Friday, December 4, 2015

Tis the Season to be Gifting?

I received this email advertisement from Challenger this afternoon which annoyed me and I'm sure it will annoy you too. But is there a good reason for anyone to be unhappy over such a usage?

I first heard it used in church a long time ago and I was so upset with the speaker that I decided not to listen to the rest of his sermon. It's a fact that most English-speaking people do not like the word 'gift' used as a verb. But why do we get irritated when we read or hear it? It's not even a misuse that can cause confusion. Everyone knows perfectly well what it means.

First, there are exceptions to our irritation. When 'gift' is used as a participial adjective, nobody objects to it. It's definitely standard English and there is absolutely no dispute here.

Next, 'gift' was first used as a verb in the 16th century. So it has the backing of antiquity and as you know, in English, as in most languages, old usage is highly revered. Then why do we hate it so?

The problem with 'gift' is its use as a verb in the 16th century somehow did not progress unchecked to the present day among English users although Scottish writers continued to use it through the centuries. As with many discontinued usages, it re-emerged in the 20th century.  I can think of a few examples in English grammar that suffer the same fate - they were considered correct a few hundred years ago and then they underwent a period of disuse and suddenly they attempted to make a comeback in the 20th century only to be greeted by stern and uncompromising disapproval.

Today's grammarians are generally in agreement that 'gift' shouldn't be used as a verb. In 1996, Burchfield wrote that 'gift' as a verb 'is best avoided'. Butterfield, as late as June 2015, agrees that other words should be used in its place and the English language is not short of synonyms that can replace the offending word. The Guardian newspaper places a blanket ban on the word when used as a verb unless it's used in a sporting context which means an entirely different thing and for which there is no good substitute.

You may think this is no justification for people to hate a word but that's neither here nor there. The fact is people are irritated. Companies that want to advertise their products and clergymen who want their parishioners to listen to their sermons should bear this in mind. The same goes for job applicants. I'm sure you can tell who will get the job when one interviewee uses 'gift' as a verb while a rival interviewee simply says 'give'. I for one would very much doubt the ability of someone to perform any job well if he can't simply say 'give'.

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