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Love Among the Participles

I have a true story for you, about a rare participle that brought two hearts together and sparked a romance. You may find a tear welling up as you read this, despite the material about inflectional morphology that you have to wade through first.

In 1977 my colleague Deirdre Wilson and I published a paper on English auxiliaries (“Autonomous syntax and the analysis of auxiliaries,” Language 53, 741-788). We defended the tradition of treating auxiliaries as verbs with quirks, and not as odd little indeclinable particles, which was how some linguists back then seemed to see them.

Certainly, some auxiliaries are a bit light on inflection: must, for example, lacks the plain form found in imperative or infinitival clauses, and has no participles, and doesn’t even exhibit a simple past tense (I had to has no parallel using must).

But, we pointed out in response, some uncontested verbs also lack certain inflected forms. Beware seems to have only the plain form found in imperatives and infinitivals; and consider stride: it appears to have no past participle. Indeed, the linguist Archibald Hill happened to have mentioned the previous year that a friend had asked him about the past participle of stride almost half a century before, and he had “been listening ever since for an example of this curiously non-existent form” (Language 52, 1976, p. 668).

More is now known about stride than we knew in 1977. As I mentioned on Language Log, in 2008 Rodney Huddleston (lead author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) finally discovered an instance of the relevant participle on p. 109 of Elizabeth George’s 2008 novel Careless in Red: “He’d stridden off after unlocking the front door,” she wrote. So the missing form appeared to be stridden.

More rummaging uncovered a 1980 paper by H. B. Woolf mentioning a few examples found in Merriam-Webster’s files, some of them saying “had stridden” and some saying “had strode,” indicating that there is variation and uncertainty among speakers. (One might expect it with a form so rare.)

Sadly, my Language Log post missed one significant citation. On page 125 of Steven Pinker’s well-known book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (Basic Books, 1999), which was right there on my bookshelves, this remark can be found:

Sometimes a form is familiar enough to block a regular version, but not quite familiar enough to sound natural, and speakers are left without any good past-[participle] form for it. Complete this sequence: I stride, I strode, I have ______. Most people grimace at this point, equally uncomfortable with stridden and strided. Stridden may be found in dictionaries and occasionally in prose (as in, “where . . . a pinnacle of beauty had stridden the earth,” from Rebecca Goldstein’s 1989 novel The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind), but it is not to be found in the million words of the Brown corpus. It hovers in the mists of memory, tainting strided without stepping onto the stage itself.

(Pinker actually wrote “any good past-tense form,” but I take the liberty of correcting the quotation above. The Brown Corpus he mentions is a famous early effort at Brown University to make a searchable computer database of representative English texts for use in linguistic investigations.)

So an instance of stridden had appeared in published prose nearly 20 years before Huddleston’s example—and I had overlooked a mention of it in a book that I owned.

But enough of this dry-as-dust stuff about text frequency of irregular participial forms. I promised you romance, and I will deliver.

One of the tens of thousands of people who bought and read Words and Rules was the novelist Rebecca Goldstein, and she noticed the quotation from her novel. It occurred to her to contact Pinker and suggest that since he had read some of her work and she had been reading some of his, they should perhaps meet and have tea.

They did. Tea was sipped; friendship arose; love grew. They became a couple, and remain so to this day. Two lovers brought together by a rare and precious participle, once wrongly thought to be mythical when in fact it was there like a watching angel, just out of reach of consciousness, hovering in the mists of memory.

I’ve often encountered humanities people who think the scientific view of language takes all the romance away. Don’t you believe it. Scientific students of linguistic behavior don’t miss any of the romance of language. When a linguistic scientist kisses you, you stay kissed.

Image from Flickr user Coolm36

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