Friday, 23 October 2009


An SMS, a short message that you send or receive using your mobile phone (AmE cellphone) is generally known as a text. This word is also used as a verb and verbal noun: texting. (I see that David Crystal is giving a talk today at Berkeley entitled “From texting to tweeting: the brave new world of internet linguistics”.)

But what is the past tense of this verb?
Leo Holroyd asked
What is your opinion on the past form of the verb "text"? Many people use "text" rather than "texted" in the past tense (in both speech and writing), which is clearly irregular, and to me surprising. I can only guess that it has something to do with the unusual ending "-ext". Is it common for verbs to become irregular for this sort of reason?
He’s right. Many people, in Britain at least, use [tekst] as the past tense. I suppose we could spell it texed.
You can see how this has arisen. The final cluster [kst] is highly susceptible to losing its final consonant, particularly when followed by a consonant sound.
ðə neks(t) θɪŋ
ə bɒks(t) set
ə mɪks(t) ɡrɪl
— in all of these it’s usual for the final [t] to be elided (lost) except in very careful (over-enunciated) speech. Likewise we say
teks mesɪdʒɪz
aɪl sen ju ə teks wen aɪm redi
ðə wər ə həʊl lɒt əv tekss weɪtɪŋ fə mi
— so that [teks] can come to seem to be the basic form.
Then, just as the plural of box [bɒks] is boxes [bɒksɪz], so [teks] seems to need the plural [teksɪz]. And just as the past tense of box is boxed [bɒkst], so the past tense of tex(t) comes to be [tekst].
Indeed, [ə teks(t) mesɪdʒ] could then be interpreted as a texed message, one that you can tex to someone.
It may seem shocking to us highly literate people. But many users of text messaging are not highly literate (though I agree with David Crystal that text messaging, by encouraging people to read and write more frequently, helps literacy rather than hindering it).
I should think that the contex(t)-free pronunciation [teks] for the verb will persist.


  1. "Indeed, [ə teks(t) mesɪdʒ] could then be interpreted as a texed message, one that you can tex to someone."

    that does seem plausible to me, although i've yet to notice texes (in the U.S.). my husband tells me he often hears text (texed) for the past tense, although i still hear texted more often.

  2. This is analogous to the problem: what is the possessive of Jones? Many choose Jones' rather than the more regular Jones's because the pronunciation of Jones, ending with /nz/, already sounds like a possessive.

    Similarly "Text", ending with /kst/, already sounds like a past tense ending.

    Ben Zimmer has an interesting article about this here:

  3. Maybe the tex(t)ing masses only seem to lack education. They really go back to Latin tex-, not text-. Only the uneduced form English verbs from Latin participles.

  4. You have a point, Lipman.

    The Latin 'textus' does, after all, come from the verb 'texere' (to weave?).

    So should the verb be 'to tex' and the past participle thus 'texed'?

  5. @S.C.Anderson

    English verbs of latin origin usually come from the past participle root, not the present root. Should "script" become "scrib"?

  6. @JW

    Have you (or anyone) actually seen the forms *tex, *texing, *texes in the wild?

    The only nonstandard form I am aware of is "text" for the past tense/past participle.

    I am wondering whether the mechanism you cite (general elision of the final "t") might explain too much.

  7. Here in Louisiana we hear 'breakfases' for the plural of 'breakfas'...

  8. Interesting. I've never noticed, myself, but I'm a latecomer to txting.

    What I did notice, though, was "boxed set" - /bɒks(t) set/. My impression (beware frequency illusion!) is that "box( )set" is more common - which rhymes nicely with the reduced pronunciation.

    A very quick look at Amazon(uk) gives:

    "boxed set"
    Books (2,077)
    DVD (91)
    Music (151)
    VHS (35)

    "box set"
    DVD (21,772)
    Music (48,911)
    VHS (1,969)
    Classical Music (14,675)
    Books (5,718)

    DVD (489)
    VHS (30)
    Music (252)
    Books (171)

  9. It could be due to the tendency of verbs ending in /t/ in English to have a null past tense morpheme, like burst, cost, split, quit, set, let.... 'Text' instead of 'texted' doesn't look erroneous in that company.

    I know some people do say /teksIz/ instead of /teksts/ (or, at least, Google knows - I'd never heard it), but the irregular past tense is far more widespread - most people seem to use it - so your theory seems not to be the only explanation.

  10. Hardly; that way of forming past forms clearly isn't productive anymore, and those who tend to say texed would probably prefer -ed even where it is an existing parallel form to -t (= zero) in existing words.

  11. @S.C.Anderson,

    I wasn't serious. English verbs from Latin are formed of all kinds of stems in Latin, but the formation from a past participle is not at all rare, and much more common than in, say, French or German.

  12. Indeed, -ate representing the Latin participial ending is semantically completely empty in English: there simply is no definite reason why we say prepare but not *separe, or separate but not *preparate.

  13. Why can't the verb text be an "AAA irregular" like cut/cut/cut, hit/hit/hit, hurt/hurt/hurt, cost/cost/cost, etc. "Things cost more this year than they cost last year." "My parents text me so often: yesterday they text me five times." Sure, some people say "It costed me a lot" but that doesn't make it right.

  14. This is improbable because the pattern isn't (otherwise) productive.

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  16. <>
    This is a common tendency in US. For example, I once heard an American say "I never should have trust (trussed!) him.