March 11, 2004

Trodding, as in Plodding?

In yesterday's New York Times an article on "Now, the search for the next diva of domesticity" explored the exciting possibilities for replacements for Martha Stewart, on the assumption that her legal troubles will cause her to lose her throne. One sentence in the article began this way: "Others trodding the Stewart path include...."

Trodding? This is an interesting mistake, in part because it obviously seemed natural enough to slip past the usually stern and vigilant NYT proofreaders.

The fate of English irregular verbs varies, of course. Lots of them retain their irregularity -- swear/swore, hide/hid, sleep/slept, go/went, freeze/froze, and so on. Some have slipped over into regularity; dream is heading in that direction, with its alternate past tenses dreamt and dreamed, both of them acceptable in Standard English. Tread itself falls into this category, according to my Webster's Collegiate dictionary, which gives a regular past tense form treaded beside the irregular past tense trod. Occasionally the slippage goes in the opposite direction: the etymologically expected past tense of wear would be weared, which existed until Middle English times, but instead we have Modern Standard English wore -- because of rhyming verbs like swear/swore, bear/bore, and tear/tore. People make up irregular past tense forms for fun, like snuck instead of sneaked, and children and second-language learners often produce irregular past tense forms.

But replacing present-tense tread with trod , as in the NYT article, is the only example I can think of where a new non-past form has been based on an irregular past-tense form (though there probably are others that aren't occurring to me right now). The analogic process that produced trodding is ordinary enough, and I bet the regular verb plod played a role: both verbs have to do with walking, and both occur relatively infrequently, making them likely targets for analogical remodeling. And they rhyme. At the moment, tread is still the only Standard English non-past form of this verb; but that could change -- trod might replace it completely in the not too distant future.

Posted by Sally Thomason at March 11, 2004 10:11 AM