External, internal, and double inflection

Meg Worley commented yesterday on my inventory of two-part back-formed verbs:

One that doesn’t quite fit the form but keeps company in spirit, due to the verb coming first: “to drag-ass.” I’ve noticed this quite a bit over the last couple of years, mainly in the present progressive or the imperfect (”I was drag-assing all day today”).

I’m not sure I can think of any other verb-first back formations like this one.

I suspect that such examples are of a rather different phenomenon from the cases I’ve been looking at in my recent postings on back formation

The story starts, I think with constructions involving metonymic Poss + ass, in particular one in which such NPs function much like pronouns, as in

He dragged/hauled his ass all over the place. ‘he dragged/hauled himself all over the place’

(There’s now some literature on such constructions. There are also several types, which are sometimes hard to distinguish.)

From reflexive-like uses like the ones above, for a few verbs we get a Poss-less variant (not entirely equivalent in meaning and use to the Poss variant):

He dragged/hauled ass all over the place.

That is, we end up with complex verbals drag/haul ass, similar in form to verb + particle verbals like give up and drop down, which would predict that inflection would be internal, on the verb head (gave up, dropped down) — as in the examples above, and in dragging/hauling ass, etc.

But in a number of contexts, some people tend to shift to external inflection (on the final element) in complex fixed expressions: drag/haul assed/assing (instead of, or as an alternative to, internal inflection). That’s where Meg Worley came in.

Both internal and external inflection are attested for drag/haul ass, with the former clearly more frequent. In fact, there’s a third attested variant: double inflection, as in dragged/hauled assed and dragging/hauling assing.

There’s a fair literature on variation in the location of inflection in complex expressions — much of it about pluralization in expressions like mother-in-law and attorney general, where internal inflection is usually prescribed, but external inflection has been attested for a long time (and for some expressions has become the more frequent variant), and there are occasional double plurals as well.

Another case with plurals that I don’t think has been treated in the literature: nominal gerund + particle, functioning as a count noun: ticking off and coming out, for instance. Back in April Stephen Jones wrote me about an article in the Guardian in which “Readers Editor Soibhan Butterworth remarked she had been told off for using ‘ticking offs’ [external plural] instead of ‘tickings off'” [internal plural].

Jones did some counts in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, finding that the internal plural is much more common for ticking off, while the two plurals are about evenly distributed for coming out. (Goings on is lexicalized in this form and occurs only in the plural, so it’s essentially irrelevant to the question.)

There are other cases where the external plural would be expected (and is very well attested), but where some speakers allow the mark of the plural to “move inside” the expression. Neal Whitman has discussed one such case, the plural of hard-on (or hardon or hard on), on his own blog and on ADS-L, where some discussion ensued. Hards-on seems clearly to be the innovation.

There’s still more, but this will do for today.

5 Responses to “External, internal, and double inflection”

  1. meg Says:

    I hadn’t thought of the ghostly possessive, but the moment I read that, it made perfect sense. (Not that you don’t always, but I’m not always as quick on the, um, uptake.)

  2. Vernacular writing « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] with nounings of up and shout out, the latter used by North with an internal plural rather than the external plural you’d get from treating the verb + particle combination shout out as a unit; usage varies on such examples (some discussion here). […]

  3. Externalization of verbal inflection « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] inflection has come up on this blog before, in the example drag-assing (instead of dragging ass), here. And there are more cases with V + Prt […]

  4. sleepwalking « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] inflection”), so that inflectional morphology is realized on their N (second) portions. In this posting, I looked at the case of dragged/hauled ass vs. drag/haul assed: Both internal and external […]

  5. Reader, Writer, Arithmeticker | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] In fact, most people find both breaker-up and break-upper awkward, and the alternative ordering up-breaker (like bystander) no better, so they opt for a double agentive: breaker-upper (parallel to the doubly inflected tickings offs). (On internal, external, and double inflection, see this posting.) […]

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