Grammar Police: Greenlighting ‘Green light’

The Economist: “Because linguists spend their careers trying to tease out what people actually do say and why, they get cross when people equate ‘grammar’ with a host of rules that most people don’t actually observe. Take the so-called rule against ending sentences with a preposition. In fact, saying things like: ‘What are you talking about?’ is deeply embedded in the grammar of English. ‘About what are you talking?’ strikes real speakers of English as absurd.”

“Sometimes our mental grammars don’t know what to do with unusual cases. Take the newish verb ‘to greenlight’, meaning to approve a project. What is its past tense? ‘Light’ has the past tense ‘lit’. But some people go for “greenlighted” (Variety, a film-industry magazine, prefers this) whereas others go for ‘greenlit’. Why the confusion? It’s because ‘to greenlight’ was formed anew from a noun phrase, ‘a green light’. One mental rule is that new words are always regular; hence ‘greenlighted’. But other people’s mental grammars see ‘greenlight as a form of the verb ‘to light’, an existing irregular verb with the past tense ‘lit’; hence ‘greenlit’.”

“This implicit grammatical knowledge overwhelms, in its intricacy and depth, the relatively few rules that people must be consciously taught at school. But since the implicit stuff is hidden in plain sight, it gets overlooked.”


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