Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Investigating words: Validity (part 2: adjectives and verbs)

Posts in this series: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

In part 1 I covered the basics of allowed words and inflected forms; this post will cover the easier cases in a little more detail.  Those cases are the inflected forms of adjectives and verbs; most of the possible uncertainties in those areas have been cleared up, but not all.

The rule that David has quoted the most, I believe, concerns the validity of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives.  (I'm afraid that I do not have a handy reference for a specific episode.)  As I understand it, the rule goes as follows:
  • If the base adjective has a single syllable and there is no spelling shift in the inflected form (i.e., it is formed by simply appending -er or -est as appropriate), then the inflected form is automatically valid.  Otherwise, it must be explicitly listed.
So, this rule tells us that (for example) "broader" and "hardest" are automatically valid, and do not even need to be looked up.  However, "drier" is required to be explicitly listed (as it is) because even though "dry" has a single syllable there is that spelling shift of the 'y' to the 'i' in the comparative form.

This rule does not cover the full complexities of English usage, but is a reasonable approximation.  It is weakest on the two-syllable adjectives, where there are examples in everyday usage that use the -er and -est forms but would be deemed invalid because these are not explicitly listed.  The only truly bad case that I can think of is "narrow", where "narrower" and "narrowest" are definitely common usage; "commonest" ("commoner" is a valid noun) and "politer" / "politest" are similar but less clear-cut instances, although this latter is arguably the Macquarie taking a stance -- the disappearing 'e' would normally lead to the form being listed, as is done for "gentler" / "gentlest".

The flip side is that sometimes inappropriate comparatives and superlatives are automatically allowed.  Sometime toward the end of series three a contestant played BLANKER, which fell under the auspices of this rule and was accepted.  There was some sputtering about this in comments on the website, since the meaning of "blank" is not really such as to permit differing degrees of blankness (although informal usage would allow it, particularly with references to facial expression).

Other words which I have noted as potential plays during this blog: PLAIDEST in episode 348, and the egregious BACKEST in episode 362.  I believe that these should be allowed if attempted, since that rule has been quoted so freely, but fortunately there are alternatives in each instance.  For BACKEST, SETBACK is a much more friendly play (and BACKER is a valid noun); for PLAIDEST there is TALIPEDS (people with a club-foot) and PLAIDER can be replaced with PREDIAL (variant spelling of PRAEDIAL: "of, relating to, or consisting of land or its products; real; landed").

More recently, episode 424 offered the possibilities of CUTEST and MUTEST in the last letters round.  My interpretation is that these are considered to involve spelling shifts because of the disappearing 'e', so they have to be explicitly listed.  That makes CUTEST valid but MUTEST invalid, which is entirely reasonable -- "mute" is already an absolute, so comparative or superlative forms of it make little sense.

(I'm mildly unsure about this; I have a hazy recollection that David once indicated that the disappearing 'e' was OK, but I don't trust that memory.  Since the Macquarie seems to regard these cases as worthy of note when it allows those forms, it would seem that the prudent course is to treat them as spelling shifts for the purposes of that rule.  That keeps MUTEST invalid.)

Note: The blue book suggests that the following plays by contestants were considered valid: BANDIEST in episode 14, and POXIER in episode 25.  Neither of these would be considered valid under the current rule; BANDIEST to my cost in episode 403, and in fact BANDIER was explicitly ruled invalid in episode 424.

There have been fairly few issues with the inflected forms of verbs; this is not that surprising as most unclear inflected forms will be listed, with the exception of the present tense.  The only instance that I can recall where David had to think about this is Norm Do's attempt of TANGOES in episode 405.  I went on about this at some length there (it is in the round 4 commentary, for anyone interested in revisiting it), and in particular how my somewhat old Chambers dictionary has very helpfully set forth the guidelines that it uses; if the Macquarie did the same then this situation would not be unclear at all.

The rule that David came out with in this instance has almost no further applicability beyond TANGOES; my interpretation of it is:
  • For a two-syllable verb ending in -o, the regular inflected form of the present tense is made by appending -es to the verb.
(There are other two-syllable verbs ending in -o, but most of them are also nouns that have an explicitly listed plural formed by appending -es.  That means that David does not need to resort to this rule for purposes of determining validity.)

Another rare issue is that of GASSES (from episode 198); GAS is listed as a noun with plural GASES, but also as a verb with past tense GASSED.  My impression, but I am not as sure of this as I would like to be, is that the appropriate present tense form is GASSES.

Posts in this series: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

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