The Irregularization of Pet
Posted by Neal on August 25, 2006
Last week I read this book to Doug and Adam, about a woman with sixty cats. About halfway through, it said:
When nighttime came, old Mrs. Brown
Put sixty bowls of cat food down
Then pet each cat upon the head
And marched herself straight up to bed
I remembered back when Adam was in speech therapy, and I heard his therapist do the same thing: use pet instead of petted as the past tense/past participial form of pet, when she asked him, “Have you ever pet a cat?” A couple of years later, I heard someone else use pet instead of petted, and now here it was again, in writing, in a (presumably) carefully edited book for kids. I pointed it out to my wife, and she told me (without shame) that she did it, too. (How did I manage to miss that for all these years?)
On the one hand, I can see why pet might get turned into this kind of irregular verb, since there are there are plenty of verbs that resemble pet to varying degrees, and whose past-tense forms are the same as the base forms, which could form a basis for analogy. First off, there are a few other monosyllabic verbs ending in /εt/: bet, set, and let. More generally, there are even monosyllabic verbs with some other lax vowel and ending in /t/, one of them even beginning with /p/: put, slit, hit, shut, cut are those that I can think of right now; plus fit and wet, which can be regular or irregular; and spit and shit, which can be irregular two ways, with alternate past-tense forms spat and shat.
But on the other hand, there are plenty of verbs that resemble pet to varying degrees, and which have regular past tenses. In contrast to bet, set, and let above, we have fret, vet, sweat, net, and jet. And whereas put was the only other irregular verb matching the /p/-[lax vowel]-/t/ pattern above, there are four regular ones fitting that description: pat, pot, pit, and putt. Add to these some other monosyllabic verbs that end with any lax vowel followed by /t/: bat, rat, knit, butt, jut,plot, tot, dot, knot, slot, rot, jot, clot.
So with all those example of regularity to keep it company, why would pet be dragged into the bet/set/let family? Well, for most people, it hasn’t been. The dictionaries I’ve consulted have yet to list pet as an accepted past-tense form. But it’s still out there, enough for people to argue about pet vs. petted. The question was posed on a Yahoo answers forum a few months ago, and seven of the eleven submitted answers confidently gave pet as the past tense. “Totally pet,” one of them said. Then there was this answer from one person who seems to have since been suspended from these forums: “WHAT IS WITH ALL THESE PEOPLE SAYING TO USE PET AS PAST TENSE????????????????????????” I think the most reasonable explanation for what’s going on with the past tense of pet was given by Geoffrey Nathan in a discussion on the American Dialect Society listserv in September 2003. He says:
Following the analyses of similar examples in Bybee‘s recent book ‘Phonology and Language Use’ I would check to see the frequency with which each verb occurs. Her theory is that frequent irregular verbs are likely to remain irregular, and, if frequent enough, attract additional members to the ‘irregular club’, but infrequent ones are likely to be regularized. The fact that ‘put, set, let, bet’ have zero past/pptl. inflections probably gives enough strength to the paradigm to make it very slightly productive, thus permitting ‘pet’ to join in. I think she actually discusses monosyllabic verbs with -t endings.
On a personal level, however, I must admit I don’t like ‘This morning I pet the dog’.
Meanwhile, back in my neighborhood, past-tense pet seems to have the lead. Just yesterday, one of Doug’s friends was visiting, and after he and Doug had been playing with our cats, he came to me as pleased as if he’d learned he had an extra month until back-to-school. “Guess what?” he said. “I pet Barney! I’ve never pet him before!”