What’s the past tense of the verb text?

A correspondent wrote:

I hear people daily refering to text messages and I have been painfully aggrivated. When referring to texting in the past tense is it grammatically correct to say, “I texted yesterday” or “I text yesterday”.  I will hate if “texted” is correct. It sounds so wrong.

I must admit I was not very supportive. The big point is that novel verbs — verbed nouns in particular — are almost invariably entirely regular in their inflection. Verbing has always weirded (not weird) language.

[Now there IS a pattern of phonological identity between the base form, the (non-3rd-sg) present-tense form, and the past tense (PST) and past-participle (PSP) forms -- for a small number of mostly monosyllabic verbs in /-t/ and /-d/ (hit, bid) that have been around in the language for a long time. Call these "bare past verbs" (it's just a label, not a definition). 

Some of these verbs have alternative PST/PSP forms without an affix (spit/spat, shit/shat), some of them have alernative PST/PSP forms with an affix (quitted as a variant of PST/PSP quit, for instance), and there are other wrinkles as well (for instance, shrink-shrank/shrunk-shrunk), all affecting small numbers of verbs in complex ways. (Reference grammars of English have extensive discussions of all of these details.) But, generally, when a new verb enters English -- by borrowing from another language, by verbing a noun or adjective, or whatever -- it's entirely regular. That's what would make PST/PSP text notable (even though it's a t/d-final monosyllable, like most other bare past verbs.]

In the case of the verb text (in its recent, electronic, sense), the lexicographers and other authorities go for texted. As a general practice, most dictionaries don’t list most inflected forms, because listing perfectly regular inflected forms would just be a waste of precious space. So absence of a listing is evidence of regularity. Even the OED doesn’t list regularly inflected forms (unless there are competitors), and so it is in the case of the verb text, both in older, now-obsolete senses (‘to write in a text-hand’, ‘to cite texts’) and in the more recent sense. In fact, the OED has one citation for texted in the recent sense:

2001 Leicester Mercury (Electronic ed.) 31 July, I texted my mother and my friends when I got my results.

And David Crystal’s 2008 book Txtng has texted as the PST.

Nevertheless, googling on {“I|he|she|we|you|they text yesterday”} pulls up a few instances of text that are probably PST/PSP:

Then he text yesterday evening saying he was out & he’d give me a call.  (link)

He text yesterday to say that he would get tickets to a fringe show. (link)

These are outnumbered roughly 5 to 1 by instances of texted in similar contexts, like:

She texted yesterday to see how my Thanksgiving went, and again this a.m. to see if we could switch to dinner since she had “errands”. (link)

I’m sitting here scheming on whether I should call her, or text her, or email her, or wait another day, since we texted yesterday and the day before, … (link)

So my correspondent is not alone in going for PST/PSP text.

There’s even a little bit of evidence suggesting that fixing on a PST/PSP form for this verb presents a somewhat sticky choice for some people: though PST/PSP texted beats out PST/PSP text handily, the numbers seem to be small in both cases, and they are dwarfed by the hugely more frequent present texts. When peple are not entirely comfortable with any of the alternatives, many of them are inclined to avoid having to make a choice at all.

A while back, I stumbled upon another innovative bare past: pit for pitted in pit X against Y. Some examples:

The reason our nation is divided right now is because the politicos have successfully pit the people against one another over insignificant issues. (link)

Huckabee would have actively pit the wage-payer against the wage-earner in a fight to establish a true poverty in this nation. (link)

He had to be out in the field, testing his strength, pushing himself, hearing the song of the Shadow Skill as he pit his mettle against new opponents. (link)

As a sophomore in high school, he pit his Capri against an R-3 and learned a little lesson. “It beat me pretty well,” he said. (link)

All this is about one particular verb pit, in pit X against Y. Very few modern English speakers know, or care about, the etymology of this pit (nor should they), and they don’t connect it to other pit words in the language (except through pronunciation and spelling). It’s just another word in the language.

But there are other verbs pit in English, and several of them are surely associated with NOUNS in the language. In particular, there’s the denominal verb pit ‘remove the pit from’ (as in “We have to pit a thousand olives before midnight”) and another denominal verb pit ’cause to have pits’ (as in “The etching solution will pit the metal badly”). These verbs are based on two very different nouns pit, but it’s entirely reasonable to think that most speakers connect the nouns and the derived verbs. And, so far as I can tell, there’s no significant impulse for speakers to move either of these derived verbs into the bare-past class (as in “We pit a thousand olives before midnight yesterday” and “The etching solution pit the metal badly yesterday”). Such usages aren’t impossible, but they’re much less likely than things like PST/PSP readings for pit X against Y.

(There was a more rambling discussion of the pit case on ADS-L back in November, and, before that, a discussion of a somewhat different case, of verbs with a bare-past verb as their head: retrofit, for example — where a bare-past treatment is available by “inheritance” from the head, giving retrofit as an alternative PST/PSP to retrofitted.)

5 Responses to “What’s the past tense of the verb text?”

  1. January Links « Literal-Minded Says:

    [...] Zwicky of Language Log now has a blog all to himself. This post talks about an issue that’s come up here occasionally: regular verbs becoming irregular. The [...]

  2. 2010 in review « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] What’s the past tense of the verb text? December 2008 1 comment 3 [...]

  3. Argument structure in porn « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] as having a zero-marked PST/PSP breed (parallel to a common treatment of the verb text; discussion here): [PST] He fucked like an angry beast. Kissed me everywhere. Touched me. Oh my god he rocked my [...]

  4. Another PST/PSP = BSE « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] parallels are PST/PSP text instead of texted (here) and PST/PSP breed instead of bred [...]

  5. Crash course in linguistic terms and concepts, part 1: lexicon and grammar | English 5970 Says:

    [...] in which speakers shift nouns for use as verbs (e.g. recent extension of functions of nouns like text and google to new applications as [...]

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