In a joint campaign appearance yesterday with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama used the word “embracing” as an adjective describing Mrs. Clinton’s relationship to Mrs. Obama. Now, this is an unusual––and apparently nonce––instance of a present active participle (< v. embrace) functioning as an adjective. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online lists it as meaning “encircling, enclosing: such as a: of a leaf : having the base clasped about the supporting stem of the plant; b: comprehensive, inclusive.” It is clear that Mrs. Obama’s particular use of the word has embraced a function that is implicit in English but generally not recognized formally (e. g., in dictionaries) as part of the norm.

As Henning Andersen sets out in his far-ranging and definitive discussion of the concept of norm as applied to language, “the notion of language norms has played an important role in practical (‘applied’) linguistics since antiquity and in linguistic theorizing since the 1800s” (“Living Norms,” From Poets to Padonki: Linguistic Authority and Norm-Negotiation in Modern Russian Culture, ed. I. Lunde and M. Paulsen, Slavica Bergensia, 9 [Bergen: University of Bergen], 2009, p. 18). He goes on to distinguish between what he terms “declarative” and “deontic” norms, under which headings a further distinction is made between “explicit” and “implicit” norms. “Living norms” are then called “implicit deontic norms.”

When a speaker makes up a word that is perfectly understandable and in conformity with the morphological rules of the language, they are not contravening any norm, except perhaps the “statistical” one that is based on hitherto observed language usage. No native speaker of American English would characterize Michelle Obama’s use of embracing as a pure adjective (derived, to be sure, from the verb embrace) as ungrammatical and would moreover, if questioned, agree with the observation that her word choice was perfectly in the spirit of creative exploitation of the language’s inherent norms, alias its implicit deontic norms.