Yes, 'headquarter' is a verb

When I was a young editor, I was taught that “headquarter” isn’t a verb — that the word exists only in the plural and only as a noun. So a company can have its headquarters in New York, but it can’t be headquartered in New York.

I didn’t bother to look it up. Why would I? Right or wrong, my boss had the authority to tell me how to do my job, so I just changed every instance of “headquartered in” to “with headquarters in” without question.

If I had looked it up, I would have probably gone straight to the Associated Press Stylebook, the manual for my editing job at the time, and I would have seen my boss’s instructions affirmed. “Do not use ‘headquarter’ as a verb,” AP instructed at the time.

But if I would have checked a dictionary, I would have discovered a disconnect between AP and the real world. Reference guides at the time, for example Webster’s New World College Dictionary, had long recognized “headquarter” as a verb.

Style guides and dictionaries have different jobs. Unlike dictionaries that simply report how people are using the language, style guides tell editors what to do, helping ensure consistency and readability. When readers think a word is wrong or just poor usage, it can get in the way of the message. So style guides sometimes prohibit controversial language. And the use of “headquarter” as a verb was indeed controversial.

Unlike the noun “headquarters,” which dates back to the mid-1600s in the meaning of the residence, or quarters, of a military commander, the verb “headquarter” didn’t show up in print till 1903. It took another 50 or so years to become common and another 15 or 20 years to capture the attention of the panel of experts at the American Heritage Dictionary. They didn’t like it, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The American Heritage panel voted in 1969 to reject the verb in formal English. They continued to reaffirm their distaste for the verb into the 1980s.

By 1985, the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, as cited in Merriam’s, warned that the verb “can still cause careful users of the language to shudder.”

“While we do not doubt the truth of that observation,” Merriam’s editors write, “we suspect that there are also many careful users of the language who wonder, as we do, what the shuddering is about.” Here's more on "headquartered" in my recent column.

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