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.