominalization (i. e., with suffixes, as in investigate/investigation, read/read-ing, etc.) and Type B nominalization (i. e., without suffixes, alias “zero-derivation,” like launch, call, etc.). The second type encompasses SINGULATIVE DEVERBAL NOUNS, since the meaning involves a single completed action rather than a process.

The explanation lies in the category of VERBAL ASPECT. In English, verbs are distinguished by what is called PERFECTIVE vs. IMPERFECTIVE aspect. The perfective necessarily signifies the completion of the action, whereas the imperfective is noncommittal as to its completion. This categorical distinction also pertains to nominalizations. A suffixal nominalization like investigation or reading makes no overt reference to the completion of the action but does contain a suffix signifying a process, whereas unsuffixed nominalizations like read (“it was a good read”) or take (“what’s your take on it?”) necessarily signify a completed act but not a process. Crucially for their history in English, in both types THE FORM IS AN ICON OF THE MEANING: a “zero suffix” coheres with the absence of a processual meaning, whereas a “real suffix” coheres with its presence. This explains the difference.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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