I hope this is the right stack exchange to post this question in, I avoided the English one because my question concerns English grammar, and English is not my mother tongue. I'm reading fiction online as way of practicing my own English and writing, and came across this sentence which confused me a lot:

Overhead arrows streaked out into the night.

The context is a battlefield where archers are sending arrows flying towards the enemy, but I'm having a hard time understanding this phrasing.

From what I know, 'streak' is a noun that signifies either a chain of events (so a continuous line of events), or mark/stain of some sort. I'm guessing from the context that the imagery behind the sentence is that the arrows are leaving a line behind in the sky? But I fail to understand what rule determines which nouns can be used as a verb, and how and when exactly can I turn a noun into a verb, and which circumstances can I add an adverb particle (like "out").

  • Perhaps the verb was turned into a noun? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 31 '18 at 17:37
  • @FMB Is your example intended to be a sentence, or just a noun phrase? – BillJ Oct 31 '18 at 19:25
  • Imagery is important in a book (because it's not a movie). I think the author probably wanted you to 'look up' ("Overhead") and 'see' the 'streaks'...and maybe 'hear' them a little too (the S sound at least). – KannE Nov 1 '18 at 8:19

Nouns in English are very often "verbed"

Calvin and Hobbes

As in every other aspect of the language, there really aren't any rules that govern this process. Someone (like Calvin in the comic) decides to "verb" a word. If other people like the neologism, they repeat it. If enough people repeat the new word, eventually it will appear in a dictionary.

As to the question of how you can kick off this process yourself, well, you can just do it and see how people react. If your English isn't very proficient (and probably if you have a non-English accent) people will probably think you've made a mistake, rather than an intentional new coinage. Also, there are some people (like Hobbes in the comic) who get annoyed by any new words; so they'd be irritated in any case.

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  • 1
    Sure, nouns can be verbed, but in this case, "streak" is already a verb. It would be problematic to verb a noun like "book" to mean something like "read", only to find that "book" is already a colloquial verb with a number of very different meanings. – Andrew Oct 31 '18 at 17:57
  • It seems likely that the noun streak was "verbed" a long time ago: etymonline.com/word/…. Anyway, I'm less interested in explaining what "to streak" means, since that question could easily be answered by looking in a dictionary, and more interested in responding to this: "But I fail to understand what rule determines which nouns can be used as a verb, and how and when exactly can I turn a noun into a verb" – Juhasz Oct 31 '18 at 18:06
  • +1 simply because I’m a big Calvin & Hobbes fan. – achAmháin Oct 31 '18 at 21:16

Please check English-language dictionaries. "Streak" is also a verb..

"Streak out" is an example of a phrasal verb, that is usually related to the meaning of the verb by itself. Most of the time you have to learn phrasal verbs as individual vocabulary, as the meaning might not be exactly the same. For example, "get out" is not the same thing as "get", or other phrasal verbs like "get into", "get over", "get through" and various others.

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In this case, "streaked" is not a noun being used as a verb. "Streak" is also a verb with a meaning rather distinct from the noun "streak".

"Streak" as a verb means "to move at high speed". See https://www.thefreedictionary.com/streak, v intr definition 3.

Perhaps this meaning started out as using the noun "streak" as a verb, like someone thought, "that bright object is moving so fast it leaves a streak of light behind".

To answer the direct question, When can a noun be used as a verb?:

In some cases this is already accepted usage. If dictionaries list a word as both a noun and a verb, or you have heard or read it used that way often, then it is an established meaning and you can use it yourself without causing confusion. Though I'd note that, like many things with language, some usages are common and accepted in informal speech but considered inappropriate for formal writing.

If such a usage is not already common and accepted, you could try to invent it and see if it catches on. Or at least if people understand what you are trying to say. The potential problem is that listeners might not understand just what aspect of the noun you are trying to use as an action. Like suppose you decided to use the word "door" as a verb and said, "I doored my office yesterday". Do you mean that you walked through the door of your office? That you locked the door? That you replaced the door? It might be clear from context or it might not.

I would avoid inventing a new usage in formal writing, unless you have a legitimate need to invent a new word and you spell out that this is what you are doing. Like if you were writing a scientific paper about, say, your discovery that objects emit red light under some conditions, you might say, "In this paper we will refer to this phenomenon as 'redding'" and then use the word that way. But I wouldn't just start using such a made-up word with no explanation.

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