Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Zero-Backformation

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2006

A thread on the Eggcorn Forum talks about a puzzling phrase some of the participants have seen: the war wages on. One poster speculates that the war-related verb wage is an eggcorn for rage; others think it’s an idiom blend of wage war and the war rages. Either of those is a possible explanation, but neither of them is the first one that occurred to me. The war rages on reminded me of a time about five years ago, when — oh, wait a minute… [harp music, wavy screen]

As I was saying, a time about five years ago, when Doug wasn’t yet embarrassed to watch the Wiggles. On their first videotape, there’s a song called “Ponies.” As six or seven tween-age girls dressed in pony suits prance in front of the Wiggle known as Jeff, he sings:

Watching the ponies galloping home.
Their tails in the air go swish, swish, swish;
Their hooves are making [clopping sounds]
As they ride home to
Farmer Brown.

The choreography has the pony-girls turning around just in time to swish their backsides at the audience for the swish, swish, swish part, while Jeff looks on with his creepily cheerful smile. But nevermind that; what I wondered was: What were the ponies riding, or riding on, or riding in? And how can you ride something while you’re galloping?

I think what’s happened is that certain speakers have taken the causative-of-induced-action alternation seen in some verbs, and extended the pattern with ride:

I walk the dog; the dog walks.
I run the machine; the machine runs.
I fly the airplane; the airplane flies.
I ride the ponies; the ponies             .

That is, they mistook ride for a verb like walk, which can mean “cause to walk.” Ride as a transitive verb, then, is taken to mean “cause to ride,” and ride as an intransitive verb is then forced to mean “to locomote while being non-human”. Here are a few other examples I found:

The process by which walk, run, crash and other verbs are turned into causative versions of themselves without any kind of prefix or suffix (or anything else that would change how they sound) is an example of conversion or zero-derivation.

But wait — with ride, it was the causative version that came first, and the unusual non-causative meaning that came later. That is, the zero-derivation went in the opposite direction as it did for the other verbs. My friends, do you realize what this means? Yes! It’s a backformation! Not a backformation where a prefix or suffix is stripped away, but where nothing at all is undone! A zero-backformation, if you will. It’s also happened with drive: original transitive meaning, “cause to move”; re-interpreted with causative meaning, “cause to drive”; new intransitive meaning, “to move while being a motorized vehicle”, as seen in the following examples:

  • Actually his findings were that cars drove closer to him when he was wearing a helmet.
  • Just on the other side of the patio wall, two classic cars drove up.
  • Cars drive by the east side of the Capital Building which is proctected by cement barriers

I think the same kind of zero-backformation is what has happened with wage in the war wages on. If you wage the war, then the war wages, and the new intransitive meaning for wage is “to occur and involve violence”.

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8 Responses to “Zero-Backformation”

  1. Russell said

    Ah, the Wiggles. I think my girlfriend’s little cousins are just about done with that particular phase of their development. I’ve seen some videos of concerts they give: do those little kids really the loud music and lights?

    Anyway…the -drive- case is interesting since the move to intransitivity also brought a narrowing: driven cows, or even carriages, don’t drive. Could be a coincidence, or perhaps something to do with a folk theory of machines and how they are used by humans.

    And an interesting thing about -ride-. It is used to mean “operate a vehicle” (rather than just, well, riding) for bicycle-type things (bi/tricycles, motorcycles, unicycles). And I did manage to find some cases of “bikes riding up” (though only non-motorized stuff).

    A third interesting thing about “wage” (which, a brief look at the OED tells me, had a meaning of pledge or deposit (some money), and later to offer some thing up as a way of starting a battle, and also to pledge one’s self to the fulfillment of some goal. Currently it could be analyzed as a sort of special “light verb” (or “support verb”) for nouns denoting battles and similar things. I wonder if these sort of light verbs, which are very domain specific (as opposed to -take- and -make-), could show a tendency to intransitivize (much revenge exacted? the lecture kept on delivering?).

  2. Russell said

    Hmm… apparently a sequence of ” and ) produces a winking smily face. I guess I’m just behind the times when it comes to these key sequences.

  3. Ran said

    Alternatively, you could take this as an active-ization of English’s mediopassive voice (found in e.g. “the soup that eats like a meal” and discussed in Language Log a while back).

  4. Neal said

    Russell: Your possibility about ‘wage’ detransitivization and light verbs is interesting. I’ll be on the lookout for examples like those you imgaine.

    Ran: I considered the mediopassive alternation you mention, but discarded it because verbs used in this way tend to be used along with adverbial or other phrases describing manner, and with a generic meaning: The soup (always) eats like a meal, or John (usually) embarrasses easily. The sentences I noticed seemed to refer to a particular event: of ponies “riding” home, or cars “driving” up. Even for those that had a generic sense (e.g. “Cars drive by the east side”), there wasn’t the typical manner adverbial there such as easily.

  5. Why not taking “…the war wages on.” as “… the war continues to wage (i.e. recompense, reward) the United States.” Intransitive “pay off” would be better.

  6. Why not taking “…the war wages on.” as “… the war continues to wage (i.e. recompense, reward) the United States.” Intransitive pay off would be better.

  7. Neal said

    Roberto: As fas as I know, the noun wages has not been turned into a verb wage meaning to pay, though it could certainly happen. I looked up wage in my 1973 Merriam-Webster dictionary, and it’s not there. Interestingly, though, I found that the intransitive sense of wage is already listed. It says, “to be in process of occurring waged for several hours — Amer. Guide Series: Md.>

  8. Robero Aníbal Bonaldi said

    I found this on M-W’s online dictionary:

    Main Entry: 2 wage
    Function: verb
    Inflected Form(s): waged; wag·ing
    Etymology: Middle English, to offer surety, put up as a stake, hire, from Anglo-French *wager, gager, from wage
    transitive verb : to engage in or carry on
    intransitive verb : to be in process of occurring

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