Onboarding – the shape shifting English language

New verbs in the English language are coming at us from all directions.

I recently registered with a website and was told I had onboarded. I’ve since seen onboarding used several times.

Since when did this become a verb?

One of the beauties of any language is the way it’s a shapeshifter – growing and changing to suit the needs of us, its masters.

We use language to say what we mean and words turning from nouns, adjectives – even people’s names – into verbs is commonplace.

We’re blogging, emailing and texting; at work we might be mentoring, strategising and actioning; while having battled (oops, there’s another) home through the traffic we could be vacuuming, gaming, phoning our friends or maybe unfriending them instead.

An academic exercise

If you Google it (add that one to the list), you’ll see that there’s no end of discussion on verbing.

Some treat it as an academic subject (it’s been going on longer than you’d think) while others, for example, look at how brand names have slipped into our everyday language, with many citing social media use as the main culprit for recent additions.

Words turning from nouns, adjectives – even people’s names – into verbs is commonplace

And it’s not just verbs. I have a good friend whose ears steam every time he hears the word invite used as a noun. “It’s an invitation!”

The French have always been very protective about their language. The Académie française, that guardian of all things French and wordy, has a handy section entitled Dire, Ne Pas Dire (Say, Don’t Say) giving advice and guidance on those sticky linguistic questions, referring, for example, to the verb prioriser (to prioritise) as “a barbarism”.

Don’t panic

For those of us using English, it’s really a case of going with the flow on a tide that’s unlikely to turn.

As long as people want to get across what they mean, they’ll find words to do so.

I’ll continue onboarding.

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Engaged not enraged – don’t just rely on your spellchecker

Running spellchecker isn’t enough to guarantee a really good proofread.

Back in the 1990s, the brilliant Graham Rawle’s Lost Consonants column in The Guardian was comic genius. It was at the same time extremely simple and extremely funny.

By removing a single letter from a sentence, the whole meaning changed with magnificent results, not forgetting Rawle’s distinctive and quirky illustrations. Good proofreading involves a lot more than simply running your spellchecker.

Good proofreading involves a lot more than simply running your spellchecker.

Likewise, the great Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 short novel Esprit de Corps includes the chapter Frying the Flag, featuring the Central Balkan Herald, edited by sisters Bessie and Enid Grope.

Due possibly to a combination of elderly minds, even older equipment and staff not quite up to the job, the fictional paper regularly featured headlines that were quite far off what was intended. Oh, the shame of the ‘Minister Fined for Kissing in Pubic’.

But any of those Lost Consonants, or Enid and Bessie’s dubious headlines would have made it comfortably through a spellchecker.

Just like Rawle and Durrell, in your writing you may well have fully intended to mention Harold and his twee jacket, or how more dogs had babies this year… but the chances are that you didn’t.

Good proofreading involves a lot more than simply running your spellchecker, so once you’ve done that take some time to look again:

Read the text aloud

Put on your best radio newsreader voice and entertain your listeners. If you stumble over a word or phrase, the chances are your readers will too.

Read it backwards

Not sdrawkcab ti daer, but backwards it read. Treat every word separately and you’re more likely to read what’s there, not what you expect to be there. 

Read it several times, concentrating on different aspects

On each read-through focus solely on headings, pull-quotes, chart titles, hyperlinks etc. 

Consider using a style guide

Make a list of words and terms that you use regularly, for instance times and dates, people’s names, tricky words etc. and check against it to make sure you’re being consistent.

The loyal readers of the Central Balkan Herald knew what to expect and suffered it with weary resignation. Your audience may not be so patient.

Get your readers engaged, not enraged.

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