February 03, 2008


Andrew C. Revkin, "A 'Bold' Step to Capture an Elusive Gas Falters", NYT, 1/3/2008, starts with this sentence:

CAPTURING heat-trapping emissions from coal-fire power plants is on nearly every climate expert's menu for a planet whose inhabitants all want a plugged-in lifestyle. [emphasis added]

This surprised me, because I'm used to seeing power plants that burn coal called "coal-fired" -- but "coal-fire" as a modifier occurs four times in this article, so it was clearly a choice, not a typo.

My expectation seems to be in tune with historical as well as current usage. The OED has

coal-fired a., heated or driven by coal

and gives 10 example sentences with coal-fired, including for example

1909 Daily Chron. 17 Apr. 4/7 Baked fifty-five minutes in *coal-fired oven.
1956 Nature 4 Feb. 204/2 The capacity of coal-fired plant must be expected to continue to rise.

In contrast, the OED treats coal-fire as a (head) noun, "A fire made of coal", and all of the 34 examples scattered through the work conform to that structural pattern, e.g.

1656 S. HOLLAND Zara (1719) 41 Though strong with stubborn wire, I melt in thy coal-fire.
1816 J. SMITH Panorama Sci. & Art II. 330 Common oyster shells to be calcined in a good coal-fire.

A Google search yields 1,270,000 hits for "coal-fired" vs. 223,000 for "coal-fire" -- and, since Google search ignores punctuation, many (maybe most) of the "coal-fire" hits are for things like

A mine fire or coal fire is the underground smouldering of a coal mine.
If you do not follow the right procedure the coal fire will go out.
...the smoke and ash comes from a coal fire which may have been burning for over 5,500 years.

And in fact the NYT itself has 1,223 instances of "coal-fired" in its archive since 1981, most recently:

1/31/2008: The deputy secretary of energy, Clay Sell, said that the program would be revamped to split off the costs of building a new coal-fired power plant ...
1/30/2008: But some lawmakers who attended the briefing later insisted that any departure from building the coal-fired, 275-megawatt prototype power plant anywhere other than the central Illinois town of Mattoon would be unacceptable ...
1/28/2008: A lot of people think that an electric car leaves no carbon footprint, but of course that's not the case if you are recharging with electricity from a dirty coal-fired power plant.

In comparison, there are only 50 instances of "coal-fire" in the same post-1981 archive -- and again, most of them are head nouns. The most recent three of these are:

1/13/2008: Hired as a fireman to keep the engine's coal fire going, he made $9.08 for a 16-hour day.
8/26/2007: Miss Huntington's six-month course taught children of the poor how to use matches and light a coal fire.
1/26/2003: They warm themselves by a coal fire in the early morning before strapping on their equipment.

I could only find three examples where "coal fire" means "heated or driven by coal":

1/24/2008: Thousands of people die annually breathing the noxious particles of coal-fire installations.
11/10/2001: ... a 20-foot-by-20-foot house that had an outhouse and a coal-fire stove as amenities.
8/3/1986: The apparatus has a black coal-fire boiler trimmed in silver and brass.

There were another two instances where "coal fire" is used as a modifier, but in a rather different sense:

1/1/1987: Another Hawaiian word, ''aa,'' pronounced ah-ah, describes the chunky lava that looks like coal fire cinders.
3/10/1991: ... King's Chapel and choir, and candlelight, the coal-fire smell, and walking across the Quadrangle in a dressing gown in the rain to take a bath.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not trying to defend the purity of the English language against the incursions of barbarian hordes. I'm just documenting and exploring a little piece of lexical change in embryo.

There are at least two forces at work here, one phonetic and the other syntactico-semantic.

Taking up the form and meaning first, it's perfectly regular to use a noun like coal fire as a modifier, with the usual range of loose, contextually-appropriate restrictions on the head it modifies. (A hyphen may be interpolated or not, ad libitum.) This gives "coal-fire smell" (meaning the smell of a coal fire), or "coal fire cinders" (meaning cinders from a coal fire); but it could also give us "coal-fire boiler"  (meaning a boiler that is heated by a coal fire), or "coal-fire power plant" (meaning a power plant that is heated by a coal fire).

We generally don't take this last step, but only because another phrase was there before us: coal-fired. This is (probably) an example of the common pattern where -ed is added to a modified noun to make another modifier. The template is something like


taken to mean "NOUN2 with (a) MODIFIER NOUN1", e.g. long-haired girl, poker-faced opponent, slate-roofed villa, etc.

I wrote that this is "probably" the analysis, because there's another pattern that also fits,


taken to mean "NOUN2 VERBed with/by NOUN1", as in grass-covered mound, storm-tossed nation, jelly-filled donut.

Either way, coal-fired was there first, anchored by its contrastive partners oil-fired, gas-fired, wood-fired and so on.

But coal-fire, even if it lost the chance to be the early mover, has always been waiting in the wings. And it's got an ally in the English sound system: t/d deletion.

That's the process that leads us to reduce or omit [t] or [d] at the ends of syllables (See e.g. J.L. Roberts, "Acquisition of Variable Rules: (-t,d) Deletion and (ing) Production in Preschool Children", IRCS, 1994). This is more likely to happen in common phrases and before consonants -- as in "coal fired".

There's a long history in English of the final [t] or [d] of -ed forms being lost in lexicalized phrases:

skim milk
skimmed milk
popped corn
wax paper
waxed paper
screen porch
screened porch
ice cream
iced cream
ice tea
iced tea
shave ice (Hawaian dessert)
shaved ice (?)
cream corn (informal)
creamed corn
whip cream (informal)
whipped cream

(Some -ed-less forms like "skim milk" are quite old, and may have been formed originally from as V+N, I'm not sure.) Forms such as "popped corn" and "iced cream" are now archaic at best, with "popcorn", "ice cream" etc. being standard. The case of "iced tea" seems to be transitional -- I usually see it written as "iced tea", but I'm pretty sure that I pronounce it as if it were "ice tea". And for me, "creamed corn" and "whipped cream" are still normal, though I know that many people have lost the final -ed in those words as well.

So is "coal fired" starting down the same path? Time will tell, but if NYT authors and editors are starting to use "coal-fire" instead, we're probably looking at a bear market for that particular [d].

[Update -- fev from Headsup: The Blog writes:

Neat catch on "coal-fire." The lede looks to have been tweaked to "coal-fired," tho the cutline and other references in the body copy are still "coal-fire." I'm wondering if some copy editor didn't infer or overextend a rule, tho I can't guess offhand what it might have been.

FWIW, vastly influential as the Times is at agenda-setting, I don't think it has that much impact on day-to-day style. It still does stuff that looks kind of bizarre in the hinterlands, like its insistence on not reducing relative clauses and the thing about articles with occupational titles before names. (If you wouldn't address somebody by the title, it needs to have an article: "good morning, Senator Lamb" means "Senator Stacy Lamb" is OK, but "good morning, infielder Agnelli" means you have to use "the infielder Lee Agnelli.")

Style's just no end of fun, but "coal-fire" could be a one-time thing. Alas.

Well, on January 24, Roger Cohen wrote ("America Needs France’s Atomic Anne") that "Thousands of people die annually breathing the noxious particles of coal-fire installations", by which he meant coal-fired power plants. So maybe it's a trendlet if not a trend.]

[A reader writes:

I don't think the forms cited for "t/d" deletion are really parallel. Those are noun phrases in which an initial past participle is replaced with a monosyllabic noun homonym of the verb in question, so that the end result is a compound noun. With "coal-fired", it's the last element that loses the "d", and the question is, how is the original form construed and why was this construction changed.

My own sense is that "fired" is a participle and "coal" is part of an adjectivally subordinate compound adjective, so that "coal-fired" means "fired with coal", just as "steam-powered" means "powered with steam". Surely, it's not a "pseudo-participle", meaning an adjective meaning "equipped with NOUN" along the fashion of "jug-eared", which doesn't presuppose the existence of a verb "to ear". That is, "coal-fired" doesn't mean "equipped with [the compound noun] coal fire".

But I think that here is perhaps where the problem arises. Whereas the verb "to power" meaning "to operate a contraption via a certain form of power" does exist, I don't think that one normally "fires" a plant (or other form energy provider, engine etc.). (One can "fire it up", but you don't simply "fire it", I think.) Hence, "coal-fired" is lexically "stranded", and maybe a bit "odd" feeling. Could it be that some sentiment that "coal-fired" is hard to construe has given rise to the desire to convert the form into a simple compound adjective based on a compound noun like, say, "steam engine factory accidents" meaning "accidents in factories for steam engines". Similarly, "coal-fire plants" meaning "plants using coal fire"?

Clearly, I didn't explain myself very clearly.

First, I didn't mean to suggest that t-d deletion only applies to -ed endings in cases like popcorn. On the contrary, the commonest place to see it is inside words (e.g. "postpone" or "handmaiden"), or in common in phrases like "first Friday" or "best buy"; and it can also happen across larger phrases boundaries, as in "last for a while" or "band together".

So it's true that "coal-fired" is not at all the same kind of form as "screened porch" -- but in both forms, the possible loss of final -ed in both forms is promoted and reinforced by t-d deletion in their pronunciation.

Second, I think it's unclear to current speakers of English whether the "fired" in coal-fired is the participial form of the verb fire (as in the analysis of "jelly-filled" or "grass covered"), or an -ed form of the noun fire (as in the analysis of "poker-faced" or "long-haired"). At least, it's unclear to me. Whichever it is, the analysis is not transparent or unproblematic -- and that makes replacement by coal-fire all the more plausible. ]

[David Carlson reports grocery-store aisle signs reading "Can Vegetables". ]

[Andy Hollandbeck writes:

Your post touches ground close to a problem I often have when copy-editing demographic studies -- the use of the words "age" and "aged." I often see both "school-age children" and "school-aged children." I normally try to just go with the author's choice and make sure it's consistent throughout, but many articles have multiple articles, so I have to make a choice one way or the other, and I never feel totally comfortable going one way or the other.

Another similar problem is deciding between age and aged in, for example, "The third cohort consists of 200 adults age(d) 31-40."


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 3, 2008 12:43 PM