Word Count

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.

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Friday October 2nd 2009, 6:17 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was good. Made me smile.

Reminded me of the comment — supposedly by Walt Kelly — that the mongoose is a singular animal because no one can say two of them.
Friday October 2nd 2009, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Michael T. (Escondido, CA)
Thanks for the insight.
Friday October 2nd 2009, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Skip2Maloo (Antioch, CA)
As in love with the written language as I am, I avoid conversations like these as I would a plague. Don't get me wrong, I'm as fascinated by the quirky etymologies of the English language as the next guy, but I know me: If I committed even a fractional percentage of my brain power to topics like this I'd never write another coherent sentence again.

Thank you for undertaking the daunting task I myself refuse to face.

Skip Reilley
Friday October 2nd 2009, 5:35 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
At school we used to have Advanced Latin in the Cadet Hut, in the CO's inner sanctum. Four of us and the major working our way through Cicero line by line. If anyone made a brilliant comment or a howler, he'd write it on the wall - not on a piece of paper on the wall, but on the wall. It was a rare honour to be thus immortalised (until the next coat of paint, I suppose). I made it onto the Wall with an unremarkable howler but the major was feeling generous that day. Instead of 'he fled from the meeting' I translated the sentence as 'he flew from the meeting'. Your article reminded me of my historic schoolboy achievement - thank you!
Saturday October 3rd 2009, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I LOVE it! It's just that kind of question that can drive you bonkers!
Saturday October 3rd 2009, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Darryl (Columbus, OH)
Sunday October 4th 2009, 8:43 AM
Comment by: GEORGE A. (GILLINGHAM United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Here in England I've never come across anybody but the very young saying 'flied', it is always 'flew'. Once again 'divided by a common language'!
Sunday October 4th 2009, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Hey George, don't they play baseball over there?
"Flied out" is perfect English when discussing BASEBALL...not CRICKET or some other weird sport.
Sunday October 4th 2009, 7:26 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I suspect that in the vernacular, verbs like "to cheerlead," "to troubleshoot," and "to greenlight" (the last courtesy of the movie industry) are often treated as regular verbs. Careful writers, in my experience, lean toward the irregular forms that are hiding within. No matter which is chosem tho ("They troubleshooted" vs "They troubleshot"), the result still sounds odd.
Tuesday December 22nd 2009, 7:34 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
This reminds me of the difference between the past tenses "hung" and "hanged". Pictures and stockings for Santa are hung, but criminals were hanged (still are in some countries).

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