Revisiting “Nounifying a Verb”

I recently read Erich Fromm’s classic To Have or To Be?, which I discussed in a previous post.  In the book, Fromm makes some interesting observations that I now explore as I revisit my previous post on “Nounifying a Verb.”

  • “A certain change in the emphasis on having and being is apparent in the growing use of nouns and the decreasing use of verbs in Western languages in the past few centuries.  A noun is the proper denotation for a thing.  I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car.  The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance, I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having: that is, a noun is used instead of a verb,  But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced” (Fromm, Erich, To Have or To Be?. 2013, New York: Bloomsbury, pp, 17-18).

In this observation, there is no judgment about whether nouns are better than verbs.  As I wrote about earlier, nouns are very important — we are also physical beings.  And we experience time, so verbs are also important.  Both nouns and verbs are important.  The problem Fromm points at is when we mistakenly refer to verbs as nouns, when we nounify a verb.  This mistake changes both the essence of what we are describing, the experience of the verb, and it changes our ability to shift the experience.

  • “By saying ‘I have a problem’ instead of “I am troubled,’ subjective experience is eliminated: the of experience is replaced by the it of possession.  I have transformed my feeling into something I possess…This way of speaking betrays a hidden, unconscious alienation” (Fromm, 2013, p. 19).

Fromm’s “being” state invites us to make explicit the experience of the reality of possibility and development over time, and that these two levels of perceived reality are qualitatively different than the outcomes level of reality.

  • “In the having mode of existence my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property” (Fromm, 2013, p. 21).
  • “‘Being’ in its etymological root is thus more than a statement of identity between subject and attribute; it is more than a descriptive term for a phenomenon.  It denotes the reality of existence of who or what is; it states his/her/its authenticity and truth.  Stating that somebody or something is refers to the person’s or the thing’s essence, not to his/her/its appearance (Fromm, 2013, p. 21).

What are your reflections on:

  1. the difference between the states of “being” and “having”?
  2. the impact of confusing “having” with “being”?

Please share them with us here in the Comments section of this post.


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