A grammatical ranting

The organisation I work for was recently looking at the possibility of moving to a new location. We were being bombarded with policy proposals on new ways of working, specifications of new buildings, and proposed layouts of the interiors. One thing leapt out at me, as I was studying the way all these things had been presented, and that's the great prevelance of nouns ending in -ing. We have shelving instead of shelves, seating instead of seats, and desking instead of desks. One diagram showed 'benching/workspace', which I think means workbenches of some sort. We're told to consider hotdesking, which basically means not having desks of our own, but just using anonymous generic desks when we need them. So why all this inging? Clearly, verbing weirds language, but why bother? It seems so verbose, adding an extra syllable to each word.

The answer, I believe, is in the emphasis given to action in the modern working environment. One of my pet peeves when with a previous employer, a large computer firm, was the use of 'action' as a verb. 'Could you action this, Alex?' they would say, waving a piece of paper at me. Did they mean act on it? What action was appropriate? Posting, filing, answering, amending, forging, disposing, burning? It didn't really matter - all that mattered was that some action took place, so that no-one could accuse us of idleness. So it is with the current situation. Everything we are associated with must be made to sound active. Even desks, and the act of sitting at them, are made to be thrusting, active verbs. Not, of course, that the main forms of these putative verbs ever appear. Nobody desks, they just have desking. All these apparently active usages are in fact passive.

Thameslink and other UK train companies have joined the trend by referring to trains of empty carriages passing through stations as 'empty coaching stock'. The traditional name for this is just 'empty stock', although 'empty coaches' would be fine too. The usual way to refer to empty unpowered rail vehicles in general is 'rolling stock' - which is fair enough, as 'roll' is a reasonable description of what it does. By contrast, it is evident that no coaching is done by the stock - or, it sometimes seems by any other part of the railway. Perhaps a little coaching in English might clear up this outbreak of verbosity. The provision of these coaches might be referred to as resourcing, although it's not entirely clear if the popular management use of this word means 'providing (as a resource)' or 're-sourcing'; 'sourcing' is another favourite catchword, meaning only the same as 'getting', 'fetching', or sometimes 'buying'.

Back at primary school, I remember an early lesson in English teaching me that 'a verb is a doing word'. This meant that when the pupils were prompted to name verbs, they all named participles like doing, saying, thinking, running, or stopping, rather than infinitives like do, say, think, run, stop. When we got to secondary school, and learned French and Latin, where verbs are always named for their infinitives, the teachers had quite a job explaining to those from primaries like mine that they wouldn't be learning the word for 'running' just yet, but only the (more useful) words for 'run'. In French the confusion is further deepened by the fact that some English participles have been taken into French as masculine nouns. Un parking is a car park, un camping is a camp site, and un smoking is a smoking jacket.

But in English, participles are generally used as adjectives: The sleeping dog did not bark. When they appear as predicates, they give the continuous form of the verb: The dog is sleeping. The correct, or at least more usual, use of a participle as a noun is to refer to the continuing action itself - the fighting, the thrashing, the coming and going, and so on. Using participles indiscriminately as nouns tends to confuse this situation. Are we shelving the filing about the lying minister on the low-lying shelving? Some nouns ending in -ing are established, of course. No-one thinks it odd to have a lodging in a building; but we might look askance at having desking on some benching. Notice, also that lodging and building are individual, substantive things, whereas desking and benching, filing and shelving are all abstract. In order to have a concrete example, you need a 'desking unit' (or desk), a filing cabinet (which is an older expression, but means something for filing your files in, not storing your filing), or a 'shelving system' (or bookcase).

Following on from this is the idea that 'desking' can be bought by the yard the way carpet(ing) or indeed shelving might be, despite that fact that the, er, staffing comes in indivisible units, one at a time, each person needing a desk. You won't squeeze more mythical man-minutes out of your employees simply by making their desks a bit bigger (or smaller). There's a certain quantum quality to personnel which can't be entirely be abstracted away by referring to all kinds of resources and furnishings as though they were fungible quantities, arbitrarily divisible. I for one do not wish to call spades 'spading', and I believe that these dehumanising generalisation of which management are so fond are counterproductive. Nothing is lost by simply calling things by their right names, so that the people affected by whatever it is that one is proposing can understand.