Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Success Verbs

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 11, 2011

A 'success verb' is a verb that refers not only to an action or set of actions, but also tacitly to the outcome of that action. Such verbs are often used to imply that one hopes to achieve the outcome.

For example: "I'm convincing my mother to come along." The expression of this sentence implies the expectation of a certain outcome, specifically, that the mother will be convinced. This outcome may be caused by the action, but occurs independently of it. What a person may be doing to convince is to beg, plead, cajole, argue or urge. It is the combination of these actions, together with the hoped-for outcome, that creates the full meaning of the verb 'convince'.

Numerous verbs are success verbs, among them including:
   - to con
   - to attract
   - to repulse
   - to translate
   - to cure
   - to grow
   - to understand
   - to know
   - to learn
   - to teach
   - to win

Len Holmes, Reframing Learning: Performance, Identity and Practice

Turning to present-tense usage of the verb 'to learn', we should note Ryle's argument that there is an important class of occurrence or episodic words which, because they are active verbs, have tended to make us oblivious to their logic. These are, he argues, success or achievement verbs; the examples he gives are 'win', 'unearth', 'find', 'cure', 'convince', 'prove', 'cheat', 'unlock', 'safeguard', 'conceal'. These correspond with task verbs, with the force of 'trying to'. Sometimes we use an achievement verb as a synonym for a task verb (or verbal phrase):
" 'Hear' is sometimes used as a synonym of 'listen' and 'mend' as a synonym of 'try to mend'." (Ryle, 1949:, p. 143)
A major difference between the logical force of a task verb and its corresponding achievement verb is that, in using the latter,
"we are asserting that some state of affairs obtains over and above that which consists in the performance, if any, of the subservient task activity." (ibid.)
Thus, for a doctor to cure a patient, she must both treat the patient and the patient must be well again. Ryle notes that there may be achievements without a task performance: for example, success may also be ascribed to luck. In addition, we may use a success verb in anticipation, with the possibility that we will revise the usage in the event of failure (p.144)
Our language has a range of task verbs and verbal phrases associated with learning. In educational settings we say we are 'studying' a subject (Note 3). Other terms include 'exploring', 'practising', 'researching', 'trying to', 'having a go at', 'working at', 'looking into', 'reading up on', and the like. There are also passive formulations: 'being taught', 'being shown', 'receiving instruction' (Note 4). Such task verbs and verbal phrases carry no necessity, in their meaning, that success has been achieved: 'He practised the bagpipes every day but he still can't play a single tune', 'She studied biology at school, but failed the exam'.
The key point to note is that the use of both a task verb and a success verb together does not describe two different activities:
"When a person is described as having fought and won, or as having journeyed and arrived, he is not being said to have done two things, but to have done one thing with a certain upshot." (ibid.)
As Ryle says, success verbs belong, put crudely, 'not to the vocabulary of the player, but to the vocabulary of the referee' (p.145). So too, we may argue, with learning. An undergraduate studying motivation theory and learning Herzberg's two-factor model is not doing two separate things, but one thing (studying) successfully. To say she has learnt is to say she has studied successfully. We can also apply this to teaching (demonstrating, explaining, telling, etc.) and the increasingly fashionable notion of 'facilitating learning'. The use of the latter is as a phrase to indicate success in teaching; it is neither the same as teaching (which may be unsuccessful) nor a separate, superior activity.

There may be many attributes of a verb over and above the task itself; the successful outcome is only one of these. The wider set of attributes are grouped together under the concept of the performative, creating what J.L. Austin called 'speech acts'.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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