I admit to having experienced a slight cringe upon hearing the word “ask” used as a noun recently. The usage to which I’m referring usually takes some form along the lines of “the ask is that you do so and so…” or “the ask is for such and such…” I only started noticing this replacement of “request” (or “demand”!) with a nounification of ask in the last year or so, and had been wondering about this apparently new semantic trend. Then, a few weeks ago, I received an email that reawakened my curiosity about the phenomenon. The message was from someone involved with union work who was asking a favor of his contacts. At the end of the message, he wrote:
To repeat “the ask” (union-organizer lingo for what we’re asking you to do): Please help…
Since I first started coming across ask-as-noun-replacing-request in activist circles, this assertion that “the ask” is commonly used in union talk caused me to speculate as to whether it was part of some leftist conspiracy. There may be some evidence for this. For example, a poster on the timely “Stop Using ‘Ask’ As A Noun” Facebook page writes that they hear it all the time on NPR, that bastion of the liberally biased media. And, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state for the socialist Obama administration, purportedly once said:
We’re going to expect more from the Afghan government going forward, and we’ve got some very specific asks that we will be making.
But it appears that use of “the ask” cuts across diverse sectors. For instance, in finance lingo, the minimum price a broker will take for a financial instrument is sometimes called “the ask.” Curiously, a nounified “ask” appears to have infected the vocabulary at corporate behemoth Microsoft in the mid-2000s, as can be seen in blog entries written by more than one frustrated employee. I find this especially amusing considering the fact that the Encarta Dictionary built in to Microsoft Word does not include a noun form of “ask” in its entry for that word. As I type this, I see the phraseology “the ask” appearing throughout this post underlined in cautionary wavy green by Word’s grammar checker.
And this brings us to the potentially irrelevant issue of whether using ask as a noun is grammatically correct in the first place. Along with MS Word’s dictionary, the authoritative thesaurus.com offers no synonyms for the noun form. Ah, but the OED informs us that ask was used as a noun as far back as the year 1000 AD (and I don’t mean in its other guise as a noun: an English/Scottish term for a newt)! The OED update from 2005 further cements “the ask’s” grammatical propriety with reference to its contemporary colloquial usage in Australia, where it is usually interpolated by the modifier “big” (e.g. “that’s quite a big ask” [please make sure to pronounce the "k" if you say this]).
Despite the grammatically correct roots of “the ask” in ancient English, though, it’s clear that this form was not regular in modern language. It’s also evident that “the ask” has been making a comeback of late, and that it might be part of a more general linguistic trend that is meeting with some resistance. A piece in the New York Times by Henry Hitchings last year placed the revival of “the ask” in the context of a phenomenon he described as nominalization (the correct term for “nounification”): when a verb or adjective is transformed into a noun. Nominalization (itself a nominalization of “to nominalize”) comes in two types: the first involves adding a suffix and is more common (e.g. “to frustrate” becomes “frustration”), while in the second the same word is simply converted into a noun. The article’s opening paragraph gives a few notorious examples of the second, more controversial type of nominalization (though another NYT opinionator has lambasted academic writing for inelegant overuse of the first type):
“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”
As Hitchings explains, this kind of nominalization can be employed in speech or writing to sound edgy or jaunty; think of the currently hip phrase “epic fail.” But he points out that in the case of “the ask” there is a sort of “distancing” or depersonalizing effect. For instance, the expression “the ask is that…” is undoubtedly less direct than saying “I am asking you to…” And I think this is what irks me about “the ask” (or, as a request of me was put in a recent email, “the want”), rather than some obstinate reaction to linguistic change. The role of “the ask” in obfuscating the personal dynamics of a request is perhaps supported by its prominence in fundraising lingo, as established in the title of the 2006 book The Ask: How to Ask Anyone for Any Amount for Any Purpose. (Along these lines, the protagonist of the 2010 novel The Ask is a university fundraiser.) There also seems to be a perception out there that “the ask” is an evil component of corporate doublespeak; many posters on askisnotanoun.com—a site that simply compiles the approximately bi-weekly tweets reaffirming the position stated in the URL—allude to its use in business jargon. Given this popular view, it seems a bit ironic to me that Marxist union activists are claiming “the ask” as their own!