The Grammarphobia Blog

Texicography

Q: Your July 9 blog about how to pronounce “texted” inspires me to write about a ubiquitous and annoying pronunciation of the past tense of “text” here in Cincinnati. Young people almost exclusively pronounce the present as “tex” and the past as “text.” Maybe the past would be spelled “texed,” but that doesn’t change the pronunciation. Have you heard this in your area?

A: No, we weren’t aware of the usage until you mentioned it.

But on looking into this we find that quite a few people consider to “tex” the infinitive, with “tex” or “texes” the present, and “text” the past.

Others consider “tex” or “texes” the present, and “texed” (pronounced TEXT) the past tense. And still others use “text” or “texts” for the present and “text” for the past.

Interestingly, these usages aren’t confined to speech. We got more than half a million hits in Google searches for “tex” and “texed” used in place of “text” and “texted.”

And the linguist Arnold Zwicky, in searches for past tenses and past participles, found roughly one example of “text” for every five of “texted.”

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon, either, and it’s not limited to Cincinnati.

A July 25, 2005, article in the Modesto Bee, for example, reported that a friend sent this text message to the cell phone of a California teenager killed in a car crash:

“Tex me when u get to heaven.”

(Family members found the message on 16-year-old Stephanie Blevins’s phone.)

In standard English, as you know, the infinitive or root verb is “text,” the present tense is “text” or “texts,” and the past tense (as well as the past participle) is “texted.”

Why all the variants? We think pronunciation has a lot to do with this.

Some people hear the verb “text” as if it were spelled “texed,” and assume it’s a past tense. Naturally, the present tense would be “tex” or “texes.” (Think of “fax,” “faxes,” and “faxed.”)

The phonetician John Wells notes on his blog that the confusion here apparently lies with the consonant cluster at the end of “text.”

“The final cluster [kst] is highly susceptible to losing its final consonant, particularly when followed by a consonant sound,” Wells writes.

In words with similar-sounding endings (like “next,” “boxed,” and “mixed”), he says, “it’s usual for the final [t] to be elided (lost) except in very careful (over-enunciated) speech.”

The linguist David Crystal, however, finds “nothing intrinsically difficult about the consonant cluster at the end of text.”

“But adding an -ed ending alters the pronunciation dynamic,” he writes on his blog. “We now have two /t/ sounds in a rapid sequence, as we had in broadcasted.”

Although it’s “very unusual to find a new irregular past tense form in standard English,” Crystal says, it “does happen, as we see with the preference for shorter broadcast.”

He predicts that lexicographers will one day recognize “texed” as a legitimate past tense. We’re not so sure, but we’ll let Crystal have the last word.

“Whatever the reasons, we do now find forms such as texed and tex’d being used with increasing frequency,” he writes. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we find it being treated like broadcast in dictionaries, and given two forms.”

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