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Google+, Google’s answer to Facebook, has been generating a ton of buzz in its brief invitation-only phase. That’s about all I know about it; I’ve intentionally been avoiding investigating further. It doesn’t have FarmVille, so what’s the point? But I’m on Twitter too much to avoid Google+ entirely. I’d been getting 140-character updates about its importance or awesomeness from a variety of sources, but what finally got me to look into it was an update from an unexpected quarter: Ben Zimmer, with a tweet about the morphology of +1.

The +1 button on Google and Google+ is basically a generalization of Facebook’s “Like” button, indicating “what you like, agree with, or recommend on the web.” The trouble is that users are going to want to use +1 in more general contexts, treating the word* +1 as a stand-alone noun, verb, and so on. This already happened with Facebook’s Like, and there it was a pretty seamless process, since the new meaning of like could piggy-back on the morphology of the existing word like, resulting in likes, liked, liking, etc.

+1 doesn’t have this same ability, at least in text. Plus-one exists as a word in English, referring to “A person who accompanies another to an event as that person’s nominated guest, but who has not been specifically invited” (OED) — e.g., your date for an event. This word has its morphology basically worked out (plus-ones is used in the OED’s first attestation, back in 1977, and here’s an example of “plus-oned the alloys”, whatever that means). The trouble, though, is that the word isn’t written plus-one; it’s written +1. The pronounced forms are all worked out, but the written form is unestablished.

Credit is due to Google for recognizing this and wanting to establish the conventions. In their +1 help, they explain their spelling conventions, in which the morphologically complex forms are formed with apostrophes — +1’s, +1’d, +1’ing — rather than the plain forms +1s, +1d, +1ing. In so doing, they raised the hackles of some grammarians, so let’s look at each of the forms individually to try to explain the choice.

+1’s. Apostrophe-s is a standard way to pluralize nouns with strange forms, such as letters, numerals, acronyms, or abbreviations. This introduces ambiguity with the possessive form, but it avoids other ambiguities (such as pluralized a looking like the word as) and often looks better (I think Ph.D.s looks weird). Thus we see mind your p’s and q’s, multiple Ph.D.’s, and Rolling 7’s and 11’s. +1 ends in a numeral, so it’s not unusual to write it as +1’s instead of +1s, although either is acceptable. (For more on apostrophes in plurals, see this old post.)

+1’d. Apostrophe-d for the past tense is not as common as apostrophe-s for the plural, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Fowler’s Modern English Usage favors it for words ending in a fully pronounced vowel — forming mustachio’d instead of mustachioed, for example — in order to avoid a strange collocation of vowels clogging the end of the word. However, this appears to be a minority position; mustachioed generates about 35 times more Google hits than mustachio’d.

"Wait, lads! Am I being shanghaied or shanghai'd?"

Apostrophe-d used to be a more general suffix, up until around the middle of the 19th century (judging by the Corpus of Historical American English). In Middle English, the -ed suffix was always pronounced with the vowel, and in Early Modern English, the vowel was optional in some words where today it is obligatorily omitted. If you’ve ever heard someone described as learned, pronounced /learn-ED/ instead of /learnd/, you’ve seen one of the few remaining vestiges of this alternation. With variation, it was useful to have different written forms to indicate whether the vowel was pronounced or not.

I first learned of this reading a Shakespeare play in which certain words were written as, for instance, blessèd, with an accent indicating that the second e was to be pronounced so that the meter of teh line was correct. To clarify cases where the vowel was not to be pronounced, poets and playwrights would sometimes vanish the e into an apostrophe. This edition of Hamlet, for instance, includes both drowned and drown’d on the same page when different characters are talking about the death of Ophelia:

Queen: Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.
Clown: Argal, she drowned herself willingly.

But historical usage is dead, so perhaps the more relevant comparision is looking at other numerical verbs. The only one that’s coming to my mind is 86, meaning to eject or reject something. Looking around, I see both 86’d and 86ed used, with 86’d appearing to be a bit more common. The Wikipedia entry for 86 only has 86’d attested, and there’s also a book titled 86’d. At the very least, 86’d is an acceptable variant, and seemingly the more common as well. In that case, it’s not surprising that Google would choose +1’d over +1ed or +1d.

+1’ing. Lastly, we have the present participle. There isn’t a historical component to this usage like there was for the past tense. The apostrophe-ing form is attested for 86, appearing in the book Repeat Until Rich, but 86ing without the apostrophe looks to be a little bit more common on the web as a whole.** The trouble is that 86(‘)ing just isn’t well-attested in either form. Unlike the plural and past tense, there isn’t much of a precedent for apostrophe-ing, and in fact there doesn’t seem to be much of a precedent for the present participle of a numeral in general. I think that the choice to include the apostrophe in the present participle was made strictly for consistency’s sake; I doubt many people would prefer the paradigm +1’s, +1’d, +1ing to the more consistent one they chose.

The future. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what Google says, just as it doesn’t really matter what Strunk & White or Fowler or I or any other language commentator says. Language is what people do with it. Personally, I suspect that the apostrophes will disappear fairly quickly. Even in typing this, I kept on being annoyed that I had to send a finger out in search of an apostrophe. When you’re writing something often, you want to toss out unnecessary stuff — Facebook is a good example of this; when I first ended up on it back in 2004, you still had to type to get to it, but that unnecessary the was quickly lost. As people become more familiar and comfortable with +1 and its inflected forms, the need (and the desire) for the apostrophes will ebb, and I think we’ll see +1s dominate. In fact, even typing +1 is kind of a pain (I keep accidentally typing +!), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see plus-ones, or even pluses, eventually become the standard.

*: I’m going to call +1 a word in this post, though you may find it more of a phrase. The key point is that it has a specific meaning that is not a simple sum of its component morphemes (plus and one), and that makes it word-like for my purposes.

**: 86’ing doesn’t appear in the Google N-grams corpus, suggesting it appeared less than 40 times in a trillion words. 86ing appears there with 962 hits.

I went to buy something the other day using a credit card, but I screwed up somehow and the machine ended up cancelling the transaction. It announced this to me in a message that persisted on the screen for an interminable twenty seconds as “The transaction has been canceled.” For those twenty seconds, all I could think about — aside from my lingering fear that perhaps my card had been disabled and now I was never going to be able to get whatever doubtlessly important object I was trying to buy — was that that message just didn’t look right to me.

I’ve always written the past tense of cancel with two L’s. It’s cancelled to me, cancelling as well. Because I’m not as familiar with the canceled spelling, it occasionally triggers a strange “can-sealed” pronunciation in my head. This is presumably because my brain follows one of those standard heuristics of English pronunciation, that a single vowel followed by a single consonant and an e means to make the first vowel long and silence the e. That’s what we have in such words as rile, smote, or gale. And it’s especially prominent to me since it’s in my first name (Gabe).

This pronunciation heuristic is generally followed in tense changes as well; the verb pan becomes panned in its past tense, with two n‘s, to maintain the short a sound. Without the double n, it’d be paned, which I’d pronounce, well, like paned (as in double-paned glass).

And yet I’ve noticed more and more over the years that my countrymen disagree with me. In error messages I see a single l, leaving me even more depressed about the error. The AP Stylebook disagrees with me too. But why? What caused Americans to move away from the general English spelling heuristic?

"Cancelled" written on a chalkboard

Ah, much better.

I didn’t know, but if there’s anyone who could shed light on this, it’s Ben Zimmer. He puts it at the foot of Noah Webster, the American Samuel Johnson. Webster compiled the first dictionary of American English, and consciously sought to distance American English from British English, which he saw as corrupted by the aristocracy. Because Webster was codifying American English as a dialect separate from the standards of British English, this gave him the ability to make the changes he saw as appropriate to the American forms.

One of the major changes he wanted made was spelling reform, and so in Webster’s first dictionary (1828, available in searchable form here), we see the beginning of many Anglo-American debates: colour appeared as color, centre was switched to center, and our target cancel was listed with past tense canceled, present progressive canceling, and noun form cancelation.* His idea here was to push for easier or more natural or more accurate (relative to pronunciation) spellings. The u doesn’t get pronounced in colour? Gone. Centre isn’t pronounced cent-ruh? Switch it. Cancelled doesn’t have a double-l sound? Smash ’em together.

Some of Webster’s revisions took over pretty quickly. A quick glance at Google N-grams shows color surging in AmEng in the 1830s, and surpassing colour by 1850. Center took longer, but still surpassed centre by the turn of the century.

But others, like canceled, stayed on the sidelines. Oh, canceled grew in popularity, but it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the two forms evened out, and it wasn’t until the ’80s that canceled finally asserted itself as the more common form.** Personally, I think that sluggishness is because this spelling change doesn’t make as much sense as the others. The second l may be silent, but it tells you not to change the stem vowel’s pronunciation, and thus it has something of a purpose.

Google N-Grams chart of the slow rise of "canceled"

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that Webster was primarily a descriptivist, compiling a dictionary wherein he was looking to accurately capture the American form of English. But he prescribed a new spelling for a large set of words, and now his changes, which for years were held in lower esteem, are becoming the thing that prescriptivists demand adherence to.

Unfortunately, in his attempt to simplify matters, Webster introduced new confusion. I don’t see how it’s easier to remember not to put in an extra l when all the similar words double their last letter. And worse, Webster’s changes didn’t fully take. Sure, canceled and canceling are doing fine, but cancelation never caught on. Thus the AP Stylebook (and many other usage guides) have the inflections of cancel as canceled, canceling, cancellation, which is needlessly complicated in my mind.

And so that’s the deal. In American English, single-l canceled is the common form, almost thrice as common as cancelled according to Google N-grams. There will probably be a day where the double-l form will look as old and affected as centre in American English, but that point isn’t here yet. Use whichever form you like more. Me? I like the across the board double-l forms. (Of course I do; I was born just before canceled surpassed cancelled.)

*: Webster also included the fun adjectival form cancelated, which I hope to incorporate into my speech in the future.

**: I hope the non-Americans in the audience will forgive my focus on American English. None of these Websterian changes have surpassed the original form in the British English portion of Google N-grams, and I don’t have enough personal experience in non-American Englishes to say anything more than these numbers do.

You know that I think too many people try to catch other people on grammar mistakes and typos. It’s alright (but often rudely done) when the correcter is right. It’s irritating when the correcter is neither right nor wrong (as with omitting or including Oxford commas). And then there’s the hypercorrection, where the correcter really wants to prove their superiority, and just starts making corrections willy-nilly, often miscorrecting perfectly acceptable writing. Here’s a fun example, posted as either a “job LOL” or a “work fail” on Failblog:


OH BOOM! Hey, person who just wanted to keep a common area clean! You and your reasonable request just got served! Scorched Earth LOL!

Except: I count five corrections, of which two are invalid, one is a question of tone, and only two are actually valid complaints. Oh, and there’s a missed correction.

Correction 1: whoever to whomever. See, this is why whom is leaving English. Very few people, even those who want to see it stay in the language, know how to use it correctly (i.e., as the accusative case form of who, not as the formal version of who). Briefly, whom(ever) is used when the noun phrase it’s replacing would be an object of a verb. The wh-word in whoever ate this pizza is replacing a subject NP, which means that it should get nominative case (whoever), not accusative case (whomever). If the clause were “whoever this pizza ate”, then one could add the m. But it is not, and the correction is wrong.

Correction 2: Removing the comma before and. Because this and is joining two verb phrases into a single verb phrase with a single subject, there’s no syntactic reason to have this comma. The comma is also inappropriate from a rhetorical standpoint; a speaker wouldn’t pause before this and. Score 1 for the correcter.

Correction 3: Replacing the comma with a semicolon before you are gross. No, semicolons generally join two complete sentences into a single sentence, and whoever … here isn’t complete.* A comma is indeed correct here; this is an example of left-dislocation, rare in written English but common in spoken English and many other languages**. In left-dislocation, a noun phrase describing the subject or object of the sentence is placed at the beginning of the sentence as the topic of the sentence, and then is referred to later by a pronoun.

Because the specific pronoun here is you, this could also be a case of the whoever phrase being a vocative phrase appended at the beginning of the sentence. Again, this is common in spoken English and shows up often in online comments: e.g., “John, you need to grow up.” If it’s viewed as a vocative, then a comma is again correct. A colon could also be appropriate, as a greeting for the entire message, like the opening to a business letter. Either way, a semicolon is incorrect, and so is the corrector.

Correction 4: Parenthesizing profanity. The corrector claims that there’s no need for profanity. This is an issue of style, and isn’t really right or wrong. In a business setting, like the one this pizza box was apparently found in, written profanity may be inappropriate. However, having been in college recently enough to remember roommates who left empty pizza boxes scattered like lamps around a living room, I would argue that profanity is merited in these cases.

Correction 5: it’s replacing its. That’s a good change. The added rationale, though, should have a colon in place of its comma: need an apostrophe: ITS = possessive.

Missed Correction: the space in who ever. Whoever ought to be a single word here, because it’s the indefinite/generalized form of who, which is standardly written as a single word any more. Who ever would be appropriate if ever were an adverb modifying the verb (e.g., Who ever heard of a snozzberry?). When the correcter added the M, they retained the space, and that’s a missed opportunity to correct.

All in all, this is a microcosm of why I hate people correcting people’s grammar. The correctors are often wrong themselves, and in the course of trying to show up someone else, they completely miss the point — in this case, the undeniable fact that abandoned pizza boxes belong in the trash. Correctors: You’re not helping. And if you’re not helping, you could at least have the decency to be right.

*: It could be complete as a question, but here it’s obviously supposed to be a declarative sentence.

**: I first became aware of left-dislocation in French sentences like Mon ami, il est comme un sandwich, and there’s a whole class of languages that regularly do this.

It seems as though every time I’m directed to the Huffington Post, it’s to see an article that someone was complaining about. My most recent trip was no different, as I was directed to an article about “Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up Or Mangles” thanks to Daughter Number Three. It offers as either a mix-up or mangling (I’m not entirely clear which) shined and shone, which battle for the position as past tense and participle for the verb shine:

Shine is one of those ‘strong verbs’ that had an irregular past tense and past participle (shone) but later acquired a regular form ending in –ed as well. Some people use the forms interchangeably, but there is a pattern that most people follow to keep them distinct. Shined takes a personal subject and an object: I shined the flashlight at the bear. Shone is used of light sources and does not take an object: The moon shone over the harbor.”

But DNT didn’t think this fit with her usage, and I don’t think it fits with mine, either. Let’s break down the claims and see how they stand up. But first, let’s briefly talk about past tenses, because they’re going to be important later on, and I think the English tense system isn’t adequately taught in school. A verb in English has two basic past tense forms, the simple past and the past participle. Consider the verb speak. It has two past forms, spoke and spoken:

(1a) He spoke of New World Orders and death panels.
(1b) Afterward, I wished we had never spoken.

Spoke is the simple past form, which occurs without any auxiliary predecessors (e.g., had). Spoken is the past participle, which occurs with an auxiliary (had in (1b)). The past participle is also the form that is used in the passive, and for certain adjectival forms of the verb:

(2a) The words were *spoke/spoken in the style of Sy Greenbloom, owner of Spatula City.
(2b) Justin Bieber’s new *spoke/spoken word album is expected to sell tepidly.

For most English verbs, these two forms are the same (talked, slapped, etc.), but many common verbs have two different forms. These two-form verbs include eat, beat, bite, and do. And, possibly, shine. Okay, enough digression. Let’s examine the claims.

Shined is the newer form. More or less right, but neither one’s new. Shine is originally a Germanic word, and its past tense was formed using ablaut, a kind of morphological vowel mutation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Old English the infinitive was scínan, with simple past forms scán and scinon. The past participle form is apparently unattested in Old English (if I’m correctly understanding what the OED is telling me).

In late Middle English and Early Modern English (1300-1700), according to the OED, shone (from OE scán) and shined split time as the simple past, and shined was the common form for the past participle. Shone, if it did indeed come from scán, is technically older, but shined was standard throughout the period in both usages:

(1a) “No man she saw & 3it shynede the mone” [simple past; Chaucer c1385]
(1b) “Then shined foorth indeede all loue among them.” [simple past; Sidney a1586]

(2a) “The mone is alway halfe shyned of the sonne.” [past participle; Trevisa 1398]
(2b) “It is god..which hath shyned in oure hertes, for to geve the light of knowledge off the glorious god.” [past participle; Tindale 1526]*

It’s not clear that shine originally had shone as its past participle; the OED notes that sinen appeared once as the past participle in Middle English, but that shone is only first attested as a past participle in 1566. It may well be that shined was the original past participle, but I lack sufficient knowledge of the history of English to state this as anything more than a hunch. The key point is that the relative ages of the forms are irrelevant; both have been around for centuries.

Shined takes a personal subject. Nope. I searched for shined in Mark Davies’s excellent and free Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)**, and found 166 instances. In 47 cases, the word preceding shined was shoes, but shoes were rarely the subject. The sentences were mostly things like “I just had those shoes shined!”, so let’s overlook them for now as irrelevant to the claim. The next most common predecessor, though, was light, which appeared 10 times, each time as a subject. Same with the five times sun shined appeared and the two times for eyes shined. There were another 14 inanimate subjects that only occurred once, bringing the total to 31. By comparison, there were only 18 occurrences of human subjects with shined.*** No evidence there for requiring a personal subject.

Shined takes an object. Not necessarily. Again, we’ll overlook the cases of shoes shining for now. But in each of the cases with inanimate subjects listed above, there was no object of the verb shine. The sentences were instead “The sun shined like his smile” and such. Since inanimate subjects were more common in this sample, lacking an object was more common than having an object, so there’s no evidence for this claim either.

Shone takes a light source as its subject and no object. On shone, the claim held up better. COHA returned 3753 instances of shone preceded by a noun, and of those, 906 are sun shone, 633 are eyes shone, 418 are light shone, and 312 are moon shone. These alone account for 60% of the results. In fact, the top 100 subjects all appear to be light sources (although some, like eyes, are only metaphorical). I failed to find a single instance in COHA of shone taking an object.

However, this preference for light-source subjects and no objects may only be the case in written or historical English. A quick Google search shows “she shone” and “she shined” are comparably common (64K to 84K hits), so while there may be a preference for inanimate subjects with shone, there’s clearly no prohibition against animate subjects.

So what’s the real difference? It’s not about light sources or who’s doing the shining. It’s about shoes. shone is hardly used in the context of shining shoes; “shined shoes” has 34K Google hits, while “shone shoes” has 1K. On COHA, shoes is the most common noun to appear next to shined, with 74 examples. shoes doesn’t appear in the top 500 nouns on either side of shone, meaning that there is at most one instance of shoes shone or shone shoes in COHA. This is where the shined/shone difference actually shows up. Don’t get so distracted by the light.

I’m betting that there is also a formality/tone difference. For me, as a relatively young speaker of American English, The light shone in the darkness sounds almost poetic compared to The light shined in the darkness. My belief in this tone difference is bolstered by the fact that shone is far more common in COHA than shined is, but only twice as common on Google. That’s hardly conclusive, of course.

Lastly, there might be a past tense versus past participle distinction. I think that I prefer shined as a past participle but shone as a past tense. Other people might too. In fact, the OED lists shined as an American, dialectal, or archaic form for the past tense, but standard and current for the past participle, so I think (some) Brits might agree with me.

How could we settle this? Logistic regression over attested and labelled corpus examples would probably be the best way, allowing us to control for all the various variables proposed here and in the Huffington Post article. Then we’d know which ones are really significant preferences and which ones are idiosyncratic to either me or the author of the Huffington Post article. Until then, let’s fight it out in the comments!

*: This section as a whole has been substantially reworked thanks to points raised by Ryan, HR Freckenhorst, goofy, & The Ridger. Amongst other problems, both of the examples I’d given before were of shined as a simple past tense. goofy supplied the two past participle usages to complete the point I’d only partially made.

**: I’m using COHA here because of the claim that people are currently mixing up the words, so presumably we want to look back a bit to before this confusion hit. It also has higher quality texts than the average Internet hit, and some useful part-of-speech tagging.

***: These numbers come from a quick perusal of the data, so I ignored subjects that did not immediately precede shined, and probably miscounted a bit. Think of them as nothing more than vague estimates.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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