Sunlit Water

January 23, 2008

Constant Flux

Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 10:55 pm

I came home from work today to find taped to my door a piece of paper containing the following message:



“Maintenance” as a verb is an innovative usage that I’d never seen before, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. The intended meaning is standardly expressed with the phrase “perform maintenance on,” but that’s a mouthful and wouldn’t fit on this sign without decreasing the font size (which would be suboptimal for a notification like this). The closest existing verb is “maintain,” but it has connotations of continuing action that make its use infelicitous in a context like this describing a single, discrete action. However, since English nouns can be made into verbs without changing their form at all, a process called “zero-derivation,” taking the noun “maintenance” from the phrase and using it as a verb is a simple, elegant and unambiguous solution.

This kind of zero-derivation of verbs from nouns is popularly associated with “management-speak” and other purported attempts to confuse and complicate language by using unnecessarily elaborate vocabulary to express simple concepts, and it is thus one of the types of language change that people complain about the most. It is, however, a longstanding means of developing new forms of expression to deal with communicative challenges, and this situation is a good example. Personally I don’t particularly mind language change in general, but many people do, so it’s worthwhile to point out from time to time that such changes are often perfectly reasonable responses to problems in communication.



  1. I see the case for “maintenance” as a verb, but “service” or “replace” would work just as well here. Of course, “service” as a verb probably originated the same way.

    Comment by My Alter Ego — January 24, 2008 @ 8:47 am |Reply

  2. I’m not sure what exactly they’re doing to the heater filters, so “replace” might not be accurate. “Service” would work, though it is indeed another (more established) example of zero-derivation. Something seems a little off to me about using it here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    Comment by teofilo — January 24, 2008 @ 9:30 am |Reply

  3. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Are you serious? “Service” to me has absolutely unmistakable farm connotations, to the point that for a long time I could not believe people were making an innocent mistake in using it.

    I edit it out of every single document over which I have control. Usually people just mean serve, anyway.

    Comment by Witt — January 24, 2008 @ 12:07 pm |Reply

  4. That’s probably it, yes.

    Comment by teofilo — January 24, 2008 @ 12:11 pm |Reply

  5. Hmmm. I’m not sure that “service” would ever make me think of farms. I might think of cars.

    Comment by eb — January 24, 2008 @ 6:54 pm |Reply

  6. From this day forward, you will service … us.

    Comment by L. de Borg — January 24, 2008 @ 9:14 pm |Reply

  7. Verbing weirds language.

    Comment by Cecily — January 26, 2008 @ 9:50 pm |Reply

  8. I so should have used that as the post title.

    Comment by teofilo — January 26, 2008 @ 9:51 pm |Reply

  9. I’m naming my firstborn daughter Anthimeria.

    Comment by Cecily — January 26, 2008 @ 10:14 pm |Reply

  10. Honsetly, I would just use “maintain”. That is what they’re doing, after all. Maintaining your heaters. Such maintenance (!!!) need not take the form of continuous action.

    Comment by ben wolfson — January 26, 2008 @ 11:14 pm |Reply

  11. That is, however, the least marked interpretation of the verb. Ben Wolfson: always ready to force his readers to minimize processing efficiency.

    Comment by teofilo — January 26, 2008 @ 11:15 pm |Reply

  12. As if you would really have been confused.

    “Wait, they need to, uh, provide my heater filters with, hm, financial support?”

    Comment by ben wolfson — January 27, 2008 @ 2:25 pm |Reply

  13. How about “for heater filter maintenance”? Same number of letters, no verbing.

    Comment by matt m — January 29, 2008 @ 7:23 am |Reply

  14. See, this is the difference between linguists and philosophers. I look at something like this and ask “why did they do it that way?” whereas wolfson and matt look at it and ask “how would I have done it?”

    (Looking at 13 again I see that it’s not by matt w but by matt m, who may not be a philosopher.)

    Comment by teofilo — January 29, 2008 @ 11:02 am |Reply

  15. I certainly wouldn’t want someone “servicing” my heater. That’d be simply perverted!
    In other words, I agree with Witt.

    (p.s. Found this in a google search. I questioned my own use of the verb “to maintenance” in a translation, and agree that it is better than “to maintain”. i.e. If the company that produced the machine comes “to maintenance” it every 1 to 3 years, they are not “maintaining” it.)

    Comment by Ramsey — September 16, 2010 @ 3:16 am |Reply

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