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Flying to center field with the boys of autumn

A newspaper account of a 14-inning ball game makes a point about irregular verbs.

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With the Red Sox well over a dozen games behind in even the wild-card standings, this sometime sports fan is ready to declare baseball season over but for the linguistic analysis.

All this slicing and dicing of what was once two monolithic leagues into divisions, plus the establishment of the wild-card race, makes me think of those competitions for kids where everyone comes home with a prize. But even I can tell it hasn’t been a good season for the Red Sox.

Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals have clinched a berth in the National League’s playoffs, the first time a Washington team has accomplished such a thing since 1933. We wish our friends in the capital well. But in my journalistic experience, anything reported as happening “for the first time since 1933” tends not to be good news.

Over at Language Log, though, they’re all abuzz over a piece in The New York Times about Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and his ability to levitate. (No wonder the Sox are so far behind.) The sentence in question read, “Three batters later, the bases were loaded for Derek Jeter, but he flew out harmlessly to right field.”

The reader who brought this to the collective attention of Language Log wrote, “I watched the game on TV and I can tell you that Derek’s feet stayed firmly rooted on the ground. I thought Steve Pinker said this didn’t happen.”

The point here isn’t really whether Jeter’s feet stayed on the ground during this particular ­14-inning game. It’s whether he “flew” out or “flied” out. What “Steve” Pinker – that would be Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology and noted expert in psycholinguistics – says that’s relevant here is that “verbs intuitively perceived as derived from nouns or adjectives are always regular, even if similar or identical to, an irregular verb. Thus one says […] flied out in baseball [from a fly (ball)], not flew out […].”

It’s a process known as “regularization.” When “to fly out” is short for “to be out in baseball because of having hit a fly ball that has been caught,” fly is treated like, for instance, spy, with spied as its past tense.

So in proper baseballspeak, Jeter “flied.” Yes, but: Mark Liberman, the University of Pennsylvania phonetician who runs Language Log, points out that “flied out,” rather than “flew out,” is followed widely, but not universally.

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His quick Google News check of the previous month found the phrase “flied out to center” appeared 161 times, whereas “flew out to center” appeared only 23 times. “Flied out” clearly prevails; but 23 instances of “flew out” is more than can be ascribed just to typographical error.

Digging into the ProQuest archive, though, where he found some examples  “so old that baseball was still written ‘base-ball,’ ” Liberman found “flied” beat “flew” 1,412 to 68. Moreover, “the distributions over time suggest that regularization has increased rather than decreased.”

When I clicked on the link Language Log provided to the Times piece, the quoted sentence wasn’t there. What appeared in its place was: “In the 12th, the fans rose for Derek Jeter with the bases loaded, but Evan Scribner got him to fly out harmlessly to right field.”

There’s no indication of any correction to what was originally published, but this version avoids flied/flew altogether – and even keeps the infinitive unsplit. Harmlessly.


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