Many have also warned of the linguistic apocalypse that lies ahead, especially in a time of social media, says the writer. Picture: 123RF/:MAKSYM YEMELYANOV
Many have also warned of the linguistic apocalypse that lies ahead, especially in a time of social media, says the writer. Picture: 123RF/:MAKSYM YEMELYANOV

English has changed countless times to an extent that its original form might as well be considered another language. Words came and went (and continue to), pronunciation changed, other languages had their say and everyday users morphed the language into whatever they needed at a given point in time — possibly never more so than today: the age of information.

For example, many no longer consider whom the object, and if the subjunctive was to disappear entirely, so too might clarity. Others still sacrifice outdated dictionaries to the language gods for ridding words such as among and amid of their tails — st.

But many have also warned of the linguistic apocalypse that lies ahead, especially in a time of social media. And given the rate that information flows today, changes — and doomsday — are likely to come fast.

In the last days of 2018, researchers in England published a study into the so-called regularisation of verbs — to opt for the suffix -ed, for example, learned instead of learnt. “Over time,” the authors wrote in the journal PLoS ONE, “the regular past tense has become more popular in general, and for some verbs has overtaken the irregular form.”

In their study, English Verb Regularization in Books and Tweets, they looked at books published between 2003 and 2008 and tweets sent out between September 2008 and October 2017 — about 106-billion — in both British and American English.

Where risks have arised

Many verbs have been used in their regular and irregular forms interchangeably for many years, such as burn and hang. And despite resistance, many believe there is no harm in developing and broadening a language.

The graphic below tracks the use of the verb “burn” from the 1800s through to today and shows when the regular form “burned” surpassed the irregular “burnt” as the preferable option.

Relative word frequencies for the irregular and regular past verb forms for ‘burn’ during the 19th and 20th centuries, using the Google Ngram Online Viewer with the English Fiction 2012 corpus. Graphic: PLoS ONE
Relative word frequencies for the irregular and regular past verb forms for ‘burn’ during the 19th and 20th centuries, using the Google Ngram Online Viewer with the English Fiction 2012 corpus. Graphic: PLoS ONE

In a more informal exercise, also using Google Ngrams, you could search a number of verbs and see how common they were over the years.

Take the verb “plead” as an example. The graphic below indicates that in books found on Google since 1800, the irregular form became more popular.

As for its regular counterpart “pleaded”, its use has been in steady decline in texts with only a slight uptick recorded in recent years.

The same, however, is not the case for the verb “sink”, which saw its irregular form — sank — drop in popularity from about 1900, while its regular form — sinked — recorded a sharp increase from the 1960s.

“Language changes,” said Dr Idette Noomé, a senior English lecturer at the University of Pretoria. “I think there is a case to be made for alternative forms.”

Prof Rajend Mesthrie, an author and linguistics lecturer at the University of Cape Town, who described the study as “uninteresting”, went further and said all languages change to the extent “that the notion of ‘a language’ is an idealisation”.

But this is not to suggest that irregular verbs can be forgotten altogether. There are instances where the regular form can look or sound odd and in some contexts be completely wrong. Were you to inform your spouse that you “hanged” the washing, they would be forgiven for expecting to see a noose around their garments, as the regular past tense of the verb “hang” is commonly only used when a person is strung up by the neck. Meanwhile, it might also be wise to steer clear of verbs such as “beginned”, “bringed” or “choosed” entirely. 

It becomes even more complicated when the word in question is used as an adjective — avoid eating “burned” toast and “going breaked”.

That is exactly the concern. Changes to any language are often to communicate new meanings and describe new concepts, but this should not come at the cost of clarity.

Noomé said she had no problem about a verb becoming widely accepted in its regular form, but added that it remained non-negotiable in some cases. “It is a problem when the language becomes distorted to the point where you don’t actually know what the word means,” she explained.

We “builded” a new language

While the irregular form of some verbs may have died many years ago (you’d be forgiven to view Hercules a lesser hero if he were to tell you that he “clom” Mount Etna), there is evidence to suggest that social media might play a role in the transition from the irregular form of verbs in their past tense to the regular.

In informal settings such as Twitter, there is likely to be little regard for the “correct form” of a word, unless the tweeter is a proficient user or is using a spell checker. According to Noomé, second- and third-language speakers outnumber native speakers 4:1, making it somewhat unlikely for social media users to pay close attention.

Why fuss about verb forms on platforms where complete words and sentences are the exception rather than the norm? Perhaps it should not be such a big deal, to the extent it may influence formal writing, as the study suggests.

In short, the researchers noted that in US English, Twitter led the regularisation process followed by published work, while recording the opposite in British English. This, they believe, could be a result of British publishers and writers being influenced by their US counterparts, while “it may be that average British users of Twitter are more resistant to the change”.

The authors admit that their sample of social-media users and published work is not a universal representation of English speakers, but they are not the only researchers to notice this trend.

It goes without saying that the importance of clarity in a time of misinformation campaigns, populism and questionable statements is more necessary than ever. For one, Lawrence Mrwebi, the suspended public prosecutions special director, claims to have never intended to have a case dropped into the former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli despite a hand-written note stating that the matter was closed.

Yes, writers have editors and many dictionaries and style guides prefer the irregular past verb, as does this publication. But not all outlets have style guides and many writers disregard the finer details while they may not have the luxury of a second pair of eyes.

As no-one can control any language — especially in its spoken form — safeguarding and prioritising clear communication is maybe the only course of action. After all, playing with words and structure is a worthwhile and exciting endeavour — hence this article. Enjoy manipulating language while understanding your intentions — at least until tiny pixelated cartoons replace words entirely.

vandermerwep@businesslive.co.za