The Grammarphobia Blog

Why don’t we say a batter flew out?

Q: Is it OK for sportcasters to say “flied out” when the proper past tense should be “flew out”?  What’s your feeling on this?

A: The past tense and past participle of the verb “fly,” when it means to hit a fly ball, is “flied,” not “flew.”

So sportscasters who say “he flied out” and “he had flied out” are using the standard terminology.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) give “flied” as the only past tense for the word in its baseball sense.

The Oxford English  Dictionary, which isn’t quite so definitive, says the past tense of “fly” on the ball field is usually “flied.”

The OED’s first citation for the baseball verb is from a report in the Chicago Tribune on July 3, 1893, about a game between the Chicago Colts and the Boston Beaneaters: “Kittridge flied out to Brodie.”

However, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, has a much earlier reference.

It comes from a report in the Boston Globe on June 13, 1872, about a game between the Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics: “Cuthbert flied out to Harry Wright.”

So the verb had the past tense “flied” when it was first used in this sense, though the Dickson book notes that in the early days of baseball both terms (“flied” and “flew”) regularly appeared in sports writing.

The OED, for example, has this 1904 “flew” citation from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat: “Wallace flew to Lush for the third out.”

But the remaining OED citations use “flied”:

1912, from Christy Mathewson’s book Pitching in a Pinch: “Sheckard flied out to Seymour”;

1948, and from the Durant (Okla.) Daily Democrat: “Baker then flied to center and neither runner was able to advance.”

Eventually, “flied” beat out “flew.” As Dickson explains: “Although the past tense of this verb is sometimes stated as flew out, it is now customary to say or write ‘flied out.’ ”

Why? The probable explanation goes to the very structure of the language, specifically the two kinds of verbs we have in English.

There are regular verbs with modern “ed” endings in the past tense and past participle, like “walked,” “laughed,” “jumped,” “helped,” and so on.

And there are irregular verbs with older, Anglo-Saxon endings, like “drove/driven”; “wrote/written”; “sang/sung”; “rose/risen,” and of course “flew/flown.”

We have only about 200 of the older verbs left. As we form new ones or give new meanings to oldsters, we tend to give them modern “ed” endings in the past tense.

This is particularly true when we make a new verb out of a noun, even if that noun is related to an earlier verb with an irregular ending.

And the verb phrase “fly out” is derived not from the old verb “fly” but from the noun “fly,” a baseball term (for “fly ball”) that originated in 1860.

So even though the sports noun is based on the old irregular verb “fly,” the new verb arising from the noun is given a modern “ed” ending.

Here are some other examples of this principle at work:

The past tense of “stand” is “stood.” But the verb “grandstand,” formed from the noun “grandstand” (1834), has the past “grandstanded.”

The past of “grind” is “ground.” But if a stripper performs a “bump and grind” (a relatively new term for an old dance), we  say she “bumped and grinded.”

The past tense of “light” can be “lit” or “lighted.” But we use the modern “ed” ending to say someone “moonlighted” as a plumber.

The usual past of the verb “cost” is “cost.” But we say an accountant “costed” (that is determined) the company’s proposed project.

The past tense of “spin” is “spun.” But the past of “spin” in its newer political sense is a work in progress. Some people say a politician “spun” the incident while others say he “spinned” it. May the best word win!

The verb “snowblow” hasn’t yet made it into standard dictionaries, but it’s alive and well in snow country … with a modern past tense.

We should know. We “snowblowed” our way through many a winter in rural New England.

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