Saturday, March 31, 2012

Defective verbs ... for some

Over at Language Log Geoff Pullum critiques a "passive rewrite" of a Wikipedia article by pointing out that many of the sentences were not, in fact, passive. Here's one point:
In Mineola, New York, Kim Richards … was born. [Passive, though not converted from an active: born is a possibly unique case of an English verb that is defective in that it must be used in the passive; the sentence also has an ungainly preposing of adjuncts designed to make it unbalanced and unnatural.]
Ummm. Really?
How about In Mineola, New York, on September 19, 1964, Kathleen Richards (neé Dugan) bore a daughter, Kim, to her husband Kenneth E. Richards.
Sure, it's old-fashioned or formal, and puts the emphasis on the wrong (or at least a different) thing, but it's hardly ungrammatical. (The Holly and the Ivy, anyone?)

Pullum's not the only one - John Lawler says the same thing, though phrased differently:
Other English defective verbs include 'beware' (usable in the imperative only), 'blowdry' (try forming the past tense and you'll see what I mean), 'born' (technically, a "deponent" verb, with only passive forms), and the modal auxiliaries, but they're so irregular anyway that's hardly surprising.
Oddly, to me, the context (why it's "other" verbs) is the verb wake, which he says has no past participle form. I find that very odd, even odder that saying born can only be passive. The MW Unabridged even offers a choice of three past participles:

MWU inflected forms of 'wake' including 'woken, waked, woke'I admit I use both waked and woken with a distribution I can't quite figure out, but I don't recall ever even hesitating before speaking.

edited to add: As picky notes in the comments, "blowdried" seems perfectly ordinary. Plus, beware, though not seen conjugated or in the past tense, is frequently found in modal constructions such as I would beware of that guy or you should beware of online medical info.

So I'm puzzled. Why do these eminent linguists insist these are defective verbs?

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5 Comments:

At 1:40 PM, March 31, 2012 OpenID q-pheevr had this to say...

I've always been a bit mystified by be born and its connection with bear, bore, etc. In all other senses of the verb bear, we spell the past/passive participle borne, which makes it look (though not sound) as if born is something different. And if Kathleen bore Kim is the active counterpart, then I'd expect it to be possible to say Kim was born by Kathleen in the passive—but somehow, if I put the by-phrase in, I want to switch from born to borne. So on the whole I'd agree with Pullum and Lawler that born is unusually restricted, or 'defective,' but I'm not all that sure I'd call it a passive. (I'm not even entirely sure I'd call it a verb.)

On the other hand, I have no trouble with woken. Or blow-dried, for that matter.

 
At 4:13 AM, April 01, 2012 Anonymous Picky had this to say...

And I don't understand the bit about blowdry. What's wrong with blowdried?

 
At 10:59 AM, April 01, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

@Picky - I dunno. I have a feeling he thinks both elements will need to be conjugate - blewdried, or even blew it dry? But certainly blowdried is what everybody says.

@q-pheevr - the spelling doesn't convince me. We pronounce learned differently in "the learnéd judge learned the news", but both words come from the same infinitive. But I agree that the impossibility of adding the "by" phrase does argue that "Kim was born" is not really a passive at all.

 
At 11:45 PM, April 01, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I'm going to stick this in the post, too, but "beware" is frequently used not in the imperative, as "I would beware of that guy"...

 
At 1:51 PM, April 05, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

"the learnéd judge learned the news"

The learned Learned (Hand) learned the news, perhaps?

 

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