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TWTS: Abracadabra, this magic trick is now a language question

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Someone recently brought to our attention an article that talked about the famous magic trick where the magician saws their assistant in half. The question of how the trick is performed caught our interest – that is, until a nice shiny linguistics question magically appeared.

What caught our attention is the question of how to talk about the trick later. Would you say the magician’s assistant was “sawed” in half, or were they “sawn” in half? Though we hope neither is true, either is acceptable.

The verb “saw” goes back to the noun “saw.” This is what linguists would call a “functional shift,” i.e., when a word switches parts of speech. There are plenty of these shifts in English, including “the drink/to drink,” “the tower/to tower over,” “the commute/to commute,” etc.

By the 13th century, “saw” had made its shift from noun to verb. It’s a regular verb, so the past tense is “sawed” and the past participle is “has sawed.”

In the 15th century, speakers started to create an irregular form of “saw” for both the past tense and the past participle. Irregular verbs involve a vowel change, e.g., “draw” in the past tense is “drew.”

That’s what happened to “saw.” The past tense got a vowel change and became something along the lines of “soo.” The past participle became “sawn,” similar to how the past participle of “draw” is “drawn.”

The irregular past tense of “saw” died out, but the past participle “sawn” has stuck around. It’s more popular in British English, while American English tends to prefer the regular form “has sawed”

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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.
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.