Text settings

Martin Allen has written with a very interesting question. It follows on from his initial query, which is why people use text as the form of the verb in the past tense: ‘I text him yesterday.’ He adds: ‘It sound moronic to me, but is this how irregular verbs originate?’

The funny thing is that Shakespeare himself might have used the regular texted as a past tense. He probably did, for he used the verb text in the imperative in Much Ado: ‘Text underneath: Here dwells Benedick the married man.’ The meaning, naturally, was not ‘send a text electronically’, but ‘write in a text-hand or in large letters’. Thomas Heywood (a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and much under his influence) mentioned passersby reading words ‘as perfectly and distinctly, as if they had beene texted in Capitall Letters’.

The reappearance of text, brought back to life, came with the present century, or at the earliest from 1998. Even in 2010, nannyish advisers on English usage were still plumping for send a text in preference to verbing the noun text. Now that the verb text is universally accepted, how do some speakers manage to make the past tense text, too? My impression is that most who do this are not highly literate. But that does not mean they are not implicitly aware of the demands of grammar.

What they do is conform or assimilate the past tense of text to other past tenses ending ext or exed. I can’t think of another verb in the present tense ending ext. Plenty end exed in the past tense: vexed, sexed, flexed. So what is happening is not the begetting of an irregular verb, but the assimilation of an unusual past tense to a more usual form.

We can appreciate the force of assimilation when we mean to say Brexit and find that sometimes by a slip of the tongue it comes out as breakfast. Exit, the mother of Brexit, is in any case a funny verb. It is a Latin verb in the third person: ‘he leaves’.

It should be a crime to say ‘they exit’ (instead of exeunt), or ‘he exited’. Yet at one moment verbal errors annoy us; the next, we don’t mind our language.