The Grammarphobia Blog

Much ado about texting

Q: How do you pronounce the past tense of “text” (a word, mind you, that is yet to be recognized by the Oxford Dictionary)? The two-syllable pronunciation, TEXT-ed, sounds too juvenile to me. I prefer one syllable, along the lines of “ask” and “asked.” Please advise.

A: The verb “text” does indeed appear in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as in the Oxford Dictionaries online.

It’s also in many standard dictionaries, including the two we consult the most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Dictionaries don’t generally provide pronunciation guides for past tenses unless there’s something unusual about them.  However, the dictionaries sometimes use dots to show that a past tense is divided into separate syllables.

American Heritage, for example, lists the past tense of “text” as “text·ed,” indicating that the word has two syllables.

As for us, we pronounce “texted” as TEXT-ed, and we’ve never heard it pronounced otherwise.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky shed some light on “texted” in a blog post he wrote on the subject in 2008.

“The big point,” Zwicky says in his article, “is that novel verbs—verbed nouns in particular—are almost invariably entirely regular in their inflection.”

Thus a noun like “text,” when it becomes a verb, will ordinarily form its past tense and past participle with the addition of “-ed.”

He notes that a small number of very old, mostly monosyllabic verbs ending in “-t” and “-d” (like “hit” and “bid”) don’t add “-ed.” He calls these “bare past” verbs. And of course there are the well-known irregular verbs like “shrink,” “run,” “sing,” and so on.

“But, generally,” he says, “when a new verb enters English—by borrowing from another language, by verbing a noun or adjective, or whatever—it’s entirely regular.”

And that’s what would make a past-tense form like “text” unusual. “In the case of the verb text (in its recent, electronic, sense), the lexicographers and other authorities go for texted,” Zwicky says.

He notes, for example, that the linguist David Crystal’s book Txtng (2008) has “texted” as the past tense.

Yet, as we said above, “texted” may not appear in a particular dictionary—at least not in an obvious way.

“As a general practice,” Zwicky says, “most dictionaries don’t list most inflected forms, because listing perfectly regular inflected forms would just be a waste of precious space. So absence of a listing is evidence of regularity.”

By the way, we see online that some people are still complaining about the use of “text” as a verb. They insist on “send a text message.”

We once felt the same way and wrote about it on the blog, but times change, and so does language.

Merriam-Webster’s, for instance, gives these three examples of how the verb “text” is used: “I texted her a little while ago” … “I texted a message to her” … “She just texted me back.”

A March 2004 draft edition to the online OED defines the verb “text” as “to send (a text message) to a person, mobile phone, etc.” and “to communicate by sending text messages.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the usage is in a March 14, 1998, message on the Usenet newsgroup alt.cellular.gsm: “We still keep in touch … ‘texting’ each other jokes, quotes, stories, questions, etc.”

However, the word “text” has been used as a verb since the late 1500s, according to written examples in the OED.

When the verb first appeared, it meant “to inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters,” but the dictionary describes that sense as obsolete.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing (1600): “Yea and text vnder-neath, here dwells Benedick the married man.”

The OED has citations from the 1500s and 1600s for another obsolete sense: “to cite a text at or against (a person).”

And it has citations up until the late 1800s for the verb used to mean “to write in text-hand.”

The dictionary’s latest citation for the verb is from the July 31, 2001, electronic edition of a British newspaper, the Leicester Mercury: “I texted my mother and my friends when I got my results.”

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