The Trouble With Verbs: Tools and Language.

David Gates


In this essay I propose that we think of language as a tool. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that words have discrete functions, similar to a box of different tools. Extending this analogy I ask that we attend to talk-in-practice with the same detail afforded to some accounts of craftsperson’s tools. After sketching the canonical tension between language and craft, I present some reasons why we find it difficult to describe making things. But equally, argue that those reasons afford a conceptual wedge that can reveal a fuller understanding of craft making.

Some words to start with.

We are at the Chipstone Foundation above the shore of Lake Michigan at Fox Point, Wisconsin on a bright, warm spring day. Almost all of the participating artists in The Tool at Hand exhibition and half as many art-historians are gathered around a large table. The air is full of the sound of talk and the smell of coffee and we are surrounded by, and sitting upon objects from the Chipstone collection. We had been brought together by the exhibition’s curator, Ethan Lasser, for a two-day think-tank to explore avenues of thinking arising from working on the project. This was one of several sessions organised for the weekend, and as its theme, each of the participants had been asked to encapsulate their relationship to tools with just one word. The ‘one word’ stipulation perhaps reflecting the artists’ brief for the project, of using just one tool. The words we returned as our answers were: resistance, redaction, knowledge, regulation(s), intervention, intuitive, evolution, extension, memory, complexity, friendg, interference, remediate, dysfunctional, motivation. Now, the actual words themselves, although providing for a lively and fascinating discussion, are of lesser importance to the argument that follows. What I take as a starting point in this discussion of language as a tool is the form of those words: of the fifteen words spoken twelve were nouns, two adjectives, and just one a verb.

Craft and language, the canonical view.

The idea that making things, and writing or talking about making things, are at odds has become something of a folk-truth. Discussing this, in his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett reminds us of the historicism of this view, invoking Denis Diderot’s comment made while compiling his encyclopedia; “among a thousand, one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use with any clarity”. (Sennett 2008, p. 94). Sennett is himself playing out the line argued most consistently by Peter Dormer that craft knowledge is tacit, or unsayable, declaring; “what can only be shown cannot be written about”, warning that anyone who thought otherwise would “distort the integrity of the very subject they profess to respect.” (Dormer 1997, p. 230).

In positioning craft knowledge so absolutely within the binary of propositional knowledge and tacit knowledge, craft can become decoupled from language, thus, I suggest, disabling the potential of accounts of or from its own practices. Instead, craft has been interpreted from other perspectives such as art history and material culture, which whilst instructive, are often subject to those perspectives’ agendas, therefore pre-determining what might be considered compelling in any analysis. Thus an art historian can make the claim that an “object that ticks all the craft boxes…may not present an interesting case for theoretical discourse”. (Adamson 2007, p. 167). But as Ettiene Wenger writes, “there is a big difference between a lesson that is about the practice, but takes part outside of it, and explanations and stories that are part of the practice and take part within it” (Wenger 1998, p. 100). Adamson’s “object” has become dis-located from the “…current of activity to which it properly and originally belongs”. (Ingold 2000, p. 347).

The canonical position: that it is close to impossible to use words to transmit skill-knowledge simply tells us what language cannot do: it is difficult to turn making into words. Language does, of course, as in practically all lived practices, play a part in the craftsperson’s everyday world. We should instead be asking what language can do. Drawing upon studies in linguistics I now suggest why describing the doing of craft is problematic, and why it is difficult to describe skill-knowledge. However, the reasons for this difficulty provide the space for a conceptual wedge. And I argue that that conceptual wedge is to adopt an ethnographic approach to studying the uses of language-in-practice.

Language-in-practice and the trouble with verbs.

To step back for a moment, and to consider what Diderot would have liked to have had explained, the work of craft might be described thus: ‘the processual transformation of material(s) using tools, machines and apparatus’. So, even at a basic level, to describe that work, we would need to have naming words for the tools and materials, nouns; and knowledge of words describing what we do with those things, verbs. If we want to simply name and make taxonomic representations of the world, then nouns will do most of the work. If we want to go further, to describe what we do in the world, and communicate being in the world, engaged in all its relational complexity we need more than the labels that nouns offer us.

Research in language acquisition shows that we learn nouns and verbs in different ways and we employ them with varying competence and effectiveness in practice. Gentner (1981) summarises some of the outcomes of these differences. Nouns tend to be learnt before verbs. Verbs are less sharply defined than nouns, they have more possible meanings than nouns, and are less easily remembered than nouns. In practice, this means that the meanings of verbs can be contested, a lack of a clear definition can lead to conflicts of meaning or communicative fractures. Tomasello (2003, p. 47) states that “nouns are more conceptually autonomous whereas verbs are more conceptually dependent.” Although much research on language acquisition attends to children, Gillette et al’s (1999) study of adults demonstrates a practical continuation. When subjects watched videotape of spoken interaction with portions of the sound beeped-over they found it more difficult to infer the verbs that were beeped than the nouns that were similarly beeped.

To return to the scene at Chipstone, almost all of the fifteen words stood for concepts that could have been represented as nouns or verbs. Most concepts do; we have ways of naming concepts and ways of describing taking part in them. For example knowledge is a bounded, quantifiable product, something, perhaps that can be pointed to or identified. But knowing is experiencing, being in the moment(s) of lived-engagement with something learned. In striving to communicate with each other effectively we had nearly all used the noun-form of a concept, rather than describing an engagement or process. This aversion to verbs reflects Gentner’s assertion that verbs are more problematic in use. This of course has serious implications for any communicative task aiming to describe activities, processes, doing, and experience.

Gentner’s position on the differences in verb and noun acquisition posits something of an ontological and epistemological dyad. “In everyday linguistics, I suspect that we think of nouns as pointers to objects…that the conceptual structures corresponding to nouns are largely given by the world and can be counted on to function as coherent wholes”. (Gentner 1981, p. 176). He is suggesting that nouns operate as some kind of ontological framework, and positioning verbs as an epistemological resource learnt through engaging with the world. Verb acquisition requires “…understand(ing) the cultural patterns for lexicalising relationships”. (My emphasis). This emphasis on understanding cultural patterns implies that verbs are learnt through lived-practice and interaction. By taking part in social life a shared fabric of meaning and understanding is gradually established between people.

An example.

In my own field, studio furniture, there are hundreds of tools that have been designed and evolved, allowing us to work with wood. All of them have names; some of those names vary. For example, depending on where you are from, or who you are talking with, there is a particular plane called a rebate, rabbet, or fillister. The differences are largely regionally ascribable, but once we link a name to an object’s form and its use-function, it gets fixed in our mind. The difficulties start when we try to describe what we do with that plane. Saying that we plane the edge of a board to reduce its thickness locally in a regulated manner, says what we do, but only up to a point: it prescribes an aim or goal. But it doesn’t go very far in saying how we go about that in terms of action, posture, tempo, force, rhythm, direction, or grip: in describing us, the plane, and the wood acting in concert. To make an analogy, we can fix a bird as a gull, a robin, or a buzzard. But we would likely debate whether it was soaring, gliding, swooping, diving, rolling, or just plain flying. After some debate we might agree terms, locally, between us, through our communicative interaction.

The right thing, at the right time, in the right place.

Tools are often treated with interest and reverence when discussing crafts. At another of the think-tank sessions, workers from the Kohler manufacturing plant led a fascinating discussion on the peculiarities, evolution, and specialness of their toolkits. The tools were spoken of as being very particular, having meaning amongst individuals and groups: essential to practice and absolutely enmeshed in practices. They are of the workplace, emplaced, doing just the right thing at the right time in the right place. If we are to think of language as a tool we must think of it similarly, doing just the right thing at the right time, in the right place. Specificity is applicable to language use too. There are tacitly recognised, socially produced meanings of word use; this reflects our ways of knowing (in) the world being culturally located. As Alain Coulon writes: “sense of talk is always local and that generalisation about the meaning of a word is impossible.” (Coulon p20).


Language and craft practice are not antithetical. The canonical adoption of Dormer’s stance relies on the assumption that the whole of craft knowledge is predicated on practical skill knowledge. However, language-in-practice is rarely used to these ends, (see Mackovy 2010, Gates 2013). Dormer’s more pertinent contention is that craft knowledge is local. To understand what language is used for, and thus to deepen our understanding of craft practice we must listen closely, orient to an ethnographic approach and take account of language in practice. Dormer’s examples are drawn from engineers and scientists working together, solving problems together. They would not, I imagine, have done this in silence. How their experience(s) and knowing is made meaningful, communicated and distributed is surely done with our most locally peculiar, yet portable tool — language.


Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking Through Craft. Oxford and New York. Berg.

Coulon, A. (1995) Ethnomethodology (Qualitative Research Methods) Sage.

Dormer, P. (1997). The Culture of Craft. Manchester. Manchester University Press.

Gates, D. (2013). History in The Making: The Use of Talk in Interdisciplinary Collaborative Craft Practice. In Sandino, L. and Partington, M. (Eds), (2013). Oral history in the visual arts. Oxford and New York. Berg.

Gentner, D. (1981) Some Interesting Differences Between Verbs and Nouns. Cognition and Brain Theory 4 (2). pp 161–178.

Gillette, J. Gleitman, L.R., Gleitman, H. and Lederer, A. (1999). Human Simulations of Vocabulary Learning. Cognition, 73, pp 135–176.

Ingold, T. (2000). The Perception of the Environment. London. Routledge.

Mackovy, N. (2010) Something to Talk About: Notation and Knowledge-Making Amongst Central Slovak Lace-Makers. Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute special issue 2010 s80–s99

Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London. Allen Lane.

Tomasello, M (2003). Constructing a Language. A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquistion. Cambridge, Mass; Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.