Bad Words Like Tasked

From the bad words department (e.g., concerning incent): “General Washington tasked the troops to battle on the Brandywine” may be a fine use of the transitive verb.  But is that so of “Professor Cunningham tasked the class to brief the Drennan case”?  It seems better to say “Cunningham assigned the class . . . . ”

Before the mid-1990s, tasked tended to be limited to usage relating to military matters.  For example, in legal scholarship, it appeared almost exclusively in military law journals.  But the word gradually crept into other settings in the late 1990s, in part after consulting firms began to talk that way.  Until recently, though, the usage was relatively scarce.  In legal scholarship, for instance, the word never appeared more than 100 times annually through 1998 and never more than 300 until 2004.  

In 2010, however, usage is set to exceed 1000 times.   Staggeringly, the word’s frequency has increased steadily nearly every year from 1989 through 2010: 16, 16, 22, 20, 27, 55, 56, 55, 75, 95, 105, 120, 141, 184, 218, 294, 368, 435, 591, 719, 880, 905 (partial count for 2010).  

This is lamentable.  The stultifying jargon of the military aside, the usage, in general and certainly in legal scholarship, sounds terrible and should be laid to rest.

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15 Responses

  1. Ken Rhodes says:

    I respectfully disagree both with your chronology and your conclusion (“sounds terrible …etc.).

    In my first professional job as a mathematician in 1966 I worked for ARINC Research Corp., a consulting company in the field of reliability and maintainability engineering. Our firm had a number of indefinite quantity contracts, under which we were issued tasks by our clients. Clients included both military and civilian organizations.

    In a task order, we were assigned a task, a budget, and a schedule. In all the follow-up documents, both by ourselves and our clients, it was common parlance to say (for example) “United Airlines tasked ARINC to investigate …”

    Consider possible alternative language: “United Airlines assigned ARINC the task of investigating …” To me that sounds awkward and stilted compared to the simpler statement.

    Anyway, the active-voice usage of “task” as a verb is not new in contracting.

  2. Q. Broward says:

    Based on the numbers, it seems to me that an increasing number of people would disagree with the Professor’s statement that the word (outside of limited contexts) “sounds terrible and should be laid to rest.”

    Not that the masses always know what’s best when it comes to legal writing, but it’s something to take into account.

    Anyway, I agree with the Professor that it’s not a wonderful development.

  3. Q. Broward says:

    Re the first poster, I would probably write “United Airlines assigned ARINC to investigate….”

  4. Logan says:

    Am I being tasked to lay tasking to rest?

  5. Bruce Boyden says:

    Well, “task” as a verb is used in a famous line from Moby Dick, and an even more famous line from Star Trek II, so there’s some non-military-jargon history here.

  6. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Bruce: Many thanks!

    “Tasked” was first used as early as 1530 (brought out in the comments to the linked post about incent thanks to Miriam Cherry) and there are certainly examples outside the military of its use. The examples you gave use a different form of the verb task, an active, poetic, engaging usage:

    Khan (Star Trek II): He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! I’ll chase him round the Moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up! . . .

    Ahab (Moby Dick): He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. . . .

    The examples I’m suggesting be retired include:

    A special unit of the FBI should be tasked with investigating prison rapes.

    A strong Executive branch of the federal government is tasked with prosecuting crimes.

    Some states have created boards tasked with coordinating and monitoring Recovery Act expenditures.

    Congress tasked the SEC with promulgating regulations.

    The Court is tasked with deciding whether the search was constitutional.

    (Thanks again for the comment and for providing the quotes!)

  7. AZ says:

    The military usage (at least colloquially) is generally “tasked with,” not “tasked to,” which sounds very strange to me. The noun, of course, is “taskers” — you don’t need a singular.

    Ex: “I thought I’d come home early today, but then the captain tasked me with changing puppies to small dogs* in the brief for the admiral.”

    * that is, tweaking the wording, though not the semantics, in order for each person up the command chain to say he made a contribution.

  8. Maryland Conservatarian says:

    “The stultifying jargon of the military aside…”

    Yep…I admit, after years with the military, going to law school and reading the various writings that pass for legal scholarship was a wonderful and refreshing change of pace…just one more reason why we need more Johnnies and Yalies in uniform!

  9. I’ve tasked you to serve as arbiter of correct usage. As my agent, however, you are likely to shirk. So I’m pondering how properly to incent you.

  10. Dave says:

    Interesting discussion. Bigger-picture question: what animates or explains Lawrence’s strong visceral reaction to the term “tasked”? Possible theories:

    –It’s relatively novel, and we often resist the new, especially neologisms. (Depending, at least, on whether you’re a descriptivist or a prescriptivist in terms of grammar.)

    –The word simply sounds unappealing and inelegant.

    –Using the word forces us to create awkward grammatical constructions and contributes to clunky sentence structure (perhaps not true in this case, as Ken illustrates).

    –The term “task” shouldn’t be a transitive verb at all (again, you’d have to be a prescriptivist to believe this factual assertion, given how much the term is used transitively), so it’s wrong as a matter of grammar.

    –The word has some provenance that is annoying (e.g., it’s associated with some group that is often mocked as employing jargon in place of plain English, like … well, lawyers).

    Any opinions as to which theory is right? Might be interesting to figure out just what it is that makes us consider a word “bad.”

  11. A.J. Sutter says:

    Dave, you’re omitting that the use of a word in some situations has inappropriate connotations, or destroys nuance, regardless of whether it’s associated with a particular group .

    Some of Lawrence’s examples fit into multiple categories, e.g. “Some states have created boards tasked with coordinating and monitoring Recovery Act expenditures” could have been stated simply as “… created boards to coordinate and monitor…”; “A special unit of the FBI should be tasked with investigating prison rapes” could become “…should investgate…” (or “be created to investigate,” if a new unit is intended). Both of the originals are clunky and sound bureaucratic.

    Personally, I can imagine contexts in which “The Court is tasked with deciding whether the search was constitutional” might be perfectly fine, and even have some poetic quality. It suggests an image of the Court having to roll up its sleeves and pursue some difficult matter. It also suggests that the task is “assigned” by some impersonal agency, like the Constitution itself. For such situations, “is assigned to decide” seems inappropriate, and “has the duty to decide” omits the connotation of difficulty. OTOH, if an appellate court were to say, e.g., “the district court is hereby tasked with deciding whether the search was constitutional,” none of these nuances would be relevant, and I’d share Lawrence’s aversion to the usage.

  12. Jim Maloney says:

    Another bigger-picture perspective: “tasked” is just one manifestation of a relatively new trend in American English, disturbing to many, of turning nouns into verbs without much good reason for doing so (i.e, when plenty of better verbs are already around from which to choose) and then over-using those creations. (Maybe that’s what provokes Lawrence’s strong visceral reaction, Dave.) Examples:

    1. impact (as in “Does this trend impact your teaching style?”). My theory is that this reached common usage (i.e., that it “usaged“) via a pathway beginning with dentists (“impacted wisdom teeth”) and reaching a wider audience through school desegregation (“impacted areas”). The final step was when the past participle morphed into full-blown predicate usage (i.e., when it “departicipled“).

    2. party. “Party hearty, dude!” Need I say more?

    3. platform. I ride a train line on which a loudspeaker announces that certain cars will not “platform” at certain stops.

    And not long ago my 11-year-old son asked if I was going to “consequence” him for certain objectionable behavior…

  13. Almost as bad as the use of “gift” as a verb.

  14. N.B. says:

    I heartily agree with Lawrence & Jim.

    People cannot expect to sound educated or articulate by using words incorrectly.

    What I see very often these days are similar sounding words being substituted for the correct ones. Example: “It had the same affect on both specimens.”

  15. Robert Frump says:

    I’d suggest that both the Moby Dick and Star Trek use of the word is closer akin to “he taxes me” than the modern usage of “he tasks me.” Near as I can tell from the etymology, tax and task were at one time interchangeable and task probably grew from early meanings of “tax.” Most recently, George Clooney in a WW II movie about recovering art lost to the Nazis uses “tasked with” and however legit and militarily authentic, it just damned well offends the ear, imho. Both the Melville and Khan screenwriters, on the other hand, make it work. God forbid a version of either one day would say, “He missions me”