8 Eroding Inflectional Endings

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English — once, like many other languages, laden with inflectional endings — experienced an erosion of inflection hundreds of years ago, but sometimes it seems as if shaving influences are at work again. Here are eight examples of words that are part of standing phrases that are, at least in colloquial usage, undergoing alteration.

1. Barbed wire
Many people, mishearing or not paying attention to this phrase when it is spoken aloud, or hearing it mispronounced, write or call it “barb wire.” The fencing material consists of wires with barbs, yes, but the default format for expressing that wire is barbed is to write or say “barbed wire.”

2. Corned beef
The same truncation occurs with this name for beef that is corned. Corned, in this case, refers to the fact that corns, or large grains, of salt are used to preserve the meat. (Corn originally referred to any small, hard particle, then to grains, and then, in the United States, to a specific grain formerly called maize.) As the meaning of the adjective slips into obscurity, however, the meaningless “corn beef” may prevail.

3. Dome/domed stadium
These references to roofed athletic facilities are interchangeably correct; one refers to the type of stadium, the other to the manner in which they are built.

4. Fine-tooth/fine-toothed comb
Both descriptors for a comb with fine, or small, closely spaced, teeth are valid; surprisingly, however, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Online list only “fine-tooth comb,” though the other form would appear to be the “proper” one. Other resources list “fine-toothed comb,” but that usage seems to be in the minority.

5. Iced tea
As with the mispronunciation or mishearing of “barbed wire” and corned beef” as “barb wire” and “corn beef” and their resulting misspelling, “iced tea” is often clipped to “ice tea,” which makes no sense; ice is been added to the tea, so it has been iced. (This name clarifies that the tea is not being served hot, as is traditional.)

6. Long-stemmed roses
Yet again, a misunderstanding results in a variant of a standard description. Roses cut with long stems have long been called long-stemmed roses, but “long-stem roses” is also seen. Either way, because “long” and “stem(med)” do not constitute a standing phrase, the two words should be hyphenated together.

7. Stained glass window
“Stain glass window” is a rare erroneous usage; the window is made of stained glass, not stain glass, so the -ed ending is required. However, because “stained glass” is a standing phrase (found in the dictionary), the words need not be hyphenated before the noun.

8. Skim milk/skimmed milk
Like the preference of “fine-tooth comb” over “fine-toothed comb,” the ascendancy of “skim milk” over “skimmed milk” (at least in the United States; the latter form is preferred in British English) is anomalous but well attested.

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22 thoughts on “8 Eroding Inflectional Endings”

  1. The tooth-comb or toothcomb is a group of procumbent lower front teeth found in some mammals that they use for grooming their fur. Its use in English is therefore figurative, implying a shifting or sorting. So use should be fine tooth-comb.

  2. This has always been a pet peeve of mine. I have always shuddered at “ice tea” and “skim milk” in written form (on menus and such), but on reflection now, I admit that it probably makes sense to shave off the endings (think of all the ink we could save), because people don’t usually pronounce them in speaking. So I’m kind of schizophrenic on this issue. I understand why these words are what they are, but I wonder if it’s worth being a stickler about it anymore. I’m waiting for other post-ers to weigh in here. In the meantime, I guess I’ll keep ordering corned beef and iced tea as I peruse menus with my fine-toothed comb looking for mistakes.

  3. I’m ashamed to tell you how old I was before I found out it was “barbed wire” and not bob whar.

    We can add borrow ditch to the list—more commonly called a bar ditch. The dirt is “borrowed” to build the road.

  4. I think the problem comes from the difficulties in pronunciation. I find it impossible to pronounce “iced tea” the way it is spelled. I have to either insert an unnatural pause between the two words or pronounce it like “ice d-tea”. My tongue simply can’t transition from “d” to “t” properly. So I always pronounce it as “ice tea” even though I know and use the correct spelling. For people who don’t read much or aren’t good spellers, it’s not surprising that they spell it the way it’s pronounced.

  5. It’s a damn-good/damned-good/damned, good thing you posted on this.

    If “long-stem” makes sense to you, then why does “fine-tooth” surprise you? Seems to me they amount to the same structure.

  6. This is a great article, and one that I find myself switching back and forth on. Sometimes I’ll write with the -ed (Barb-ed, skim-ed, ice-d) other times I won’t (barb, skim, ice). I’m not sure why I switch back and forth, but now that I’m conscious of it, I’m wondering if I should continue or not. When crafting copy for advertisements, my manager usually encourages colloquial language. Since this is a trend in common usage, it will probably become mandatory in my writing!

  7. John:

    I was merely noting, not approving of, “long-stem roses,” and what surprised me is that Merriam-Webster Online (and the print dictionary), which usually lists variants, cites only “fine-tooth comb” (likely the newer form).

  8. One of my pet peeves is ‘advanced notice’ instead of ‘advance notice’ – sadly, the former is increasingly used here in the UK. The meaning is quite different: ‘advanced’ means that something has progressed in a linear way, eg ‘at my advanced age’, whereas I assume ‘advance’ is short for ‘in advance’, ie ‘beforehand’. I’d be interested in Daily Writing Tips giving one of their lucid explanations of the difference between ‘advance’ and ‘advanced’.

  9. Here in Australia we get all of those (including “skim milk”).

    Moreover what USans call “ground beef/hamburger,” we call “minced meat.” This long ago became “mince meat” and then simply ‘mince.’ Since all meats can also be minced, we find spermarket labels referring to “mince beef / neal / lamb / pork” (but “chicken mince” rather than “mince chicken”!).

    An Aussie favourite is a small pie with pastry top and bottom, which is usually filled with minced meat in a thick gravy – this is simply always referred to as a “meat pie” or simply a ‘pie,’* never a “mince pie.”

    “Mince pies” are what we eat at xmas – these are made with “mince fruit.”

    Sadly, I think we purists are fighting a losing battle here!


    *Rhyming slang gives “Dog’s eye with dead (h)orse = meat pie with (tomato) sauce / ketchup.”

  10. That should read

    Since all meats can be minced, we find spermarket labels referring to “mince beef / veal / lamb / pork”
    (Lack of coffee 🙁 )

  11. Agree with Sally on the ‘skim milk’. Our brands of milk commonly list their milk as ‘skim milk’ rather than ‘skimmed milk’, despite the fact that we technically employ British English.

  12. @Valerie: I don’t have time to check etymology, but I wouldn’t assume that the phrase “fine-toothed comb” came from an association with mammalian toothcombs (or tooth-combs). For example, in the medical field, when we check scalps for lice, we use a fine-toothed comb. It is literally that: A comb with very thin teeth that are set very close together, because the idea is to sift through hair and pull out teeny-tiny nits. Obviously a wide-toothed comb (i.e. the opposite) would miss the nits. But it’s good for detangling thick hair.

  13. Since food figures prominently in this discussion, we can widen our net a bit beyond inflectional endings and bemoan the loss of the adverbial -ly in what has become known as “fresh squeezed orange juice”. I find this nonsensical shortening particularly cringeworthy.

  14. While we’re doing it, how does one pronounce fine-toothed as in a comb? The th of tooth and of thick and thin; or switched to the th of this and that? In American spelling pronunciation TOO-TH’T or TOO-TH’D. I think a strong argument can be made for the latter.

  15. One of my favorite peeves in this field is “old-fashion” something. It should be “old-fashionED” something since the object is constructed/created/fashioned as it was in the past. But realizing that you can only keep back the ocean with a broom for so long before you die of exhaustion I’ve chosen to shake my head in dismay and sadness at what laziness and sloth hath wrought in our language.

  16. I sure could use an answer to the “welcome” or “welcomed” dilemma. I visited this site today hoping to find an answer to that. Thanks!

  17. A “fine-toothed comb” is also a useful one for pet owners, and the owners of beasts of burden.
    A. You can have a dog, cat, etc., that sheds a lot of its “inner fur”, and a fine-toothed comb will take that out. I have known dogs and cats that loved having their fur combed this way, and especially during hot weather – when they shed fur anyway.
    B. For your pets, horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, yaks, etc., a fine-toothed comb is good for removing burrs, barbs, thorns, mites, fleas, and other small vermin from their coats. The animal usually enjoys this, too – getting rid of those annoying things.
    I am also reminded of the brave and clever birds that peck food from between the teeth of alligators and crocodiles. This is with the cooperation of the predators! This is a form of symbiosis!
    Fine-toothed combs! Human beings invented them, and our domesticated animals benefit from them and enjoy them:
    cats, cattle, camels, dogs, donkeys, goats, guinea pigs, hamsters, horses, jackasses, llamas/alpacas, monkeys, oxen, rodents, sheep, wooly mammoths, yaks…
    As the Tasmanian Devil said, “And Especially Rabbits!”

  18. It was a deliberate move by the producers of a (little-known) movie called “Barb Wire” to spell it this way. The character “Barb Wire” was played by Pamela Anderson in a rare movie role that she had before “Baywatch”. “Barb Wire” was a female version of the characters who have been played by Chuck Norris, Stephen Segall, Bruce Lee, Mel Gibson (“Mad Max”), Charles Bronson (“Death Wish”), Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser) – tough guys – or a tough gal, who didn’t mind going out of their way to pummel the crooks!
    Of course, “Barb” is also a nickname for a woman named Barbara.

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