Monday, October 02, 2006

Didst troubleshoot

One of our folks here sent around a query asking "What's the past of troubleshoot?" That's one of those "No, wait ..." questions. Whichever past you initially come up with -- troubleshot, troubleshooted -- you do a mental double take, because neither of them sounds right. AHD declares troubleshot, not surprisingly, but when's the last time you ever heard someone say that? Confusion seems to be common; a Googlefight reports about a 3:8 ration for troubleshooted:troubleshot. At least 37% of speakers are willing to actually write the former.

There's undoubtedly a name for this phenomenon, and if there isn't, the Language Log folks can come up with one in a jiffy. What's happening is that a word with an uncontroversial past tense (verbs) or plural (nouns) is used in a new context. The new context can be a new definition (e.g. a computer mouse) or with some sort of morphological twist (trouble+shoot). The new context is just sufficiently different to cause speakers to think of the word as new, or at least, to not intuitively connect it to its related form.

Some examples that I've noted here before (I think):

  • Plural of (computer) mouse: mice or mouses? Contemplated at leisure, it's easy to be confident that you know. But there is that "No, wait ..." factor, and Google lists nearly 2 million hits for mouses.
  • In baseball, today a hitter flies out; yesterday he flied out.
  • The past of cast is cast, but the past of podcast and broadcast is very often -casted.
There are many more, not that I can think of any.

Update 10/17/06: Saw the past of to cheerlead in the New Yorker recently: they cheerlead. Again, correct per the stem, but still a "No, wait ..." moment.

This phenomenon really only occurs when the original word has some sort of irregularity to it -- for example, the past of shoot is shot (irregular), not shooted (regular). But in the new context, folks apply the rules for formation of new words, which are overwhelmingly to use regular inflections and declensions and conjugations. New nouns are pluralized by adding -(e)s -- whatever your classics teacher might have told you, the common plural in English of octopus is octopuses. New verbs form the past tense with -d/-ed -- if we make up a new verb to bim, its past tense is going to be bimmed.[1] (A form of not particularly hilarious humor is to apply faux irregular rules to regular verbs, e.g., squeeze-squoze, think-thunk, bring-brang, status-stati, etc.)[2]

There is a certain, mmm, class of people who look down on this type of formation, but I don't see any particular reason why that should be. When little kids do it, we think it's cute, although the more appropriate sentiment might be astonishment at how quickly and thoroughly small children deduce morphological rules. And anyway, did you have a "No, wait ..." moment when you thought about troubleshoot? All right, then.

[1] A pattern that can throw people is a verb whose root contains -ing, like ring, sing, or fling. Make up a verb with -ing (e.g., fring), and a certain number of people will intuitvely use the irregular past. See Pinker in Rules and Words (or equivalent).

[2] A few times these forms have scrabbled their way into acceptance, the commonly cited example always being snuck in place of the (nominally) historically correct sneaked. Also: quit (vs. quitted), knelt (vs. kneeled), drug (vs. dragged).


Anonymous said...

Nice to see you back! I've missed your insights. To your discussion of "irregulars" I'd add comic-irregular plurals such as "Prii" (two or more Toyota Priuses). And a friend with a serious footwear habit calls her multiple pairs of fine Italian shoes "Ferragami," which of course isn't irregular at all in its native Italian.

Anonymous said...

The past tense of troubleshoot is "fixed." ;)

bjkeefe said...

LOL @ "fixed." I was trying to think of something like this.

The one that always bothered me is "light," as in smoking. I remember when "I lighted a cigarette" was the correct form, but "I lit a cigarette" seems to be widely accepted these days.

In contrast to my usual stick-in-the mud tendencies, I prefer the latter, and I fighted a long time about this one.

Anonymous said...

Good one Brendan. I hate irregular verbs, but I guess I will be fighteding them for the rest of my life.

Another interesting comical twist is when you use the regular and irregular forms at the same time, as in "bring it on? Oh it's already been broughted!"

Phrases like that are typically seen in the media to portray a caricature of an ignorance stereotype. I'm not sure if any black women actually said "I'm going to get my hair did" before it was seen in the media, but the phrasing is used as an "overly-wrong" example of how some people are careless with their grammar.

Anonymous said...

I troubleshoot implanted medical device malfunctions for a living. After a long days work, I have not fixed anything. (These devices remain in the patient until it is decided that they need to be reprogrammed, replaced, etc.)

crm said...

I get around this on my resume by saying I "performed troubleshooting on."


WordzGuy said...

@crm -- yeah, definitely I'd work around it as well, coz neither past tense sounds right.