Regular or Irregular?: Conjugating the Verb “to Romney”

Harnessing the social power of the internet can have undeniable effects on language communities. Recognizing this, one form of political activism draws on this power in an effort to impact the meaning of words. Using Dan Savage‘s famous campaign as a model, an intrepid web-user (semantic combatant, maybe?) has dogged former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by re-defining his last name. Inspired by Romney’s infamous road-trip with his dog strapped to the top of his car, there is now a website devoted to offering the verb “to romney” as meaning “to defecate in terror.”

All seriousness aside, what then, some may ask, is the proper conjugation of this new verb? Does it have an irregular conjugation or does it carry the regular inflectional suffixes -s and -ed? The answer is that, despite an unusual spelling, “to romney” is a regular verb.

third person singular = romneys

past tense = romneyed

Why is this the case? There are two reasons.

First, starting at a very early age, English speakers tend to assume regularity when confronted with a new verb. In a famous example, known as the wug-test, psychologist Jean Berko Gleason demonstrated that when children are exposed to new words (words they could not have heard from their parents) they apply the regular pattern to word endings. Thus, new nouns, such as wug, get the plural inflection -s (wugs) and new verbs, such as gling, get the past tense inflection -ed (glinged). This is evidence of a rule-forming capacity that generalizes regular inflections as applying to new words. The principle, according to Steven Pinker, is as follows:

If a word can provide its own past tense from memory [i.e. an irregular plural or past tense form], the rule is blocked; elsewhere (by default), the rule applies.

(from Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language)

Although “to romney” is not technically a new word, it is a new verb derived from a proper noun. This is the second reason for its regularity. Normal verbs and nouns are stored in memory as a root. These words are then either: 1) linked to another root (the irregulars) or 2) governed by the regular inflectional ending rule. Names that are called into service as verbs, however, are considered rootless. English speakers treat rootless words as if they require the regular rule. All names employed as verbs, therefore, use the regular inflections -s and -ed.

(And yes, the pun in the title is intended).

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin


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