Writers Talk About Writing
Fly Away Home
Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she tackles the question, "Why do we say a baseball player 'flied out,' not 'flew out'?"
The way children acquire language and sort out which forms are regular and which aren't is a subject that has fascinated linguists for...well, probably for as long as there have been animals called "linguists." Pity the poor child who, like mine, is born to a linguist.
I pay too close attention to the way my daughter speaks. She's beginning to push back when I correct "Me and Jade want a playdate" or "I wanna lay down." So I had to laugh when she was watching the Yankees with her father and declared that the sports announcer had made a mistake: "He said the guy flied out. But he flew out, huh, Mom?"
Oh, man, if only irregulars would stay that way. It's hard enough to teach them, and then here come the pesky exceptions.
As it happens, Stephen Pinker discusses this very verb, to fly out, in his book Words and Rules — the book I've been reading on my commute. "No mere mortal has ever flown out to center field," he notes.
Part of the reason we say flied out and not flew out is that we perceive a semantic difference between actual flight and the "verbed" noun that is a fly. Pinker offers the words lowlifes and high-sticked as examples of similar situations: a lowlife isn't a type of life, and a hockey player's high-sticking has nothing to do with the irregular verb to stick, so we don't say "a bunch of lowlives" or "He high-stuck his opponent."
But Pinker also points out that later semantic developments can't account entirely for why to fly out is a regular verb, because some verbs that are built from irregular verbs retain that irregularity in their past-tense forms, and not all new nouns become regular either: overshot, undid, superwomen, and snowmen are some of the examples he gives.
Instead, he says that fly underwent two separate transformations that resulted in the regular verb flied out. First, when the verb to fly became the noun a fly (in the sense of 'a ball that flies up in a high arc'), it made no sense for the entry in our mental lexicon to retain an association with the verb's irregular past tense form because nouns don't have tenses. Then, when it became a verb again, the semantic association with the newish noun fly was too strong to allow the connection with the old irregular verb form to be reestablished. Coinages take regular patterns unless a strong semantic connection to an irregular form intervenes, so we have flied out.
Try explaining that to a first grader.
Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.