Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Texted"

Today's Mailbag Friday question comes all the way from Dakar, Senegal. Jodi W. asks: "What's up with texted? As in, 'I texted her yesterday.' Is it a real word?"

Jodi's not alone in wondering about texted as the past-tense form of the verb text (meaning "to send a text message to"). Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky recently noted a similar query on his blog, and the topic has come up on the American Dialect Society mailing list and various English usage forums online. Challenges to the legitimacy of texted are often accompanied by personal impressions that the word "just sounds wrong."

First, let's gently dispense with the "real word" part of the question. As we saw in the case of funner and funnest, a common disparagement of odd-sounding additions to our shared vocabulary is to suggest that they're not (really) words. And as I wrote about the funner/funnest brouhaha, "You can call them nonstandard, colloquial, informal, casual, slangy, or even signs of the apocalypse, but there's no reason to deny them wordhood."

Texted elicits similar reactions as funner and funnest, for broadly similar reasons. In both cases, a monosyllabic noun (fun, text) has also come to be used as another part of speech (fun has turned into an adjective and text into a verb). And in both cases the grumbling begins in some quarters when the part-of-speech shift becomes unavoidably obvious, with an inflectional affix grafted directly on the base word (the comparative/superlative suffixes -er and -est added to fun, the past-tense marker -ed added to text).

But it's not just any inflectional ending that makes text "sound wrong" to certain listeners. There are far fewer complaints about texting, whether used as a present participle or a gerund. So it seems that the "verbing" of text isn't so much the issue here as what happens when the verb ending -ed comes into play. The resulting form is pronounced /tɛkstəd/ (in phonetic notation), since a regular verb that ends in /t/ requires /əd/ as the past-tense marker. This isn't difficult for native speakers of English to pronounce, so why does it sound a little strange?

The problem is that the base form text (pronounced /tɛkst/) already has a phonetic ending that sounds like a past-tense verb marker. If there were a verb tex, then we'd spell the past tense as texed and pronounce it /tɛkst/, rhyming with hexed, vexed, perplexed, and so forth. (The rules for how to pronounce -ed — as /t/, /d/, or /əd/ — are acquired by native speakers in early childhood. For an explanation, see the Wikipedia article on allomorphs.) Thus, when the past tense form texted is called for, it might actually sound like a double past tense, and double past-tense marking is not accepted in standard English.

This has emerged as a usage issue because the verb text — and the social phenomenon behind it — are still new, so we're still working out the conventionally accepted linguistic forms. Interestingly, text already appeared as a verb much earlier in the history of English, about four hundred years ago, when it meant "to inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters." Shakespeare used it in Much Ado About Nothing (1599):

Don Pedro: But when shall we set the savage bull's horns on the sensible Benedick's head?
Claudio: Yea, and text underneath, 'Here dwells Benedick the married man'?

The past-tense and past-participial form texted appeared back then too, but it faded from memory. It was only with the advent of cell-phone text messaging in the late '90s that text(ed) came back on the scene, and with it came questions about its usage and pronunciation.

If texted sounds wrong thanks to the whiff of double past-tense marking, then what are the alternatives? One could avoid the verb form of text entirely and say "I sent him a text (message)" rather than "I texted him." But if the verbing of text is considered firmly entrenched (as the major English dictionaries all recognize), then we need to have some way of expressing the past tense. Those who are uncomfortable with texted sometimes suggest that the past tense should simply be... text. In other words, they would propose treating it as an irregular verb like put or burst where the past-tense form is identical to the present-tense form.

Though this type of "irregularization" is pretty unusual, it's not unprecedented. On his Literal-Minded blog, Neal Whitman has noted that the verbs pet, grit (one's teeth), and retrofit are sometimes treated as irregular by those who would prefer not to use the past-tense forms petted, gritted, or retrofitted. Dictionaries might not recognize these "bare" past-tense forms, but the usage is out there.

Let's assume that texting is here to stay, at least until some new technology arrives with its own vocabulary. That means we will continue to need to talk about this activity without resorting to roundabout (or "periphrastic") turns of speech like "send a text message." Which past-tense form will win out in conventional usage? If I had to guess, I would wager that it's unlikely for the "bare" form of text to become widely accepted, as in "She text (/tɛkst/) me last night." Rather, I'd expect that the complaints about texted will fade, as listeners get more accustomed to hearing it. Consider it merely the growing pains of a newcomer to our common lexicon.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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