February 12, 2004

Pronouncing "wronger": where's the evidence?

Can anyone point me to a few ordinary textual citations for the word wronger that do not appear in special fixed phrases?* Yes, there are a few Google hits for the word, but they are completely dominated by parodies (like a song Wronger modeled on Britney Spears' Stronger), and allusions (like the widely repeated phrase wrong and wronger, alluding to the movie title Dumb and Dumber). I'm having a lot of trouble finding clean, ordinary, non-special uses.

What I'm interested in is how the comparative adjective form wronger is pronounced. Does it rhyme with longer and stronger, where you can hear an extra [g] which isn't there in long and strong? Or does it rhyme with agent nouns like gonger, meaning "person who plays the gong"? (If you don't see what I mean, compare finger with singer: they do not rhyme, unless you are from the north of England, because in most dialects you hear a [g] in finger that you don't hear in singer.)

The parodies and allusions fight against us here. The parody of "Stronger" encourages us to assume the [g]; the allusion to "Dumb and Dumber" encourages the non-[g] pronunciation (there is no [b] heard in dumb or dumber). Such analogies might mess up people's judgments on how they would say it (people are by no means always to be trusted on questions about how they speak).

I would turn to an authoritative reference grammar, of course, but I have a bit of a problem there: I'm the co-author of one. The inflection chapter (chapter 18) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language was written by Frank Palmer and Rodney Huddleston with some contributions by me. So it would be a bit like asking myself. And personally I'm not sure I have any relevant evidence. We listed (on page 1583) a few words that we claimed were just exceptions to the claim that monosyllabic adjectives inflect, and we included wrong on that list. Now, the forms *liker, *loather, and *worther still seem cast-iron ungrammatical to me, but I've come to think that we probably shouldn't have included cross, ill, and real; you can occasionally find crosser, iller, realer, and the corresponding superlative forms, and it's important not to give the impression that there is something incorrect about any of those -- though they seem to be relatively rare.

The signs of extreme rarity of certain presumed comparative and superlative forms are puzzling. One example is provided by fake. Why is the comparative form faker so rare? It does occur, but almost all the occurrences of it on the web are references to the title of Mick Foley's book Foley is Good: And the Real World is Faker Than Wrestling. There's enough fake stuff going on in this world, and surely, some instances more so than others. One would expect the word to be more common.

Why righter and wronger are so rare is the biggest puzzle. Dictionary entries for wronger invariably refer to the noun meaning "one who wrongs somebody", which is not relevant here. Where's the comparative-grade adjective? The Oxford English Dictionary contains not a single attestation of it. Why has the inflected comparative of one of the commonest adjectives in English been so rare down the centuries? Damned if I know. Nobody seems to know. A sci.lang discussion thread back in 1998 (here, for example) revealed only that nobody really knew.

Yet it's actually relevant to something. The other three one-syllable adjectives ending in the -ng sound of song are long, strong, and young, but they are all irregular: that [g] in the comparative and superlative forms would not be expected from simple addition of -er.

But the only adjective we can use as a test of the claim that the regular comparative and superlative inflection does not have that extra [g] -- since what we need is a monosyllabic adjective ending in the ng sound (the velar nasal) is wrong. I suspect it is regular. The wonderful Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 1961; last reprinted, with addenda, 2002) says it is -- they show the pronunciation of wronger as not having that extra [g]. But even they do not cite an example of wronger or wrongest used in context. And the word is just way too rare to ask for people's intuitions about it.

This is the sort of thing on which you might build an argument from poverty of the stimulus (see this earlier post for discussion of another case of such an argument). If people intuitively know that wronger doesn't have that extra [g], and they're correct about that, yet they hardly ever hear wronger (or even read it), and most might well never have heard it at all, how on earth did they learn what they know?

*I'm shy about putting my email address on the web, naturally, because there are hordes of roving spam robots out there, harvesting addresses so they can send me advertisements for body-part enlargement services and dubious Nigerian money transfer deals. But my login name is my last name, and my institution is UCSC, and the domain is EDU, so it's easy to guess, if you're not a brainless spam robot.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 12, 2004 10:39 PM