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Reference, refer.

Does anyone else find it annoying that reference is being used, more and more, as a verb? When people say things like “He’s referencing our trip to the mall” it really annoys me. It seems like they simply do not know that reference already has a verb form “refer.” Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

  • March 31, 2006
  • Posted by stevem
  • Filed in Usage

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I disagree. The true glory of the English language is its ability to change over time, often quite rapidly. I was born in 1949 and I have been collecting words and phrases that have been coined or added meanings since that date. The number I have collected already fills a small book. Our language is -- and we ourselves are -- the richer for the imaginative uses to which it is put.

jakking March 31, 2006, 2:04pm

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Ideally, I would agree with Jack. I mean, part of me really does take that linguists' stance on how all languages change and it's perfectly natural, no need to worry, etc. etc. (sort of reminds me of the rhetoric I was fed when I went through puberty). However, there's also this larger, significantly less tolerant part of me that winces when I hear neologisms like "to reference." Then, as soon as I'm done wincing, I immediately am washed over by this horrible, smug feeling of superiority where I think to myself "Well, I guess I'm just better educated that you, Sir."

Holy cow, I'm a !@§$% snob.

Clarissa April 1, 2006, 1:02am

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Sorry, Jak, I misspelled your name in my last comment.

Clarissa April 1, 2006, 1:04am

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I think you're referring to what is called the back-formation of verbs. I completely agree with you and it drives me nuts to hear people make up words such as:
and others.

There are perfectly good verbs inside the noun-forms, then made into verbs. Ugh! I like to tease our contracts departments by telling them I'm in the middle of a definitalizationable meeting. I'm not sure they realize I'm poking fun!

Anonymous April 5, 2006, 5:45pm

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Do I think that that usage is incorrect? No. I'm not opposed to using both "refer" and "reference" as verbs. However they evolve, I hope that they have usefully distinct shades of meaning.

thejameslehman April 16, 2006, 8:54am

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Isn't there a difference between the two verbs though? "To reference" is used as a transitive verb whereas you have to "refer TO" sth. Just my 2 cents...

m April 19, 2006, 6:17pm

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I also was born in 1949 and recently began teaching ESL in Gernany. When I studied to grammar books to I was surprised to learn that many of the rules I learned in school have changed (thank God). I used to get in trouble for saying somebody forgot their books. Now it is correct usage. My 12th grade English teacher said that when a grammatical or spelling mistake becomes prevalent it eventually becomes accepted usage. (Of course I tell my students that no matter how many times they make a mistake it will never become correct.)

As for the verbification of nouns, that's something I'm categorically against. It's almost as bad a using a preposition to end a sentence with. Or beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Ain't it the truth?

mark16_15 May 10, 2006, 8:30am

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One of my pet peeves is certificate / certificated used as a verb / adjective:

"Only the New York State Department of Hair-dos can certificate you to be a hairstylist"


"The new Cessna airplane is certificated for flight into known-icing conditions"

Unbelieveably, this is actually correct!

Mark, the verbification you dislike, are you talking about using non-words such as "let's conversate!" or are you talking about redefining words like, "I interfaced with Bob." or "Sasha Cohen medalled in the Olympics"? The former bothers me a great deal, but the latter doesn't bother me at all. I think it's part of the dynamics of an evolving language. By the way, my wife jokingly refers to this as "verbing a noun" not "verbification of a noun"

Oh, and P.S., ending a sentence with a preposition is not and has never been grammatically incorrect. It may be considered a weaker form of speech or writing, but never incorrect.

porsche May 10, 2006, 10:18am

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oops, forgive my spelling. that's "Unbelievably"

porsche May 10, 2006, 1:39pm

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The English language is well known for allowing 'conversion' or 'zero-formation' of verbs from nouns, that is creating a verb from a noun without alteration. It is remarkably common, notably so in comparison to other languages. As much as people seem shocked and appalled at new forms that enter the language through its use, I can guarantee that they use a variety of such forms every day.

S Onosson May 17, 2006, 11:55pm

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Tolle Seite! Hat mir sehr gefallen. Weiter so!

ywqwi June 4, 2006, 1:31am

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Porsche: "certificated" is correct according to whom? But I think the verbs certificate and reference are different. As already mentioned, "to reference", doesn't mean "to refer", but "to refer to". Furthermore, the verb is commonly used in computer science, where it means "to form a reference to". Having this verb allows us to use the verb "to dereference", meaning "to access the value stored in the place referred to by a reference".

Joachim June 28, 2006, 6:17pm

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Interesting note - pulling out my trusty ol' "Webster's Seventh New Collegiate" (copyright 1965), it shows "reference" as a transitive verb meaning "to supply with references" - quite different from the other definitions suggested (or any I believe I've actually heard it used as).

Joachim - as an SE myself, I'm surprised/disappointed I hadn't even considered the compsci meanings, sheesh! Great example, illustrating well the actual need for language to evolve to be able to concisely describe new concepts (I can just imagine how much thicker and more awkward all these books stacked around me would be were it not for this "mutation" of the language !).

So, I am in favor of viewing language as a "living, evolving" thing - so long as it these changes come about with a certain wisdom and awareness, an "informed intent" of sorts, rather than simple ignorance. I'll even support certain butcherings and bastardizations (even if just to give a certain "feel" not possible with previously "accepted" language) - but it certainly rubs me wrong when people do so unknowingly, simple because they don't know better.

Jake L June 28, 2006, 9:35pm

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Joachim: "certificated" is correct according to, um, the dictionary: "To furnish with, testify to, or authorize by a certificate." It is synonymous with "certify", although might be considered more specific. It is quite commonly used in the aviation industry and appears everywhere in the Federal Air Regulations. I've always suspected that some influential public official ignorantly coined this word some time ago. Maybe in a few more years we'll all be saying "NU_CU_LAR" too.

porsche June 29, 2006, 12:44pm

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I hate when people take nouns and start verbing them...

"Gifting" is one of my pet peeves..."the collection was gifted to the university by his widow..." But back-formation is also something almost unique to the flexibility of English. It takes a very poorly inflected language to pull it off and most other languages have too much structure to be able to get away with it. Verbs forms such as "keyboarding", "gerrymandering" and "vacuuming" were once considered questionable, but we've become accustomed to them.

Bismarck June 29, 2006, 1:04pm

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I haven't heard gifting nearly so often as re-gifting, the recycling of unwanted gifts to uncherished relatives. As an aside, few seem to realize today that vacuuming has four syllables, not three.

porsche June 29, 2006, 1:17pm

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I agree with you that turning nouns into verbs for no good reason is annoying, but unfortunately you've chosen a bad example in "gift."

According to the OED, "gift" has been used as a verb since at least the 16th century, and "gifted" has been used as a participle since the 17th.

It's funny how often certain constructions, which seem so odd to me, turn out to have long histories. Some just seem to have gone out of style more recently, leading me to think they are new-fangled, rather than old-fangled, constructions.

FlapJack June 29, 2006, 1:23pm

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A lot of different processes are being mixed up here. Back-formation is one of them. Back-formation can give us some incredibly ugly and useless words -- "orientate" instead of "orient," by way of "orientation" -- and also some wonderful ones -- "edit" from "editor." In other cases, we have verbed nouns -- is "certificate" really being used as a verb, when we have good old "certify?" Shudder. Flapjack points out how old "gift" as a verb is. I see a difference between "give" and "gift." I can give because I have to or because something isn't any good to me anyway, but if I "gift" it, then I'm giving a, well, gift. As far as "reference" and "refer" are concerned, I'm a non-fiction writer, and the words have very different meanings to me. If I "refer" to something, it's because it's been said somewhere else; if I "reference" it, I'm telling you where, i.e., I'm giving you the reference.

David Fickett-Wilbar September 1, 2006, 8:25pm

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What are some other words like "orientate" and "conversate" ? Someone at work kept saying the most irritating word, and now I can't remember what it was!

Carol December 14, 2006, 10:22am

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"to orientate," "to gift," and "to reference" offend the senses. Along with these, "very," "they," "brouhaha," and "quality" mean nothing and sound like even less. Let's get rid of them. In fact, let's get rid of all words created after 1800. Clearly, the native English speaking community is not the best group of people to decide on the use of the English language. Only I am qualified to decide, because I have superhuman powers that let me determine how English is best used.

Who's with me?

John December 16, 2006, 5:34pm

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Carol, are you thinking of "irregardless?"

porsche December 18, 2006, 6:57am

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I think that the 'verbification' of a noun is just a sign of the times. American English is losing its hold on grammar. Americans are now either so lazy or so ignorant that, what I would consider stupid, words become part of the lexicon through sheer repetition. I guess this could be considered part of the evolution of a language but I fear it's bordering on the incomprehensible. If anyone is allowed to make up their own language, then we'll just be creating a bunch of dialects or slang that's only recognizable in that region/area. I think people don't realize that there is a reason for grammar. It's so that anyone speaking a language can be understood without confusion or ambiguity. And nuance will simply not exist. And without nuance we no longer have subtlety, just a big club to verbalize you with. Phew, got that conjunction in at the end there. Onto splitting infinitives!

RDeckard November 27, 2012, 1:31am

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And what about salespeak, "incent?" I was incented to sell more (not to mention salespeak itself). Incentivize, by comparison seems innocuous, though still odious.

Recall that among his other outsize faults, Alexander Haig was a champion of verbification of nouns and of course, nounification of verbs. I don't have to bring Humpty Dumpty into the argument, but he said it best, however nonsensical it is. "When I use a word, etc."

I take issue with David F. however, on the question of "reference." In the world of sales, it is often used as a verb, gratingly, I might add. And, conversely, referral is often confused with reference (you can find my referrals below), which I often find confusing, except that in the sales world, English is usually the first casualty, and obfuscation is often the goal.

Flapjack, I vote against "gifted," being so myself, and I gifted myself that award; I am self-described as gifted because I gifted myself that condition. Sounds pretty silly, OED usage is often a very good guide to archaisms . Did Carol actually hear "conversate?" I would have left the room. Orientate? Commentate is an actual archaic word, don't you know, and we've become so used to commentator that commentor sounds strange to our ears--or mine, anyway and spellcheck doesn't like it. For this I am a lamentator.

I was taught that sloppy grammar is a mark of sloppy thinking. Maybe so.

Some of the greatest sinners are of course academics, who abused the language and they should have known better, when they verbified "critique," as in "Please critique this book." I still hate it.

I'm with you John, I'm superhuman, too. What planet are you from?

Damian C. April 25, 2013, 10:03am

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FWIW, reference as a verb has been written since at least 1837 ... It's old news.

AnWulf April 26, 2013, 4:49pm

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That may be, but it still grates, because, I suppose, I am an inherent prescriptivist, and there are countless examples of poor usage throughout written English's long history that made it into dictionaries. You cannot use "reference" as you might "refer to" as interchangeable in the sentence: "I refer you to the standard authority on this subject." I "reference" you" sounds like a threat. Though I recognize and in many cases approve of neologisms, back formations, and creative use of the language. "Borked," for example (and boy, did he deserve it!). Anyway, it seems to me that referenced was first used because someone forgot or was too lazy to use the phrase "refers to." Doesn't make it right, just as many dictionaries refuse to call certain words improper--like incent.

Another favorite is "rusticated" An example of which is "aint."

"Ain't, "now, is a curious thing because as a sort of contraction of "am not," or "is not" is not in itself improper, and it was used quite often by Henry James in his characters' dialogue, mainly by his highly educated and often eloquent protagonists. And of course, nearly everyone (with the exception of my very proper son) says "ain't" at some point, so how can it be non-standard? Informal, yes. Ain't that so? And doesn't "Ain't I a woman?" (I'm not, by the way, and Sojourner Truth didn't write that) has an undeniable ring and force to it that "Am I not a woman?" does not.

Looking back at this string, I note that "regifting" is mentioned, (to hyphen or not to hyphenate?) and in this case, I like it a lot because of its specific and slightly ironic sense--something you give away because you don't really like it yourself, like the well-traveled fruitcake.

And R. Deckard, I liked your comment, but "with" is not a conjunction, and "onto" should be "on to" as we go on to better things.

I hope you all find this cromulent.

Damian C. April 27, 2013, 4:40am

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Just to mention that the verb reference has another meaning, where I don't think "refer" could be substituted. I wonder if this could be the older meaning (it is the one the dictionary lists first):

provide (a book or article) with citations of sources of information - "each chapter is referenced, citing literature up to 1990" (Oxford Dictionary Online). Oxford also lists the use of "reference" in the meaning of "refer to" as formal, as would be suggested by its use in these US government documents from 1969:

There are very few examples of "reference" as a verb in the British National Corpus, but here are a couple where I really don't think "refer" would work:

"Each number on the cost statement is referenced to a note."

"Nadir pressure was referenced to the prevailing midoesophageal body pressure"

But this presumably means something like "cross-referenced". In the next example, on the other hand, "refer" could no doubt easily be substituted, and that "to" seems a bit unnecessary to me. Sounds as though they couldn't decide which to use:

"the letter of confirmation that we reference to because it was a repeat"

Warsaw Will April 27, 2013, 8:04am

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Well, we've just about beat this one to death, but let me just add that no writer in English would cite US Government usage as examples of anything but bureaucratese. Perhaps the Brits are better, and if they've declined this usage, good on 'em.

What's wrong with "Each number on the cost statement refers to a note."? Shorter.
The example of "Nadir pressure, etc.," well, I admit that reference does work better there, but a better construction might be "Nadir pressure was observed in reference to . . . " But since this example is medical report jargon, in respect of brevity, I find it acceptable. The language police have spoken.

But the last, is, to my mind, much better as: "the letter of confirmation we refer to because it was a repeat."
QED, reference, can and ought to be avoided whenever possible. It's close cousin, cross-reference, may have no easy substitute.

Damian C. April 27, 2013, 11:23am

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@Damian C - I wasn't making any judgements either way, simply observing. Although I certainly agree with you about my last BNC example, which I'm not sure was even grammatical. My interest in the US government document also had to do with its age. This usage isn't necessarily as new as some people would think.

Warsaw Will April 27, 2013, 10:04pm

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This graph would suggest that the use of "reference" as a verb has increased quite dramatically since about 1960, and that although more common in the US, has seen a similar, if smaller, increase in the UK. But the good news for those who don't like it is that the increase seems to be levelling out in both branches of English.

Warsaw Will April 27, 2013, 10:11pm

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Although "I'm referencing our trip to the mall" is just a silly way of saying "I refer...", there is a difference between "to refer" and "to reference." To refer is to point back to an event or object, once, in passing. To refer is to make a brief clarification. "To mention" is a close synonym,as in "Here, I'm mentioning/ talking about my trip to the mall." To reference is to take something as a referent of reference point to which succeeding terms relate. Example: My use of the word I in my early poems is a referent (reference point) to which my subsequent uses of that word relate. My I evolves over time, but I do not forget my early sense of self as subject, and each later I references that first usage." The thing to notice here is that when I reference I do not explicitly refer back or mention. I perform an implicit action when I reference, an explicit one when I refer.
The silly use of" reference" for "refer" is a bastardization of a term from logic that entered literary speech via literary theory. Like it or not, though, we can expect to see lots more of it.

Jean September 17, 2013, 1:59am

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I like your explanation a lot, Jean, it should be the final word, I'd say. I would like to hear more about the term from logic and the literary speech and literary theory though. What are you referencing exactly[sic]?

All that being said, "and each later I references that first usage;" couldn't you just as easily substitute "refers to?" Which makes the distinction a little cloudier--I fail to see how either use would change the meaning here, referents notwithstanding. (I assume your quotation mark after "usage" is a typo.)

Damian C. September 17, 2013, 8:09am

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I am only opposed to using reference as a verb because refer is shorter making reference sound pretentious.

qrwfeR4232Q November 13, 2016, 7:24pm

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Yes     No