Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Just an observation, with the possibility for someone to tell me if there's a general rule at work here. If you have a new verb that ends in -er, how do you form the past tense?

Cases in point.

  • The noun (trademark, actually) Taser has begotten the verb to taser. (In fact, the derived verb is more frequently spelled to tazer, a trend; see below.) When Andrew Meyer was subdued at U Florida (#) recently, the cops used a Taser. Was Meyer tased or tasered? Google currently shows a combined 232,000 hits for tasered/tazered, a combined 494,000 for tased/tazed.

  • People use the web site to record their, um, quotidian activities. When you've done so, have you twittered or twitted? It's not possible (or not easy, there's the rub) to use Google to find instances specific to Twitter, because the verbs already exist with other meanings. However, you can find examples of both forms that refer specifically to ... here's a twittered (the writer also tentatively tried out tweeted); here's twitted.

  • On a more established front, we get 35,000 hits for lasered/lazed +eyes and 69,000 hits for lased/lazed +eyes.

Based on the two quantitative measures, more people seem to think that the inflectable stem does not include the trailing -er. Is this because -er is already understood as a particle, namely to make a comparative form for the adjective? Do we have verbs in English whose infinitive form ends in a removable -er suffix? I can't think of any after several concentrated moments of thought.

Anyway, something to contemplate.


Stephens said...

In the Harvard Gazzette Online,
, read Harvard scientists predict the future of the past tense:
Mathematicians apply evolutionary models to linguistic standardization. It seems that regularization of verbs works faster on new verbs, so I think it will be "ed" instead of "ered".

WordzGuy said...

Hello, stephens, thanks for your comment! It looks like the URL for the article got hosed up because the silly comment box overlays it. Here it is again -- to get around the problem, I'm breaking the URL into two parts

hh said...

It's not because of comparative -er, methinks but because of the agentive nominalizing suffix -er, that gives us 'writer' from 'write', 'swimmer' from 'swim', etc. If the meaning of the -er noun is instrumental/agentive, particularly, as in the 'taser' case, people are very likely to remove the -er to back-form a verb from it that refers to whatever it is the agent does. That's in fact how the words 'juggle' and 'burgle' entered English....

WordzGuy said...

Ah, excellent point, for some reason the agentive didn't occur to me while I was giving this the bit of thought I devoted to the question.

WordzGuy said...

Having a further think about the agentive -er suffix whilst on the bus today. This seems right:

laser = one who lases/lazes
taser = one who tases/tazes*
twitter = one who twits

The example of to twit is interesting because to twitter is already a verb, albeit with a meaning derived from a different context, e.g., birds. If I follow this right, the sequence is that the Web site owners took a verb and used it to name a Web site, thus nominalizing it. Users want a verb to indicate the action of using the site, so they take the (now nominal) Web site and apply a verbing pattern to it, as per the above. (The thought that to twit sounds an awful lot like a twit would seem like it would influence the adoption of such a verb, but who knows.)

* I speculate, without evidence, that the word taser was deliberately modeled on laser, which of course derives from an initialism.

Jay Cam said...

lol thats a good point...
i prefer tased/tazed

Anonymous said...

Verbs that end in -er do so for etymological reasons of their own and have nothing to do with comparison or agency, and you would form the past tense the same way you do with any other verb. If I "snooker" somebody, is that person said to be "snooked"? I don't think so.

The etymology of Taser is actually a trademark, and AHD4 lists it only as a noun, and with a capital T. So the question is, now that we find ourselves with a verb that means "to stun somebody with a Taser," is the verb "Taser" or "Tase," or is either correct? (And how long before we lose the capital T?) The answer will lead to the correct inflections.

FWIW, AHD4 lists "lase" as the verb form of "laser," so "tase" may have a bit more standing than a highly rated YouTube video starring a panicked soon-to-be victim.

WordzGuy said...

Jim, if you snooker someone, they're snookered, but per the weight of experience and, as you note, AHD4, laser begets lase, those appear to follow different rules, no?

Anonymous said...

Definitely,laser/lase and taser/tase follow different rules, which is my point. Snooker begets snookered, and taser begets tasered. But if the verb is really tase, then it begets tased--not because we drop the -er from the verb, but because the -er was never part of the verb.

Jeffrey said...

For what it's worth, a recent report in Newsweek on the surge in popularity of handheld tasers indicates that the company that manufactures them denies that "to tase" is a verb.

Which is really quite sad, as I personally prefer the sound of "to tase" than "to taser."

Anonymous said...
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Corey said...

I think "taser" is perceived by most speakers differently from laser (as an agentive noun) because of its novelty and the fact that it is an invention that does something which doesn't really have a word yet; (it's an acronym), and works like a newly coined root. Thus, it becomes very easy to reverse-engineer a verb, to "tase."

(the official TASER site of course says "never use as a verb." I imagine this will have as much effect on the language as a Kleenex in a windstorm... notice my capitalization of the trademarked Kleenex... :)

Personally, I don't think "lase" is really that common in daily speech, except in the case of eyes. Perhaps the popularity of "Lasik" eye surgery is affecting this.

I would still choose "lasered" as my default past tense form (if I were approached by an alien with a laser gun, I would probably be more inclined to say "Dude, don't laser me!" rather than "lase", assuming I didn't choose a more obvious word like "blast" :)

Anonymous said...

I've seen a lot of people claiming to have posted a "tweet" on twitter. No?

WordzGuy said...

"tweet" -- yes, that seems to be the noun for the thing you write on Twitter. The verb is not fully baked yet, I believe -- people both "twitter" and "tweet."