Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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!”

17 Responses to “The Irregularization of Pet

  1. What I find most interesting is the number of published books where “spit” and “spat” show up in free variation. On one page you’ll see “spat” and on the next you’ll see “spit” as the past tense of “spit”.

    By the way, I have “petted” in my dialect.

  2. Ran said

    Not only do I use “pet” as the preterite and past participle of “pet,” but I also use “sweat” as the preterite and past participle of “sweat” . . . I take it this is wrong?

  3. Bob said

    My wife uses “pet” as the preterite, I use “petted.” I don’t think we have ever commented, one to the other, about it. I wonder what my children (25 and 20 years old) use? I will ask them this evening.

  4. Michael said

    “Wrong” Ran? Of course not. Linguists describe – we don’t prescribe.

    Once the [t] is voiced intervocalically (in the American pattern) it contributes to the stuttering “eded” sound. Might this be a tendency towards dissimilation through deletion?

    And even in a dialect that preserves the voiceless [t] we end up with voiced consonant in a word-final position. Might the markedness of word-final voicing be a slight motivation to preserve the [t] and regularise the form?

  5. Ben Zimmer said

    Steven Pinker touches on the irregularization of pet in Words And Rules (p. 61). Other t/d-final verbs that are moving in the same direction are bust, shred, and tread.

  6. Neal said

    Thanks for the very specific reference, Ben. I should have remembered Words and Rules. I recommend it to anyone who found this post interesting. In it, Pinker goes through the entire inventory of kinds of irregular verbs in English, and talks about those that are becoming more regular and those that are becoming more irregular. I didn’t remember pet in the discussion, probably because I read it the year before I noticed Adam’s SLP using pet as a past participle.

  7. I’ve heard “net” irregularized in TV dialogue recently (villains bragging about having “net” an important prisoner from the good guys), so it seems that a general trend is developing towards making “t-monosyllable” verbs irregular. Still, that trend makes me uneasy; if most English teachers and dictionaries insist that “pet, net, sweat” should take -ed in the past, then the same rule applies to my own grammar.

  8. Philip Whitman said

    In the context of pets (as opposed to girlfriends), I have always used pet as the noun and pat as the verb. As in: I pat my pet on the head to show affection or approval of what he just did, saying, “Good Boy,” while I’m at it.

  9. […] Grit His Teeth A while back, I wrote about the regular past tense of pet becoming irregular for many people, so that instead of saying petted, […]

  10. […] and is especially pleased when one of the shy ones lets him pet him. I remember his excitement when he was finally able to pet our cat Barney. Barney, you may recall, we put to sleep last year, but now we have a new addition, a white, […]

  11. la_221 said

    This post may be quite late but I just had this dilemma recently.

    I regularly use pet as the past tense in my spoken vocabulary. Oddly enough, I feel that, when printed or typed I need to spell it out as petted instead. I didn’t notice it until I was making a facebook update and then decided to google it when I couldn’t decide.

  12. raf jordan said

    pet is clearly the correct usage. granted, i’m only a screenwriter and not a linguist, but petted sounds ridiculous. (which is usually my litmus test)

  13. […] one, on the past tense of irregular verbs like pet, because I’ve written about this topic a few times. (Incidentally, I guess I shouldn’t complain about the use of the word blog to […]

  14. Ran said

    I just came across admit as the past participle of admit:

    I’m not sure if that’s the same phenomenon as pet, or if it’s just a typo or other mistake. “Has finally admit” gets a few dozen Google-hits.

  15. Dan said

    Final answer ?

  16. Kathleen Spellman said

    It was with great enjoyment that I read the pet/ petted problem complete with the differing opinions. It gave me satisfaction to know that when I’m petting (whew -ing is easy) my cat and think “now is it I petted CC or that I pet CC.” Petted just sounds wrong. However I take the words out for a plat and can find no finality. Hoorah! The answers.

  17. maria nekam said

    Just saw on a TV morning show a list of reasons why the cat-of-the-week should be adopted. #3 was “likes to be pet.” Who thinks that sounds/looks correct?

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