Stumbling Over Building Blocks

I recently received a request to discuss the use of “architect” as a verb. Here’s what I came up with:

Turning nouns into verbs is a normal process in English. Stabbed in the back? You’ve been knifed. Worked to the point of exhaustion? You’ve been hammered
 But when a noun gets verbed in a particular language community it’s also normal for outsiders to be annoyed or indignant. In the world of digital design “architected” has become a popular term. The example given by the Oxford Dictionaries Website is “an architected information interface.” 
 Various uses of “architect” as a verb have been around for a long time, but technical writers should be aware when writing for general audiences that many readers find this usage annoying. In such contexts, it’s better to use “designed” or “built” when those words convey the same meaning.
This Common Errors in English Usage entry illustrates my general attitude toward innovations in language. It’s not true that “architected” as a verb is “not a word.” Here’s the Oxford English Dictionaries‘ entry on the subject:

Etymology:  < architect n.
 To design (a building). Also transf. and fig. 
1890   Harper's Mag. Apr. 809/2   We would not give being the author of one of Mr. Aldrich's beautiful sonnets to be the author of many ‘Wyndham Towers’, however skilfully architected. 

1913   W. Raleigh Some Authors (1923) 3   He has come out of the prison-house of theological system, nobly and grimly architected.


  architected adj. designed by an architect.
1923   Public Opinion 29 June 622/3   A..vague notion that a building ought to be architected.

  architecting   n. and adj.1912   R. Macaulay Views & Vagabonds viii. 153,   I have no sort of interest in the architecting or building trades.
1818   Keats Let. July (1958) I. 350   This was architected thus By the great Oceanus. [But see architecture v.]

The OED entry also contains this warning in red: “This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1972)." We may expect the dictionary eventually to recognize the contemporary expanded use of “architected.” Others have already done so: Dictionary.com gives as an example “the house is well architected.” The Collins English Dictionary defines the verb as meaning “to plan or create (something, esp a computer system).” Even more liberal is Wiktionary: “to design, plan, or orchestrate. He architected the military coup against the government.” The usually trendy Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online has not yet recognized the verb form, nor has Apple’s Dictionary app. But the expression is firmly embedded in modern usage.

It is not architects who have popularized the contemporary technical use of “architected” as a verb. It probably originated among computer programmers, but it has spread widely in business contexts as well. No amount of objection will eliminate its use from these contexts, and it is pointless to label it flatly as an error. But it is useful for writers to know that this usage annoys some readers.

So what is it doing in Common Errors in English Usage? I was originally influenced by the title of a  small volume by a colleague: Correcting Common Errors in Writing. I had no idea in 1997 that my site would swell into a huge usage resource often dealing with words and patterns that are not strictly speaking errors. For a host of reasons, it’s not practical to change the title; but I've taken pains on both the Web site and in the printed book to explain my loose definition of “error” and am comfortable writing about usage which I do not consider erroneous although others may do so.


High-toned or Lowbrow Usage?

Last weekend I left my dough to rise too long and it produced tall, fluffy slices that I could conceivably call “high bread,” almost too flimsy for sturdy sandwiches. Then a correspondent alerted me to the misspelling “highbred,” which I at first assumed was not a legitimate word, but further research produced the following new entry.


 “Highbred”(often spelled “high-bred”) is occasionally used to label animals with superior ancestry. Snobs used to refer to members of the nobility as “highbred.”

 But this rare word is often confused with “hybrid,” which describes plants, animals, and people that are the product of mixed heritage. The offspring of a line of prize-winning dogs would be “highbred,” but a dog could be called “hybrid” if its ancestry were mixed. It might be a prizewinner, but it might also be a mutt.

Except in a context where “highbred” is routinely used in this technical context, stick with “hybrid.” It’s almost certain to be the word you need.


What Kind of Expression Is This, Anyway?

Long ago you might have heard someone asking for a favor in this manner: “Would you be so kind as to fetch my shawl from the hall closet, dear. It’s a bit chilly today.”

In modern speech this formula has been abbreviated to “would you kindly, ” as in “would you kindly text me when you get there?”

In the shortened version it’s not obvious to some people who is supposed to be kind. The person speaking is asking the other person to do something kind.

When you scramble this expression by saying instead “may I kindly ask you to text me” you are calling yourself kind. It’s up to the other person to decide whether you are being kind in asking for a favor.

“I would like to kindly ask you to bring some flowers to the party” may seem polite at first glance, but the more logical version would by “Would you kindly bring flowers?”


Chomp is Champ

In my entry on “chomp at the bit” (p. 57) I refer to this as a mistake for “champ at the bit.”

It may be time to give up on this one.

Clearly “chomp” has prevailed over the otherwise obsolete verb “champ.” It means the same thing, makes sense, and is more easily understood.

A sensible comment on this change is on the Grammarist Web site.

So common has “chomping” become that some people doubtless think “champing” is a mistake.

In published English “champing” is still common, and that’s good to know.

I’m not impatiently awaiting an opportunity to use this expression, but if I do happen to need it I’ll stick with “champing.”


Substance-Free Language

When I first heard the phrase “substance-free campus” I thought it was the invention of a particularly witless college administrator, but it turns out to be standard usage at schools that want to brag about banning alcohol, illegal drugs, and—in some cases—tobacco.

The widespread use of the word “substance” to refer to so-called “controlled substances” originated in 1967, along with “the summer of love.” It has its origins in American drug and alcohol laws, and is still used in the US for that purpose. There are plenty of other substances controlled by law which don’t normally receive this label: DDT, lead paint, asbestos, etc. It’s an absurdly vague euphemism.

When I wrote my entry in Common Errors in English Usage about this phrase I joked that it went well with the fad for “virtual education.” “Virtual” was being used at the time to label all kinds of computer-based activities; but that usage faded away so in later editions I changed the language slightly to reflect the dated nature of the joke (p. 280). I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate the quip entirely.

I was reminded of this entry yesterday when I heard one of our local NPR announcers say that support for a broadcast had been provided by a firm from which you can buy a “conflict-free” engagement or wedding ring.

Sounds a lot more useful than a mood ring.


Circling the Drain

In my entry on “center around” (p 53) I vent my irritation at this construction, but I have to admit it’s taking over. “Centered around” does sometimes seem to mean something slightly different from “centered on”: sometimes the first expression gestures toward a general area under discussion, whereas the second usually focuses on one aspect of a larger topic.

This is a good example of language evolving in a way that makes no literal sense but which serves a function. Linguists smile and usage writers frown.

But when in contexts where either will do, I’d prefer the traditional “center on.”

I know perfectly well that there’s no hope of stemming the usage tide in this case, particularly since it’s a usage characteristic of influential, well-educated people who often prefer vague noncommittal language like “centered around” as opposed to forthright expressions like “centered on.”

But it still makes me cringe.