Saturday, March 29, 2014

Random thoughts on task as a verb

A reader wrote to the Grammarphobia blog about a line spoken by George Clooney in the film The Monuments Men:
We have been tasked to find and protect art that the Nazis have stolen.
The reader suggested that this was anachronistic, as the use of task as a verb is fairly recent. Other people complain about task being used as a verb at all. But Grammarphobia pointed out that the use of task as a verb is in fact very old.

As a verb, task can have two meanings:
task (v.)
Assign a task to:
'NATO troops are tasked with separating the warring parties'
Make great demands on (someone’s resources or abilities):
'it tasked his diplomatic skill to effect his departure in safety'

Oxford Dictionaries Online

Note that the second meaning is very similar to one meaning of the verb to tax:
tax (v.
Make heavy demands on (someone’s powers or resources):
'she knew that the ordeal to come must tax all her strength'
Confront (someone) with a fault or wrongdoing:
'why are you taxing me with these preposterous allegations?'

Oxford Dictionaries Online

I think it's only the first meaning that is in any way controversial, but as there is nothing about task in either the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage or Fowler's (First and Third editions), it doesn't seem to be a particularly big controversy.
For information on the etymology and common origins of the verb task and tax, see the Grammarphobia article (link below).


The OED suggests that task has been used with this first meaning since 1530, the Online Etymology Dictionary since the 1520s. The latter also gives the second meaning as being from the 1590s:
task (v.)
1520s, "impose a task upon;" 1590s, "to burden, put a strain upon," from task (n.). Related: Tasked; tasking

Online Etymology Dictionary

Online Etymology also includes this in its entry for tax (verb):
tax (v.)
Sense of "to burden, put a strain on" first recorded early 14c.; that of "censure, reprove" is from 1560s

Online Etymology Dictionary

The first thing we notice from these Ngram graphs is that the use of task as a verb is indeed very old, secondly that the most common form is tasked, and thirdly, that it has had a marked revival since the 1970s.
This next graph suggests that the new use is just as strong in Britain as in the States, if not stronger, which makes it difficult to pass it off as an 'Americanism'.
But what really interested me was what happened in-between and some of those other peaks. The reason for the one round 1610 will become clear in a minute, but what about those others, and especially the one in the mid-nineteenth century.

At Google Books

At Google Books I could only find seven examples from the sixteenth century, four of them from Shakespeare:

Sixteenth century

Under the ensign of whose tired pen,
Love's legions forth have masked, by others masked ;
Think how I live wronged by ill-tongued men,
Not master of myself, to all wrongs tasked!

Phillis, Thomas Lodge 1593 GB

Now Phœbus from the equinoctiall Zone,
Had task'd his teame unto the higher spheare.

The Shepheard's Garland, Michael Drayton, London 1593 GB

And so I winde up his thrid of life, which, I feare, I have drawne out too large, although in three quarters of it (of purpose to curtall it) I have left descant, and taskt me to plaine fong: whereof that it is anie other than plaine truth let no man distrust

Have with You to Saffron-Walden, Thomas Nashe, London 1596 GB

Sixteenth century editions of Shakespeare

Arise true English Ladie, whom our Ile
May better boast of then ever Romaine might
whose ransackt treasurie hath taskt,
The vaine indevor of so many pens:

Edward III, London 1596

And will they so? the Gallants shalbe taskt:
For Ladies; we will every one be maskt

Loves Labors Lost, London 1598

But I and Harry Monmouth; tell me tell me,
How shewed his tasking? seemd it in contempt?

Henry IV, London 1598 GB

In short time after he depos'd the King
Soone after that depriv'd him of his life,
And in the necke of that taskt the whole state

Henry IV, London 1598

Shakespeare First Folio 1623

There are also quite a few in Shakespeare's First Folio, published in 1623, with at least one having the first meaning:
That he shall likewise shuffle her away,
While other sports are tasking of their mindes

The Merry Wives of Windsor 4:6

But now to taske the tasker, good Boyet

Love's Labour's Lost 2:1

And will they so? the Gallants shall be taskt
For Ladies; we will euery one be maskt,
And not a man of them shall haue the grace
Despight of sute, to see a Ladies face.

Love's Labour's Lost 5:2

Nay, taske me to my word: approue me Lord

Henry IV (1) 4:1

Soone after that, depriu'd him of his Life:
And in the neck of that, task't the whole State

Henry IV (1) 4:3

Before we heare him, of some things of weight,
That taske our thoughts, concerning vs and France.

Henry V 1:3

Therefore let euery man now taske his thought,
That this faire Action may on foot be brought.

Henry V 1:2

Like to a Haruest man, that task'd to mowe
Or all, or loose his hyre

Coriolanus 1:3

I am infortunate in the infirmity, and dare not taske my weakenesse with any more

Othello 2:3

Early seventeenth century - probably first meaning

And so much the more have I tasked my weake and shallow understanding muse,to this performance

A Soulduior's Resolution (to James I), Robert Pricket, London 1603 GB

I pitty that Pastor who is put to plough the rocks,when the eare is too hard for his advice to enter; and is tasked, like Belux his daughters, to fill Sives and Pitchers without bottome; for such are our hollow Formalists

Sermon Preached at Pauls Crosse, Henry King, Thomas Preston, London 1621 GB

Early seventeenth century - probably second meaning

Touching your weapon, which with all his heart,
He might be once tasked for to try your cunning.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare, London 1603 GB

Upon the wings of mine (els-tasked) Rime,
Through the cleer Welkin of our Western Clime

Du Bartas His Deuine Weekes and Workes, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas 1613 GB

where falling into conference with the King, hee tasked them with disloyalty, and they him with ingratitude

The Historie of Great Britain , John Speed 1623 GB


I have some grave misgivings about Ngram when it comes to early books. The graph above shows tasked peaking in American books between 1683 and 1693, but the period 1680 - 1699 brings up only four examples, all British. The rest are false positives like I asked or talked.
To this end I tasked my felf to the saddeft and severest Meditations my weak Body and Intellectuals could undergo

Considerations about the Laws Positive and the Laws of Necessity, John Mathew, London 1680 GB

severe corporal Mortifications and Disciplines are tasked on them,

A preservative against popery, William Sherlock, London 1688 GB

It is not also likely to be very savoury , and of comfortable use , that can scarce diftinguish between Virtue and Vice , to be tasked with high and moral Poems?

The Grounds & Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy and Religion, John Eachard, London 1685 GB

Again, if it be said that Ministers, are allowed to read all the Scriptures in Publick: and yet if men be tasked every Lords day, and Holy day, they must hold by their Task.

An answer to a late book, Robert Craghead, William King, Edinburgh 1694 GB

1760 - 1790

Again according to Ngram we have a peak in American books between 1767 and 1781. Of the first thirty examples at Google Books for 1760 - 1760, nineteen are false positives, two are from Shakespeare, leaving nine, all British:
In both cases they are tasked, that is, obliged to perform a certain piece of work in a limited time

Improvements for a New Convict Act, The London magazine 1776 GB

But when a grave author, like him abovementioned, tasked himself, could there be any thing more ridiculous ?

The Spectator, J. Addison and others, Edinburgh 1776 GB

And in high startups walk'd the pastur'd plaines,
To tend her tasked herd that there remains.

The History of English Poetry, Thomas Warton 1781 GB

I have been tasked with a frequency of asking questions

Mr Corry, speaking in the House of Commons of Ireland, 1785 GB

Meanwhile the face
Conceals the mood lethargic with a mask
Of deep deliberation, as the man
Were tasked to his full strength, absorbed and lost.

Poetical Works, William Cowper, London 1785 GB

and, as to his Spanish, take my word for it, that the King of Spain's decipherers would hang themselves in despair, were they tasked with the explanation of it.

Tolondron: Speeches to John Bowle about His Edition of Don Quixote, Joseph Baretti, London 1786 GB

I have known him after a long vacation, in which we were rather severely tasked, return to school an hour earlier in the morning, and begin one of his exercises

The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, London 1787 GB

Should the travelled Academician attempt a reply, he will find bis abilities tasked to the utmost

The Monthly Review, Lomdon 1787 GB

but after having so long tasked our best abilities

The Monthly Review, London 1789 GB

The best of the rest

There are indeed quite a few for this period, so here a few more from the first ten pages at Google Books, but none that I could find were American.
Encouraged by this injunction, which plainly demonstrated how much he interested himself in the affair, 1 tasked my remembrance and industry, and in three weeks produced the exact image of the former

Roderick Random, Tobias Smollett, London 1763 GB

Tasked is a word, in the old Chronicles, for taxed

Dramatic Miscellanies, Thomas Davies, London 1884 GB

Untask'ed (adj. from un, and tasked) Not tasked

The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language, John Ash, London 1775 GB

The Athenians, in return, tasked their ingenuity to devise new compliments, and acts of flattery, still superior to those which they had performed.

An Universal History, London 1779 GB

The fifth act pass'd you'll think it strange to find
My scene of deep distress is left deep behind
Tasked for the epilogue, I fear you'll blame
My want — of what you love, behind that name

Alzira, Aaron Hill, in Bell's British Theatre, London 1780 GB

Then I tasked them to the number of loads, or gangs, as they are called here

Present state of husbandry in Scotland, Edinburgh 1784 GB

the produce of their labour being not so valuable, the negroes are not so severely tasked

The Gentleman's Magazine, London 1786 GB

The young gentleman, upon being so severer tasked, felt the same inquietude that he had done on the former occasion

An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, Oliver Goldsmith, London 1789 GB

That mid-nineteenth-century peak

This is from the Third Edition of Noah Webster's 1828 classic, An American Dictionary of the English Language:
TASK, v. a. [i. TASKED ; pp. TASKING, TASKED.] 1. To impose a task; to assign to one a definite amount of business or labor. 2. to burden with some employment; to require to perform

An American Dictionary of the English Language,
Noah Webster, (Third edition) New York 1830 GB

American examples of the first meaning

Thus, when public employments afford the only outlet for ambition, the government necessarily meets with a permanent opposition at last ; for it is tasked to satisfy with limited means unlimited desires

Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, New York 1840

Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

Walden, Henry Thoreau, Boston 1854

British examples of the first meaning

Lest anyone think this was a purely American usage we can also find similar British examples:
In respect to the epaulments, let the men employed about them be tasked to raise them to the full average height of 2 feet above the ground

Rules ... for Conducting ... a Siege, Sir Charles William Pasley, London 1841 GB

On the 15th November he was set to pick oakum ; tasked to do five pounds ; he had not been saucy, or behaved improperly

Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, London 1842 GB

How should ethereal natures comprehend
A thing made up of spirit and of clay,
Were we not tasked to nurse it and to tend,
Linked one to one throughout its mortal day?

The Dream of Gerontius, Cardinal Henry Newman, London 1865 GB

British examples of intransitive use

Here we have a more general meaning of being given tasks to do.
The children of the handloom weavers were forced to do so ; and they were generally more severely tasked and worse treated than the children in the factories

Moral Economy of Large Towns, WC Taylor in Bentley's Miscellany, London 1840

I have 1,300 men tasked individually every morning before 7 o'clock in this camp near the Pegu summit

The Calcutta Review, Calcutta 1857 GB

British examples of the second meaning

But to be honest, the greatest use in British books at this time seems to have been the sense of to burden or make demands on.
On the other hand, we have tasked our memory, and tasked it in vain, to supply a single instance of an illiterate man attaining and keeping a position in which he could by possibility be extensively useful

The Eclectic Review, London 1840 GB

but in no case, perhaps, has that courage been so hardly tasked as in those enterprises in which they have had to make their way through the trackless waves, enveloped in darkness, and surrounded by foes whom their situation deprived

Narratives of peril and suffering, Richard Alfred Davenport, London 1840 GB

His father, with little demur, though it must have sorely tasked his means,—whose narrowness had, from youth upwards, kept him engaged in that perpetual struggle of the poor man

Memoir of the Author (in Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefiel, George Moir Bussey, London 1841 GB

he would discharge by stealth, those household duties which tasked her powers too heavily

The Old Curiosity Shop, Charled Dickens, London 1841 GB

Modern usage

The verb task is usually used in the passive, and is most commonly followed by with + noun phrase / gerund (-ing form) or a to-infinitive.


There are just 23 examples of tasked at the British National Corpus. Here is a breakdown:
  • tasked - 23
  • tasked to - 7
  • tasked with - 11
  • tasked with + -ing - 7
  • tasked with the - 2
At the collocation finder Netspeak tasked with is followed by the or a about 23% of the time; the vast majority of the rest of the time it is followed by a gerund (-ing form), the top four being: developing, providing, creating, finding.
Google Ngram shows a very similar story:

Tasked with doing

There don't seem to be any examples of tasked with +-ing in sevententh- or eighteenth-century books at Google Books. So is this a modern phenomenon? Not quite. And even this seems to have started in Britain, although perhaps not exactly in the modern meaning:
Nor can I tell you how delightful was the fragrant coolness which reigned beneath the influence of that massive canopy of marble, to us whose eyes had been so long tasked with supporting the meridian blaze of the Italian sun

Valerius: A Roman Story, John Gibson Lockhart, London(?) 1821 GB

the mind is not to be tasked with heaping together huge piles of trash from the reservoir of ecclesiastical history

The Christian Examiner, Boston 1837

We also have an example of the meaning of being confronted for wrongdoing, being censured or reproved, a meaning which is listed in dictionaries for tax, but not usually task.
When these personages, more than one of whom held office about the court, were subsequently tasked with having misled (it might be said betrayed) the prince

The Belgic revolution of 1830, Charles White, London 1835

Once again there are quite a few false dates in Google Books, but it looks as though the earliest examples of tasked with developing and tasked with providing are from 1967 - 1970, and are certainly American.

Tasked with the ...

Amongst nouns, responsibility leads by a long chalk, both at Ngram and Netspeak.

'Tasked with' in the British media

The expression tasked with is now absolutely standard in the British media:
Click on any of these to get a site search of various British media organisations for "tasked with":

And what about 'tasked to find'. Was it an anachronism?

The original question to Grammarphobia was about whether someone would have said that somebody was 'tasked to find ' somethingat the time of the Second World War.

Nineteenth century

There are no examples of tasked to find at Google Books before the nineteenth century, when there are a few. But as far as I can see, these all really have the 'taxed' meaning, of demands being made, rather than somebody being given a task.
The act is closed by Rossun's grand finale, cut down with great judgment, and adapted to words which must have occasioned no little torture to the unfortunate man, whose brains were tasked to find syllables of tolerable meaning to suit such various musial rhythm.

The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, London 1820 GB

Since the Revolution, the multiplication of places to be named, has gone on much more rapidly than ever before ; and invention has been proportionately tasked to find names.

The North American Review, Boston 1829 GB

Then the Mamelon sprang up, and the inventive energies of the English and French engineers were tasked to find places where best to erect batteries to subdue its fire

Letters from Head-quarters, Somerset John Gough Calthorpe, London 1856 GB

In these times of financial depression, the farmer is tasked to find out in what particular line of farming he can best succeed in being classed among the "good farmers."

Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, 1886 GB

and to this fair question I own, my friends, I am tasked to find an answer that does full justice to my own conceptions and feelings.

American Orators and Oratory, C. M. Whitman, 1883 GB

We are tasked to find out and appropriate all the nutriment it yields

From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Concord 1891 GB

Twentieth century

The first example I can find of somebody being given a task to do is from 1967, and it really takes off about 1975.
In other words, for the first time in history, man is tasked to find a secular basis for social morality.

1967 GB

The competitors will be tasked to find faults and correct them.

Combat Crew, 1975 GB

But even then we still have the occasional one with the older meaning of 'taxed':
And in "The Penfield Misadventure" the reader is sorely tasked to find a loose thread in its logical and precise conclusion

Harrigan's File, August William Derleth, 1975 GB

Update - Tasked to ... 1939 - 1945

I was only able to find one example of tasked to ... for the period of the Second World War in the meaning being given the task of (although there are a couple of dozen with the meaning of being taxed), and that came from Australia. There were another couple of candidates, but they turned out to be asked to.
Thus, members of one party were tasked to break a cubic yard of whinstone or ironstone, daily, for the roads.

Isle of Mountains: Roaming Through Tasmania, Charles Barrett, Tasmania 1944GB


Although task has been used as a verb since the sixteenth century, it is largely the meaning of facing difficulties, of being taxed, that prevailed till the 1970s'.
The precise expression 'tasked to find' doesn't seem to have been used in the sense of 'being given the task to find something' before 1967, and this sense of being given a task to do certainly seems to have started in the States in the 1970s.
On the other hand, there are examples of 'tasked to' being used in the sense of 'being given a task to do' back in the 1840s, both in the States and in Britain.
So Clooney's exact words probably were an anachronism, but not his general drift.
Incidentally, task as a verb is often seen as corporate-speak, but most of the earlier examples of this newer use I can find seem to have come from the American military. And if anyone is to be 'blamed' for popularising 'task' as a verb, it should really be a certain William Shakespeare.

Postscript - Dictionary Wars

Before finding the Webster entry, I had originally come across this in a British edition of A Universal Critical and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, which is introduced as being 'compliled from the materials of Noah Webster':
TASK, v. a. [i. TASKED ; pp. TASKING, TASKED.] To impose, as a task or employment; to burden.

A Universal Critical and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, Joseph E Worcester, London 1863 GB

It turns out that this dictionary was originally published in America in 1846, but the author, Joseph E Worcester, was immediately accused of plagiarising Noah Webster's 1828 classic (see above).
The reference to Webster in the British edition of Worcester's dictionary was presumably either intended to forestall any such accusations, or perhaps to bask in some of Noah Webster's reflected glory.
Whatever the reasons, Worcester wouldn't have been happy. He had already been moved to publish 'A Gross Literary Fraud Exposed' at an earlier British attempt to link his name with Webster's.
This row between Worcester and Webster came to be known as the 'Dictionary Wars', and apparently kept Americans entertained for several years (see Links below). It wasn't only about plagiarism; the two men differed on spelling and pronunciation as well, Worcester preferring traditional British spelling.

Dictionary wars - key events

  • 1827 - Worcester - Todd's Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language
  • 1828 - Webster - An American Dictionary of the English Language
    (New York 1830)

    Worcester worked for Webster on this dictionary
  • 1830 - Worcester - A Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary Boston 1830
    Webster accuses Worcester of plagiarism
  • 1843 - Death of Webster
  • 1846 - Worcester - A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (Boston 1850)
    Webster's successors accuse Worcsetr of plagiarism
  • 1853 - Worcester - A Gross Literery Fraud Exposed GB
  • 1854 - Various - A reply to Messrs: G. & C. Merriam's attack upon the character of Dr Worcester GB
  • 1860 - Worcester - A Dictionary of the English Language
  • 1860 - The Critic Criticised, and Worcester Vindicated, William Draper Swan GB
  • 1865 - Death of Worcester



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