Monday, 4 July 2011

On texted vs texed

A correspondent writes to ask about the past tense of the verb to text. He uses texted but is aware that many people say text, as in She text me yesterday. 'Why is this>' he asks. 'Is it something to do with the consonant cluster at the end being difficult to pronounce?'
 
The historical situation is clear in the OED. When text became a verb in English, back in the 16th century, meaning 'write, inscribe', it had the expected regular past tense form, -ed. We find an early use in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio says 'Yea, and text underneath, here dwells Benedick the married man'. And we find a past tense in Thomas Dekker's play Whore of Babylon, 'Vows have I writ so deep... So texted them in characters capital...' That's 1607.

Unsurprisingly, then, when text became a verb again in the 1990s, in the modern sense, it followed the normal pattern, and texted is the form given in all the dictionaries. So the interesting question is, why has an alternative form developed. It's very unusual to find a new irregular past tense form in standard English. It does happen, as we see with the preference for shorter broadcast and forecast alongside broadcasted and forecasted, but that was influenced by the basic verb cast, past tense cast. We don't have the same situation with text.

Pronunciation is probably part of the answer. There's nothing intrinsically difficult about the consonant cluster at the end of text, as we don't have a problem with other words in English which have exactly the same consonant cluster in that position in a word, such as next, vexed, faxed, boxed, sexed. Indeed, there is evidence from the history of English that the 'xt' pronunciation is actually easier than some alternatives, as when we see asked change to axed in many regional dialects. But adding an -ed ending alters the pronunciation dynamic. We now have two /t/ sounds in a rapid sequence, as we had in broadcasted, and that could motivate people to drop the ending. Speakers generally prefer shorter forms.

This then means that we have a present tense and past tense which aren't different, but that's nothing unusual in English, as we see with bet, bid, burst put, and others. Indeed, text as a past tense has something going for it: it actually sounds as if there is a past tense -ed form there already. Compare the sound of I fix, mix, fax, sex (meaning 'decide the sex of', as in The vet sexed the kittens), and so on, which in the past tense are fixed, mixed, faxed, sexed. Text sounds like them, and even though there is no verb tex, the pronunciation analogy could still operate. (Also, of course, in colloquial speech, text is often pronounced /teks/ anyway.) So maybe people are beginning to think of text as if it were texed.

Whatever the reasons, we do now find forms such as texed and tex'd being used with increasing frequency. I think it's only a matter of time before we find it being treated like broadcast in dictionaries, and given two forms.

10 comments:

vp said...

This is similar to the issue some have for possessives of nouns ending in "s". While I would use "congress's", some use "congress'".

Sarah said...

In Nottingham, England, the present tense and plural lose the final consonant too. Almost all young people and many older ones use the present form and plural 'texes' - certainly easier to say than 'texts'. I don't know if this usage is more widespread than this local area.

Richard Vale said...

Slightly off-topic, but I'd like to thank you for your contribution to the excellent 'Ar Lafar' series on S4C last night. With the future of the Welsh channel under threat, the series has served as a reminder that S4C can produce programmes which are just as good or better than its much richer English counterparts.

On the subject of texting in Welsh, I have observed the same phenomenon in Switzerland where I lived for quite a few years. Although the Swiss German dialects are rarely used in writing, texting in Swiss German has become enormously popular.

DC said...

Many thanks. Yes, it's been an excellent series.

Lipman said...

There's something about this issue in this blogpost and its comments.

Lipman said...

The link doesn't seem to work, so here it is in plain text, too: http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2009/10/texting.html

Tibor Egervary said...

there's always the declention tex, tax, tux.
forgive me, I couldn't resist.

Rebecca Bany said...

Interesting!
www.rebeccabany.com

Dan said...

Interesting stuff. Like Sarah says above, it seems to be appearing in other forms in some parts, and I've come across a singular "tex" and past tense "texed" while marking A level English papers this summer.

Then again, if I took everything in exam papers as a valid form of English, I'd be writing seperate, authour, writter and recieved in everything what i writ.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I like it, myself. "Tex" would be different from "text", then - the action of sending short messages different from a coherent chunk of communication.

Isn't eliminating ambiguity supposedly a good thing?