The Half-life of Verbs

From Daily Writing Tips:

The term half-life existed before the term was applied to the breakdown of a radioactive substance.

One earlier meaning was “an unsatisfactory way of life.” Another was “the size of painting half life-size.”

The radioactive application dates from 1907. Now, the term is also applied to the time required for half the amount of any substance to be “eliminated or disintegrated by natural processes.”

Irregular Verbs
In 2007, a group of Harvard mathematicians developed a formula to calculate the half-life of English irregular verbs. The less frequently a verb is used, the more quickly will it begin to decay.

Irregular verbs are one of my favorite things about English. I see them as a link with the oldest form of the language, living fossils still in use.

Nevertheless, I accept the fact that many of the remaining irregulars are being lost daily to regularization: changing their distinctive past forms to -ed in both the simple past and past participle. This is a normal part of the development of the language.

The Harvard study calculated the half-life of 177 English irregular verbs. According to the findings, many have already reached their half-lives; others are nearing them. The most frequently used irregular verbs, however, look likely to outlast the language.

English has been developing (and changing) for more than 1,400 years. Irregular verbs with a half-life of 700 years are going or gone. Some have been operating as hybrids, with an -ed past and an irregular past participle.

Verbs with a 700-year half-life
Some of my favorites have reached the 700-year milestone.


I’d like to keep them all, but the forms I cherish most are those of slay.

I have nothing against the form slayed in the sense of amusing or impressing people:

They slayed us with the little boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas,

Seth Rogen slayed at the Hollywood Film Awards last night.

With George Fenneman, as his announcer and straight man, Groucho slayed his audiences with improvised conversation with his guests.

A few minutes later, Calhoun went to the podium and slayed a roomful of journos with his usual combination of bombast, wit and defensiveness.

However, I do feel that vampires and dragons should be slain. Likewise, I prefer to read that Buffy slew the Chaos Demon, not that she “slayed” it.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

5 thoughts on “The Half-life of Verbs”

  1. For some reason, the death of the past participle for “plead” annoys me the most. Perhaps there is a Scottish lawyer somewhere in my ancestry that makes me grumble “pled” whenever I see “pleaded.”

  2. Slang often takes the form of a (pseudo-)irregular verb, as part of the humor of its utterance. Applying a “strong verb” form to a nonce word/usage makes it ring with the flavor of both antiquity/permanence and contemporaneity.

    Look no further than “woke” for an example.

    • The trouble is that ‘wake’ is a strong verb, and ‘woke’ is the normal past tense. It is not, however, the past participle, which is the part of an English verb from which adjectives are normally made. That would be ‘woken’. (Which isn’t normally used adjectivally either, because English also has the perfectly good adjective ‘awake’.) So to the fastidious, ‘woke’ as an adjective just comes across as a bit of wilfully bad grammar, and rings with the flavour of illiteracy.

      Of course, this is of a piece with the shoddy meaning of the term in its currently fashionable usage: which is to imply that all who are not hard Leftists of a particular variety that did not exist a decade ago are sleepwalking through life, and that only those with the correct ideology (in its most up-to-date form, which can and will change without notice) are awake and sapient. It is a particularly clumsy exercise in attempting to dehumanize one’s political opponents, and as such, deserves all the opprobrium it can possibly attract.

      • But you see, Tom, that’s my point. A “grammatical” use of “woken” would be accurate, but it’s the deliberate false-grammar of “woke” (which only works for a strong verb form) that makes it contemporary slang. If they had just used “woken”, it wouldn’t have worked rhetorically. 🙂

        It’s the exact parallel of calling something “broke” in dismay (“it’s broke”), rather than “broken” — not “bad grammar”, but “rhetoric”.

        This is the same way some ghetto slang is used: “He bad” isn’t really bad grammar, it’s rhetoric, primarily used with pronouns. After all, the same speakers don’t say (or at least not usually) “Tom bad” but “Tom’s bad” — they go back and forth, depending on their tonal requirement for the speech — straight narrative or emotionally laden.

        Rhetoric is larger than grammatical rules, just as communication is larger than words.

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