Thursday, November 03, 2011

Malcolm's poser

Malcolm asks an interesting language question over at his blog. I assume he doesn't want you to use Google to look up the answer, so I'm currently codgimatating on my own.

UPDATE: a commenter gets it. Malcolm's original post said:

Here’s one for you, language weenies: can you think of an irregular English verb that becomes a regular verb when applied to a particular subject? (I’ll post the answer if nobody gets it in a day or so.)

My own guess was the modal verb can (which, like other English modals, is called a "defective verb" because it has no "to-" form); modals are irregular, but this wasn't the verb Malcolm was thinking of: he was thinking of to hang.

What makes a verb irregular? At least two things: how it's conjugated in the present tense, and how its participial forms lay out. A regular verb like to walk would chart like this:

I walk
You walk
He walks
We walk
You (all) walk
They walk

I walked.
I have walked.

(walk, walked, walked)

We see that to walk is regular because (1) the verb is uninflected except for the third-person singular "s," and (2) the past tense simply requires the addition of an "-ed" suffix. The verb can, like other modals (should, will, etc.), is irregular in its present-tense conjugation, and it has no past-tense form aside from could (which doubles as the conditional form).

Malcolm's focus was on irregular verbs whose conjugation in the past tense doesn't conform to the above rule. Example: begin, began, begun (no "begined" or "beginned"). He's perfectly correct to think that "hang/hung" is an irregular configuration while "hang/hanged" is regular.

But that certainly wasn't the only possibility. See can among the irregular verbs here. While we're at it, let's add will to the list of verbs that meet Malcolm's criteria. As an auxiliary, it's irregular, but when used in a sentence like God willed the earth into existence, it's regular.



Malcolm Pollack said...

Hmmm - commented here yesterday, but it looks like it got lost.

Anyway: interesting point. It seems to me that verbs like 'can' and 'will' are arguably entirely different words in their non-modal, non-auxiliary forms, despite sharing spelling and pronunciation.

Kevin Kim said...

Sorry about that. Your previous comment never showed up in my queue, so it must have become a sacrifice for the cthonian deities.

As for "can" and "will," I'd say that they're verbs, and they can be regular or irregular depending on the situation, so they meet your criteria (dammit!).

You really are anti-inclusivist, aren't you!?

Malcolm Pollack said...