How do we shape new words? The different processes of words coming into existence to mean something specific are called word formation processes. The phrase from the first sentence contains an example of a special type of word formation process known as conversion. The word shape involves this conversion process; where shape was once only a noun—the form of something, such as a circle—now it can also be a verb—to mold or construct something. 

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    Conversion Conversion definition Shaping pottery StudySmarterFig. 1 - It's possible to shape words into something new through the conversion process in English language.

    Conversion Definition

    The official definition of linguistic conversion is as follows:

    A type of word formation process in which a word is assigned to a new word class or part of speech without any change in form.

    The pivotal element in the conversion process is meaning. A word that undergoes no structural change but changes grammatical categories (and therefore meaning, to a degree) has undergone conversion.

    A grammatical category is a unit of grammar such as noun, verb, or adjective that share common features and function the same way in speech and writing.

    In the example of the word(s) shape, the word changed from a noun, to express the form of something, to a verb that expresses how something takes form. There is a slight change in meaning as the words function differently in speech, but not so drastic a change that the words are no longer related.

    Conversion: Zero Derivation

    This process of conversion is also called zero derivation or null derivation.

    In linguistics, derivation is the process of creating a new word from an existing word by altering it in some way, most often by adding an affix. The phrases zero or null derivation both indicate the necessity for the process of conversion to not alter the structure of the word—zero derivation in formation.

    Conversion is also sometimes called functional shift because the change is in the function of the word, not necessarily the meaning. Here is an example of two words that are not related by conversion:

    Plane (noun) – an aircraft

    To Plane (verb) – to smooth a wooden surface

    These two words sound the same, but their meanings are not even close to being similar. This is not an example of conversion.

    Examples of Conversion Words

    Here are some examples of true conversion words. Some begin as verbs and convert to nouns, while others work in the reverse order.

    1. Host (noun) – a person who receives or entertains another

    To host (verb) – the act of receiving or entertaining another

    2. To hope (verb) – the act of trusting or expecting something to happen

    Hope (noun) – the feeling of trust or expectation that something will happen

    3. Microwave (noun) – a home appliance that uses electromagnetic waves to infuse heat into objects

    To microwave (verb) – to cook or warm food (or other objects) via a microwave appliance

    4. Eye (noun) – an organ needed for sight

    To eye (verb) – to view someone or something closely or with suspicion

    Conversion Process in English

    English is an ever-evolving language. According to Global Language Monitor1, a new word is created every 98 minutes. Conversions are responsible for giving new meaning to existing words, and the conversion process in English is more commonplace in the twenty-first-century lexicon than ever before.

    The pace of communication continues to increase for English speakers as technology drives our correspondence. Mobile communication has a sense of urgency—a need or desire to be understood in fewer and fewer words and more unique ways. As a result, conversion has become a more legitimate and common way to create new words. Consider the verb “to Google.” Google used to simply be the name of a search engine; now, the word is synonymous with searching for something on the internet.

    Conversion Google conversion example StudySmarterFig. 1 - Google has changed from simply the name of a company to a verb in the English lexicon—an example of conversion.

    Consider, for example, the word ghost. Traditionally, it’s a noun that means the spirit of a dead person. Through the conversion process, people have taken the meaning of the word ghost and turned it into a verb to express the act of ignoring someone’s attempts to communicate, usually digitally via text or messaging—disappearing like a ghost.

    As a reminder, homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings and may be spelled differently. Remember the plane vs. plane example?

    Linguistic conversion does not create the same results as words that are homophones. The noun ghost (a spooky apparition) and verb ghost (to ignore someone) are related in meaning—they both have to do with a person apparently disappearing. These are not merely homophones; they have undergone the process of conversion.

    Ghost, the spooky apparition, is not literally synonymous with the term to ghost or ignore. Although they’re based on the same idea or basic meaning, there is a slight difference in meaning due to the change in grammatical class (i.e., noun to verb) and the context in which people use each.

    Types of Conversion in English

    There are a few different types of conversion in English. The process typically involves a noun and a verb, but these are not the only options for conversion.

    Noun to Verb (Verbification)

    The most common form of conversion in English is noun to verb; meaning, most instances of conversion are noun to verb (also called verbification).

    An exchange in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (1993) written by Bill Watterson explains the art of verbification (or verbing).

    Calvin: I like to verb words.

    Hobbes: What?

    Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when “access” was a thing? Now it’s something you do. It got verbed. Verbing weirds language.

    The last phrase, “Verbing weirds language” is an example of taking an adjective (weird) and using it as a verb.

    Verb to Noun

    A less common form of conversion than verbification is the transition from verb to noun is still widely used.

    The following sentence from The Art of War (5th century BC), written by Sun Tzu, contains an example of a verb used as a noun.

    You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. (Chapter 6)

    In this example, the word attack is used first as a noun and then as a verb. The word attack began in the English language as a verb but, as seen here, can also be a noun.

    Other Conversions

    Conversions involving other parts of speech besides verbs and nouns are less common but follow the same concept.

    Adjectives can become nouns:

    Green (adjective) – a color

    Green (noun) – a space of grass near the hole in golf

    Adverbs can become nouns:

    Up (adverb) – direction or position

    Up (noun) – an upward trend in outlook or luck (e.g., “The ups and downs of life”)

    Conversion - Key takeaways

    • Conversion is a type of word formation process in which a word is assigned to a new word class or part of speech without any change in form.
    • Conversion does not produce the same result as homophones.
    • Conversion typically involves verbs and nouns but might also involve other parts of speech.
    • The meaning of the word is essentially preserved through conversion.
    • The conversion process in English is more commonplace in the twenty-first-century lexicon than ever before.

    1 Numbers of Words in the English Language. Global Language Monitor. 2020.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Conversion

    What is conversion in linguistics with example?

    Conversion is a type of word formation process in which a word is assigned to a new word class or part of speech without any change in form. An example of conversion is an email (noun) changing to a verb; to email. 

    Why is conversion common in English?

    Conversion is so common in modern English because digital communication has created a sense of urgency and desire for unique ways to say new things. As a result, conversion has become a more legitimate and common way to create new words.

    How do you explain zero derivation?

    Zero derivation (also called null derivation) is the process of converting a word to a different part of speech without adding an affix or altering the word in any way. 

    What are some examples of conversion in language?

    Below are some example of conversion:

    Salt (noun) – to salt (verb)

    To cover (verb) – cover (noun)

    To turn (verb) – turn (noun)

    How do you convert parts of speech?

    You can convert parts of speech by adding an affix to the root word, or by converting the word without changing the word at all. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Are the following words connected by the process of conversion?Fiddle (noun) --> to fiddle (verb)

    Which of the following word pairs is not connected by the process of conversion?

    True or false: conversion happens when an existing word is converted to mean something slightly different.


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