Thursday, February 05, 2009


Another instance of a past tense that makes you go "huh?"

ABC has officially greenlit a pilot for its reworking of "V," the 1980s miniseries about alien lizards coming down to Earth.

(I got this from a Twitter post, but it seems to be a cite from elsewhere.)

I think my instinct would be to use greeenlighted. Probably (again) because we (well, I) like "regular" patterns for verbs and nouns, e.g., whacking -ed onto a verb for a past tense.

I briefly wondered about to light as a transitive verb; historically, I believe, this would have made it regular. But lit sounds right(er): He lit the way with a flashlight. Even so, greenlit sounds odd to me.

Obligatory Google search results:

greenlit: 256,000
greenlighted: 116,000


Jonathon said...

Actually, there's no connection (either historically or presently) between strong and weak verbs and transitive and intransitive verbs.

outerhoard said...

I had another past tense related double-take yesterday, but a completely different one: grammatical rather than lexical.

From here: "Lambeosaurs had hollow bony crests on their heads, the function of which was a subject of debate."

Because both clauses use the simple past tense, we would typically expect them to refer to the same point in the past. However, the first clause refers to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, whereas the second refers to the very recent past. The simplest fix would be to change the "was" to a "has been".

WordzGuy said...

@Jonathon -- what about lie/lay, sit/set?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Occasionally the irregular form is so strong that it overrides the tendency to make verbs regular. Broadcast is an example, and so is mouse (the noun, but the same principle).

I'd say that the placement/position verbs are coincidentally regular/irregular. Especially since "set" is irregular, too.

goofy said...

"greenlight" is a verb derived from a noun, right? So we'd expect a regular past tense, like with "fly out/flied out", and "breakfasted" not "brokefast".

WordzGuy said...

Well, speakers seem divided on the regular/irregular question here. You might expect a regular ending (my preference, I think), but the majority at the moment (assuming Google is some sort of approximation of a valid sample) seem to be going for the irregular.

As for the "derived from a noun" issue, from a logical POV, you're absolutely right, of course. But I'm not so sure I'd expect people to decline a noun based on what part of speech it is derived from. They'd have to intuit the nouniness of the word in a verbal context. Some do, some ... don't.

Japanese words said...

I hope they do bring back "V". That was a great show.

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Tyrthestudent said...

It lies more so with the practices of compound words, bid/bidden->forbid/forbidden, got/gotten->forgot, forgotten, come/came->overcome/overcame

This is my thought on the matter at least.

Anonymous said...

Both meanings of lie, the one that's a regular verb and the one that's irregular, are intransitive. (Lie = tell a lie / lie down.)

Anonymous said...

Language Log took a look at this issue not all too long ago:

The thinking there is that the more common and thus less closely associated with the original noun a denominal verb becomes and the less likely misunderstanding can occur, the more likely it is that the verb will become (or tolerate) irregular tense forms.

Compare "flied out" and "flew out": saying "he flew out" (as a bird, in a huff, etc.) potentially risks come confusion with "he flied out." Here, the denominal verb resists adopting the irregular "flew" past tense because it remains quite close in meaning with the noun it is derived from. Also, separating flied and flew offers an apparently still-useful semantic distinction.

With greenlighted/greenlit, the spread/adoption of "greenlit" seems to be related to the fact that speakers (in the entertainment industry at least) encounter the term so commonly that they no longer immediately think of "green lights" as at traffic stops any more when they use the verb "to greenlight." Because the verb is no longer closely associated semantically with green lights, the use of the irregular past tense spreads more easily. Also, there is no semantic distinction between "greenlighted" and "greenlit," so the verb is free to shift morphologically to follow the paradigm of "to light/lit."

On pairs like sit/set, lay/lie, etc.: this distinctions are merely the modern reflexes of a Germanic method of forming causative verbs. Originally, "sittan" had a past tense "sat," and when the causative suffix "-jan" was added to the past tense root, you got "sattjan," which through i-umlaut became "settjan." This causative suffix happened to take a weak preterite. This has nothing to do with transitive/intransitive: it has only to do with morphological derivation.

Other causative pairs (originally): to fall/to fell; stink/stench; drink/drench; rise/raise.

In modern English, the distinction between these pairs is also slowly dying out; the form "lain" is not even in most people's active (spoken) vocabulary, for instance, and the original distinction between "hung/hanged" has died out entirely now that "hanged" means exclusively "executed."

Otto said...

I would argue that in this particular instance, the interaction between the verb and its object demands the regular past tense. The object, in this case the 'V' pilot, is not being illuminated (lit) at all. Signal lights are observed. They do not act upon their observers. To greenlight something is to put a green light in its path, not to cast a green light upon it.

I would imagine that the roots of 'greenlit' were casual and/or comedic, as in the use of Lexi as a plural for Lexus cars. Someone said it, someone else admired and repeated it, and the first time it was texted using an alphanumeric keypad, the economy of letters was discovered, and its popularity was sealed.