Is ‘School’ Ever Properly a Verb?

Every year, September brings the return of school and some difficult questions to answer. Among these were ‘should I wear a backpack with one or two straps?’ ‘Will this be my last year out of the soul-broken social position I’ve been assigned to?’ And perhaps the most annoying thing is ‘can I use school as a verb?’

The short answer to this last question is ‘of course you can’. The long answer involves a pinch of Twitter, a bunch of functional changes, and two tears.

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Please don’t ask us to solve these problems.

School is one in a long line of words where people say “it’s not a verb”, while it would probably be more correct if they said “it could be a verb, but the meaning you’re using is a meaning that I find offensive.” Gift, impact, contactAnd author just a few of the words that have been used as verbs for hundreds of years, only for people in the 20th and 21st centuries to begin openly questioning their verbosity.

It is true that the earliest noun meaning of school (“an organized source of education or training”) has outlived the earliest verb meaning (“to teach or train”). Nouns have been used since Old English and verbs did not appear until the 15th century. But there is a considerable amount of writing in the last five or six hundred years with school is used as a verb and it doesn’t seem to do any irreparable damage to our language.

I taught him against Puritanism, which he did not accept, albeit a bit faintly; I hope His Royal Highness and King will support it.—Anon., Mystery of State & Government1654

The poor man so taught by his Wife, must provide for this Journey, or else all the fat people in the fire; there would be no peace, if she didn’t go abroad.–Anon., Fifteen comforts of hasty and thoughtless marriage1694

My years at the monastery, where I had learned the art of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and endurance, were completely ineffective.—Farida Karodia, A break of silence1993

She is not an impulsive woman, and her life has taught her to control her tongue.—Virginia Woolf, Outbound trip1915

you have learned softness; I, following your example, were carefully taught about contempt; and while you talk about the truce, I laugh, and at your plea you become cold and cautious. -Fleur Adcock, play knife (from The eye of the storm), 1964

Although the verb form of school there are several meanings that are perfectly acceptable, there is a colloquial meaning that seems to stick in the minds of many people, and that is the use of school means “advise, teach a lesson.”

Maybe that’s why Bucknall is so determined to put Worthy into practice. However, Worthy doubts that. “Never,” he said. “All those young men—JR, Scott (Williams)—I’ll teach them, and they know it.”—Jamie Rosenberg, Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), January 12, 1990

None of this should be taken as an encouragement on the part of Merriam-Webster for you to enter this school year swinging your verb use. school like a baton, use it whenever you can. However, there’s a gentle reminder that sometimes verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, and you rarely get language advice from people on Twitter. (Except we.)

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Categories: Usage Notes

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