Over the past week I’ve been asking people to take part in the poll I set up last Monday to see which past tense form of the verb ‘to text’ people said they were most likely to use. First things first, can I express a huge THANK YOU to everyone that took part (whoever you might be!).
But before I go into the results of the poll, I’ll give a little background to the reasons for it… (if you’d rather just see the results, click here)
i. A discussion in work
A few years ago I said something along the lines of ‘I texted her, but didn’t get a response’ while in work. One of my work colleagues looked at me, smirked, and asked me to repeat what I’d just said. So I did. To the great amusement of my colleague. It turns out that she had never heard anyone saying ‘texted’, and had only ever heard and used ‘text’. That sounded bizarre to me, but my use was equally bizarre to her. So what was influencing our individual choices of the form?
ii. Traditional paths for new verbs
Verbs in English have all sorts on seemingly inexplicable forms. Linguists class them in two ways – ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’. Anyone who has learnt a second language such as French at school will be familiar with ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ verbs and the nightmare of trying to remember them all (and whether or not they took ‘etre’ in the past-perfect tense). English has the same irregularities, and they are usually associated with much older forms of English that were around between 1200 and 600 years ago (Old English and then Middle English). So verbs such as ‘to see’, ‘to go’ and ‘I cast’ (as in ‘to throw’) take the following forms in the past tense: ‘I saw’, ‘I went’, ‘I cast’. Regular verbs, however, are verbs that either replaced the older versions during the Middle English period, or were formed after this time. The past tense forms of these verbs took the suffix ‘-ed’. Since then, any newer verbs that have come along as a result of new activities, or new technology have taken the regular ending ‘-ed’.
iii. Mixed use in the broadcast media
This might be just a Dublin thing, but I regularly hear presenters on Phantom FM using ‘text’ as the past tense form. One would expect that despite the chatty and informal style on the radio station, the presenters (from both the UK and Ireland, incidentally) are more likely to use a standard register and to check their usage than those having a conversation that isn’t being broadcast to nearly 1 million people. Which implies that they are perfectly comfortable using this form, and see it as the standard one.
Texting as a new technology
The fact is that, right now, there is no ‘correct’ form. The activity of texting has only really become a widespread thing in the past 10 or so years. When ‘texting’ was in its early years, people didn’t have a word for it. Instead you would hear the phrasal verb ‘to send a text’.
The text/texted debate has been going for a little while now. This discussion on the website ‘English Language and Usage‘ back in 2011 shows that it wasn’t yet determined, although many of the respondents to the question stated that ‘texted’ was the standard form for the reasons outlined in (ii.). David Crystal (yes, him again!), gives the past form as ‘texted’ in his 2008 book ‘Txting’, yet Grammarphobia stated that they pronounce the past tense form as ‘text’ as they find the form with a pronounced ‘-ed’ “juvenile”.
Designing The ‘Text/Texted’ Poll
So all this prompted me to see what forms people chose to use in a purely unscientific straw-poll. The poll was designed to be as simple as possible. I deliberately kept the poll to just two options – ‘text’ and ‘texted’. A couple of people wanted a third option of ‘sent her a text’, but I left this out. This phrasal verb form is probably the form I am most likely to use, and I think it was in place when texting first became widespread (back in roughly 1998/99) because we hadn’t started ‘verbalising‘ the noun yet. But in the past decade, the verb ‘to text’ has become much more common. Therefore having the third phrasal verb option gave people an easy ‘get out clause’ in a way! I wanted people to think about which of the two simpler options was their most likely choice.
The poll asked where people were from. As we are much more mobile these days, I also figured that asking someone where they are from now wouldn’t necessarily reflect the type of English they spent most of their time with (someone living in London now, for example, could have spent the majority of their life in Scotland and only moved relatively recently). So I added a question that asked where people had spent most of their lives if they’d lived in their current location for less than 7 years, as this is the time-period in which I roughly think ‘to text’ as a verb has been in widest use.
The Results are in…..
The Poll received 25 responses from all across the UK, Ireland, and even the USA and Canada – which is very exciting! The overall response was very much in favour of ‘texted’ as a past tense form.
“I couldn’t find Jane to ask her, so I ____________ instead”
So I suppose that answers the first question – which form is in most common use? ‘Texted’ is the most common form among 80% of respondents to the poll. I’ll be honest, I thought it would be closer than that, given how often I hear ‘text’. But let’s break it down by the countries that respondents had spent most of their life in…
Results by Country
Respondents cited the following countries as those in which they have spent most of their time:
Now, given the low number of respondents in some of these countries, we can’t accurately say that ‘text’ doesn’t exist in them, particularly in the USA. The Non-English speaking countries (Poland, Spain and the Netherlands) may not have as much variety, and may well use the regular verb form as they follow rules of English grammar typically associated with other new-verb forms. However the interest lies in the English speaking countries that do have the ‘text’ form.
As I only got 2 respondents from Canada, I think we can probably say that there isn’t sufficient data to make a clear call on the form most commonly in use there. However, there was a larger response from the UK and Ireland, making the results a little more usable. In both countries, ‘text’ is in the minority. The proportion of ‘text’ is higher among UK respondents (33%) than Irish ones (22%). From this, though, we can’t really say that the form is country specific.
If we look at the UK and Ireland in more detail (as the countries with most responses and with most instances of ‘text’ as a past tense form), do we see a pattern in the use of ‘text’ by region?
So what can we get from this? Well, first off, I think it’s clear that as we are dealing with very low numbers of respondents, we can’t really compare the usage. Where there was more than one respondent in any of the counties in either country, there is more variation. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t variety in the counties with just one response. Equally, this doesn’t mean that there is a 50/50 split in the use of ‘text’ or ‘texted’ in Somerset, or that 20% of Dubliners say ‘text’. I think what this does show is that so far, from the results, the use of ‘text’ vs ‘texted’ is not regionally specific, either nationally or internationally.
So is it ‘text’ or ‘texted’?
I think overwhelmingly we can see that the majority of respondents favour ‘texted’ as the past tense form over ‘text’. I think it’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong answer here, as the standard form hasn’t yet been determined. Only time will tell on that one. However from these results, I could tentatively predict that ultimately ‘texted’ is going to win out. Of course, this wasn’t really a scientific poll by any means, so really can’t be taken as any real linguistic result!
As this poll was promoted on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, that allowed people to send in comments. Comments ranged from queries as to why ‘sent her a text’ wasn’t in there as an option (see explanation above!), to suggestions for alternative past-tense forms. I particularly liked one comment that suggested we should use ‘toxt’ as the past tense form! Some respondents who chose ‘text’ said that they choose this form because ‘texted’ just sounds awkward.
Regional data doesn’t answer all the questions for sociolinguists though. Age and education might also come into play. But I didn’t ask those questions on this occasion. I think I’ve taken up enough space with just regional analysis!
So congratulations if you’ve made it this far into the blog-post. Quite a mammoth entry this week, but I hope you found this little sojourn into the world of texting useful! And carry on using your past tense form, whatever it might be. Variety is the spice of life, and gives sociolinguistics PhD students like me interesting things to study!