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At the bus stop where I catch the campus shuttle each morning, there are two benches, each of which usually has an ad on it. One of the benches has an ad right now that I find to be grammatically strange:

"Call Gary Kent To Sell or Short Sale Your Home"

(If the picture doesn’t load or it’s too blurry, the ad reads “Call Gary Kent To Sell or Short Sale Your Home”.)

When I first saw this ad, I’d only heard of short selling as something in finance, a way of profiting off of a stock or commodity that you expect will drop in value. You sell somebody something that you borrowed, and wait for its value to drop, then buy back the borrowed thing and return it to the person you borrowed it from. It’s a dangerous form of speculation, and the excitingly-named “naked short sell” maneuver has been banned in a number of countries. Short selling in finance, therefore, is not very popular in the public mind.

A short sale in real estate, on the other hand, is a rescue maneuver. It’s designed to allow a homeowner who can no longer afford a mortgage the opportunity to sell the house at market value, even if that is less than the remaining balance on the mortgage. I don’t entirely understand how this is so different from a regular house sale, since it usually still leaves the original homeowner on the hook for the amount of the mortgage above the sale price, but hey, that’s why I parlayed my degree in math into linguistics and not into finance. And the details are irrelevant to the present issue, which is: why did Gary Kent or his copywriters choose to treat short sale as a verb? Why not use short sell as the verb?

The decision struck me as especially strange since it goes against parallelism; not three words earlier in the sentence, the verb sell is used. It certainly seems like a conscious choice to have used short sale as the verb and not short sell. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon choice to make. Google says there’re around 1 million hits of the phrase “how to short sale”, and “short sale your house” gets another 3.6 million. Here’s something especially crazy: the corresponding versions of these phrases using short sell are substantially less common, getting only 150,000 and 26,000 hits, respectively. Short sale is actually a more common verb than short sell!

So it’s probably not a mere error, which means that the psycholinguist in me can come out and wonder why people behave in this grammatically strange way. Why would one prefer a backformation of a verb from its nominal form, short sale, to its “standard” verb form, short sell? I don’t know, but here are four possible explanations I’ve come up with for why people might do this.

Compounding. It might be that the addition of short to sale changes the morphological properties of sell. People go back and forth on whether compound or affixed nouns and verbs are morphologically opaque. You might have encountered this if you’ve ever had a debate with yourself as to whether the plural is passers-by (morphologically transparent) or passer-bys (morphologically opaque)? Or mongeese versus mongooses? Or what about the past tense of forgo? (Personally, I avoid forgo in the past tense because I think both forwent and forgoed sound crummy.) It’s not always clear whether a compound form should be opaque to morphological processes. One possible explanation, then, is that the copywriter thinks of short sale as an opaque compound, and they won’t go in and change the form of just one of the component words. That forces the use of a null morphological transformation to create the verb from the compound noun, rather than going into the compound and changing the component noun sale back into the verb sell.

Differentiation. I mentioned above that I only knew short selling from finance. I imagine many other people are more familiar with the finance meaning as well. The problem is that short selling in finance has a bad reputation; it is widely viewed as a contributor to the market crash of 1929 that set off the Great Depression as well as the crash that led to our current recession. A real estate short sale is designed to help a homeowner get out of the recession, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid making people recall the financial construction that threw them into their current predicament. Using a different verb form sets the two meanings apart a bit, perhaps reducing a seller’s discomfort with the transaction.

Idiomatic Avoidance. To “sell oneself short” is an idiom with a fairly negative connotation, meaning that you aren’t advertising your abilities properly, or you aren’t getting your money’s worth. To suggest that they would sell your house short, then, is something that no real estate agent would want. So the copywriter might have avoided “short sell” to avoid triggering “sell short” in people’s minds.

Recognition/SEO. One last possibility I’d consider is that the use of short sale is intended to ensure that the viewer of the ad will recognize what’s being talked about immediately. (The asterisks certainly suggest that the copywriter was trying to call attention to the short selling aspect of the ad.) This is especially important in the online world, where some browsers don’t perform stemming (looking for other morphological forms of a search term); if a searcher looks for “short sale”, some engines wouldn’t return an ad saying “sell or short sell your home”. The mild ungrammaticality is well worth the extra traffic, as any Search Engine Optimization consultant could tell you. And you would get extra traffic; Google Trends shows around 10 times as much traffic for “short sale” as for “short sell” over the last year and a half:

Google Trends Stats

What do you think? Do you have any other ideas, or maybe even inside information from a real estate office, on the use of verbal short sale? Information on why a short sale without debt forgiveness is different from a regular house sale would also be appreciated.

(By the way, this is also a good example of why I’m a descriptivist. Trying to figure out why people go against grammatical standards a lot more rewarding than just condemning them for it.)

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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