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TWTS: A snowblower can snowblow snow, but a linguist can help you talk about it later

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Come Monday morning, many of you will be comparing notes on how much snow you had to clear out of your driveway and/or sidewalks. For those of us who shovel, this won’t be a problem.

Owners of snow blowers, however, will of find themselves facing the annual predicament of how to talk about snowblowing in the past tense.

That’s exactly what happened to listener Michael Crow and his friends while comparing what he calls “snowblowing success stories” on Twitter earlier this month.

Fortunately, Crow knew exactly what to do: “Someone find us a linguist,” he tweeted. We saw Crow’s linguist bat-signal.

The verb “snowblow” is a backformation from the noun “snowblower.” Backformation is a process where we create new words out of older words by reparsing the parts.

For example, “editor” predates “edit.” What does an editor do? They edit. Just like a beggar begs and a babysitter babysits. So, what does a snowblower do? It snowblows.

But how do we talk about what a snowblower did yesterday? The options aren’t great. “Snowblowed” and “snowblew” both sound odd, which is likely why this debate comes up.

Though there aren’t very many examples of “snowblow” being used in the past tense, usage patterns show that “snowblowed” is more common. When “snowblew” turns up, it’s usually in conversations about what the past tense of “snowblow” is.

Professor Anne Curzan says it’s not surprising that “snowblowed” is more common. We tend to treat new verbs as regular verbs that follow standard patterns. Hence, we add “ed” for “snowblowed.”

Now, go forth and share your stories of snowblowing success with confidence. If you had to shovel your way out, share your stories with the smugness to which you’re entitled.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.