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13 April 2009



I hope you all had a very happy and restful Easter. Today I thought I'd introduce a new item to my blog.

For some time I have been receiving a regular newsletter entitled 'WORLD WIDE WORDS' by Michael Quinion. Since many of the items in the newsletter are of interest to writers, I thought I'd share some of them with you (I have Mr Quinion's permission to do this, for which I am very grateful.) So I intend to make this a regular feature on a Monday.

"Q. In a recent issue you included a quote from a newspaper: "Shelby weaved through traffic." Am I old-fashioned to want to use the word "wove"? Perhaps you have written about how certain past tenses have gone to the "-ed" form from an older format for making a verb past tense? Or is this the proper word because it isn't particular to creating cloth? [Anne Umphrey]

A. Your second guess is the correct one. The reason why there are two different past tenses is that there are actually two different verbs here, though at times - such as in this case - their senses are sufficiently close to cause confusion.

The older one - to form cloth by interlacing strands - refers to such an ancient technique that the word for it can be traced back through Old English to a prehistoric Indo-European root that was
later taken into Greek and Sanskrit. It has retained the way of forming the past tense that was once often found in Old English verbs. The method was to change the internal vowel in a standard way, a process called ablaut or gradation, in this case "weave" changing to "wove". Some 70 such verbs survive in English today, including "drive", "sing", "come", and "grow". Grammarians call these strong verbs, a term invented by the German grammarian and folklorist Jacob Grimm; it remains the standard way to describe them, although it's unsatisfactory and obscure.

A big shift happened in Middle English between about 1100 and 1500. Many strong verbs became weak, forming their past tenses in "-ed"or "-t", depending on the ending of the stem. To take just two examples: "glide", which had had the Old English strong form "glode" as the past tense, came to use "glided" instead; "help" changed its past tense from "halp" to "helped". Only the commonest retained their strong forms. Verbs that form their past tenses by adding one of these endings are said to be weak, another term invented by Jacob Grimm.

The verb in the quotation - to twist and turn from side to side to avoid obstructions while moving in some direction or other - is from a different source to the other "weave". It derives from the Old Norse word "veifa", to wave or brandish. In Middle English it was spelled "weve" and may be a relative of our modern "wave". "Weve" vanished from the written language but survived in dialect; it reappeared in books in the late sixteenth century with the spelling changed to "weave", almost certainly through the influence of the other verb. By the time it started to be used in writing again, the weak form had become dominant and this version of "weave" followed the trend, making "weaved".

A very few verbs retain both forms, causing some confusion; the classic case is "hang", in which pictures are hung but people are hanged. "Weave" is sometimes said to be another example of this multiple tense disorder but it's actually a confusion between two words of the same spelling from different sources."

World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2009. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org
If you have an interest in words and writing, I suggest you subscribe to his Newsletter, it's not only very informative, it's an entertaining read as well.