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Strong English verbs

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Jan. 5th, 2018 | 12:13 pm

There is no equivalent to the German Gesellschaft zur Stärkung der Verben (Society for Strengthening Verbs) in English, but the GSV itself quotes a column by Maggie Sullivan, cited in Steven Pinker's Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language:

Anatole Broyard is right to sound the alarm. We are losing this idiosyncrasy; as a language changes, strong verbs tend to become weak. For example: although shepherds once shore their sheep, sheep are no longer shorn, they are sheared.

This issue would arouse lovers of the English language. Weakening the verbs can only weaken the language itself. To keep English from becoming a feeble tongue, we must reinforce our verbs. Fortunately, I have come up with a two-part plan. First, we must not allow new verbs to enter the language in a weak state. We must ensure, for example, that to clone is established as clone, clewn, clown, as in: Future generations of booksellers may reproach us for not having clown Joyce Carol Oates and Isaac Asimov.... And to gentrify as gentrify, gentrifo, gentrifum, as in: The newcomers gentrifo one block and now the whole old neighborhood is gentrifum.

Since new verbs are few and far between, I offer the second part of my plan—creating new strong verbs. English has some strong verbs with unique patterns for their principal parts, such as go, went, gone. Individuality makes them particularly vulnerable. Their patterns would hold up better if each pattern had more representatives. If we create allies for our unique strong verbs, we can buttress them and increase their number. Here are suggestions for new strong verbs:

Conceal, console, consolen: After the murder, Jake console the weapon.
Subdue, subdid, subdone: Nothing could have subdone him the way her violet eyes subdid him.
Fit, fat, fat: The vest fat Joe, whereas the jacket would have fat a thinner man.
Displease, displose, displosen: By the look on her face, I could tell she was displosen.

(EDIT: see below!) Unfortunately I've not been able to find the entire column. Online references are invariably to Pinker's book; and the New York Times' archive only lists two column by Maggie Sullivan. (One isn't freely available, but does not seem related anyway.)

But it seems to exist, for the GSV itself cites more examples, presumably taken from Sullivan's column:

Seesaw, sawsaw, seensaw: While the children sawsaw, the old man thought of long ago when he had seensaw.
Pay, pew, pain: He had pain for not choosing a wife more carefully.
Ensnare, ensnare, ensnorn: In the 60’s and 70’s, Sominex ads ensnare many who had never been ensnorn by ads before.
Commemoreat, commemorate, commemoreaten: At the banquet to commemoreat Herbert Hoover, spirits were high, and by the end of the evening many other Republicans had been commemoreaten.

These are also cited on this page, which also provides a nice poem showing off some expertly-strongthen verbs:

Sally Salter, she was a young teacher who taught,
And her friend, Charley Church, was a preacher who praught;
Though his enemies called him a screecher who scraught.

His heart, when he saw her, kept sinking, and sunk;
And his eye, meeting hers, began winking, and wunk;
While she in her turn, fell to thinking, and thunk.

In secret he wanted to speak, and he spoke,
To seek with his lips what his heart long had soke,
So he managed to let the truth leak, and it loke.

The kiss he was dying to steal, then he stole;
At the feet where he wanted to kneel, then he knole;
And he said, "I feel better than ever I fole."

And a small snippet attributed to Dizzy Dean, whoever that is:

The pitcher wound up and flang the ball at the batter. The batter swang and missed. The pitcher flang the ball again and this time the batter connected. He hit a high fly right to the center fielder. The center fielder was all set to catch the ball, but at the last minute his eyes were blound by the sun and he dropped it!

Of course this last one's incomplete; it really should've read e.g.:

The pitcher wound up and flang the ball at the batter. The batter swang and moss. The pitcher flang the ball again and this time the batter connuck. He hat a high fly right to the center fielder. The center fielder was all set to catch the ball, but at the last minute his eyes were blound by the sun and he droop it!

Any other examples of strong (or strongthen) verbs making a resurgence in English? Let me know. :)

EDIT: I perused Pinker's book; sadly, he does not provide any reference for Sullivan's editorial.

EDIT 2, 2018-11-05: Charles Sullivan kindly informs me in the comments below that Maggie Sullivan's column is in fact on the New York Times website. Originally published on May 4, 1985 as You, Too, Can Strengthen English, and Write Good, it's now freely available, and I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. Quoth the author:

We can fortify English. By giving free rein to the -eat, -ate, -eaten and the -fy, -fo, -fum patterns, and using some of our new strong verbs, we can end up with sentences like these:

Armand was civility personifum.

Therefore, he console his disgust when libereaten women spoke freely. But, in truth, he was most displosen. It stupefo him that women like that had ensnorn men into marriage. A proper subdone attitude qualifo a woman for his esteem. Had someone clown Marabel Morgan, Armand would have been eleaten, but not one woman he met fat that image. And so, poor Armand pew for his views, living out his days frustreaten and dissatisfum.

She concludes:

It's hard to imagine anything that could undermine a language as strong as that.


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Comments {7}


(no subject)

from: lupine52
date: Jan. 7th, 2018 01:42 am (UTC)

language has always been fluid as it needs to adapt and change as society changes. With English certain verbages have fallen out of favor and in time their meaning will probably be lost, an example being 'Don't get your knickers in a bunch' which has been replaced in some cases with 'Don't get your panties in a bunch' or maybe even a simple eye-roll without using words at all.

Then there are other sayings that have lost their meaning pretty much in todays social structure like looking a gift horse in the mouth whose etymology comes from giving a horse as a gift

"A gift horse is a horse that was a gift, quite simply. When given a horse, it would be bad manners to inspect the horse's mouth to see if it has bad teeth. This can be applied as an analogy to any gift: Don't inspect it to make sure it matches some standard you have, just be grateful!"

Not really all that valid in todays car driven world. Verbs in much the same manner can lose their intensity as society changes. A verb like detrimental might take back seat to the term unfavorable.

I wouldn't say that the verbs are being lost but rather that they have fallen out of favor.

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Aurifer Salavor

(no subject)

from: aurifer
date: Mar. 4th, 2018 04:12 am (UTC)

Haha, I love stuff like this. There was another poem I read about a French person trying to learn English and getting confused at all the words like plough, drought, drought, ought, slough, slough, rough, etc. It's entirely possible that you were the one who had posted that, but I can't remember.

Also, apparently I haven't checked Livejournal since early January! I'm catching up.

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(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Mar. 4th, 2018 08:45 am (UTC)

Yup, that would've been me!

And it's fun, isn't it? Any other examples of strong verbs you've come across?

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Aurifer Salavor

(no subject)

from: aurifer
date: Mar. 5th, 2018 03:36 am (UTC)

Oh, here's one! Something glows, but I might also say it glew. I'm almost certain I heard it said that way somewhere, but apparently it was only ever used in a very informal manner by a handful of people.

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(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Mar. 5th, 2018 08:45 am (UTC)

Ooh, that's a nice one, yes!

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Sullivan Column

from: Charlie Sullivan
date: Nov. 5th, 2018 02:12 am (UTC)

The full Maggie Sullivan column you seek is available in the NY Times archive, at

It was originally titled "Fortified English", but an editor changed it without her permission to "You, too, can strengthen English and write good." It was published May 4, 1985, on p. 27, with an illustration by Devis Grebu. The formatting is a bit scrambled in the online copy, but it's legible.

If you are curious about what the author is up to now, she blogs at http://www.silvercentury.org/voicesviews/blog/maggie-sullivan/ about Alzheimer's disease and challenges caregivers face in supporting loved ones living with it.

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Re: Sullivan Column

from: schnee
date: Nov. 5th, 2018 07:43 am (UTC)

Thank you very much for the pointers! I'll check out the column right away.

Very sorry to hear the author's having to deal with Alzheimer's now. (Ah, apologies, I misread that as her having been struck by the disease herself.) I'll take a look at her blog too.

Thanks again, and all the best!

Edited at 2018-11-05 08:07 am (UTC)

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