Trending ‘Ask’: Noun Or Verb?

Be open to change!A recent email from a reader described staffers who use “ask” as a noun rather than a verb:

The ask I have today is …

The ask I was given was to draft a white paper …

Because I have not heard ask used this way, I hopped online to see what I could learn. Ask isn’t a new word, of course, but does it have a new application, a new meaning? A March 2013 New York Times article addressed it this way:

Nominalizations [use of a verb, adjective or adverb as a noun] can have a distancing effect. “What is the ask?” is less personal than “What are they asking?” This form of words may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response. It can also turn something amorphous into a discrete conceptual unit, of a kind that is easier to grasp or sounds more specific. Whatever I think of “what is the ask?” it focuses me on what’s at stake.

Unconvinced, I searched further. This from a July 2012 blog made a bit more sense:

A friend of mine mentioned to me recently that he had just heard the word “ask” used as a noun (a phenomenon he found distasteful). This usage is particularly popular amongst fundraisers, who butter up their prospects before going for the “ask” for money. But should we object to the usage? And how new is it?

Well, you may be shocked to learn that “ask” has been a noun for quite some time … a millennium, in fact! So we can’t object to it on grounds of newness (even if that were a valid objection to usages, which it isn’t).

Can we object to it on the grounds that verbs shouldn’t be used as nouns? Well, only if you want, on the same grounds, to stop using nouns like “take” (as in “they counted the take”), “walk” and “run” (“go for a walk/run”), “stretch,” “hold,” and many other nouns that started out life as verbs. Words can shift their function, and there is no rule against this. In fact, it is one of the great flexibilities of language.

I thought immediatly of how the noun trend became the verb form trending with the expanding popularity of social media. And consider the noun electronic mail, which became the new word email, and now is the verb email. Examples such as these — nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns — could fill a book.

Broad usage tends to cement new words — or new applications of existing words — in our everyday vocabulary. But as a ruthless editor, I often say that I prefer to take a slower approach with new-isms, depending on the reading audience.

If using ask in the workplace in a way that causes the listener or reader to pause and think “the ask?” as it did my reader, it interferes with clear, concise communication. And it could reflect negatively on the user.

Despite those drawbacks, I say to you trendsetters out there, “Have at it!” The only ask I have is that you first make sure all in your organization understand and accept a word’s new usage.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)