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Losing -ed

It’s happening all around us and we don’t even seem to be aware of it. In fact, every time I mention it to somebody, they look at me and kind of smile as if I were describing a quaint little custom our ancestors used but isn’t really necessary anymore. Mind you, these are the same people who think the end of the world is near if they hear “they” used as a singular, as I just did in the second sentence of this paragraph, or in “Tell each client they must pay with cash.” This is the same group who are very concerned if “whom” is not used correctly or if someone says “lie” when they really mean “lay.”

What am I talking about you ask? I’m talking about the loss of –ed at the end of words like “old fashioned” or “unsweetened.” It used to be confined to speech. I’d hear someone say “Do you want some roast potatoes or how about some ice tea? I’d think to myself, I must not have heard the word’s final consonant. But no! It turns out it wasn’t my hearing. It’s actually happening; we are losing –ed and it’s happening in print, which makes this much more serious.

On a lettered menu board in more than one trendy coffee shop clients may order whip cream and steam milk with their coffee. Companies advertise merchandise with labels claiming that their product is old fashion. I’ve seen signs in local grocery stores advertising glaze fruit and reduce bread.

Now that my friends know that I look out for this particular change, I have an interesting collection of examples. One is a bill from a restaurant on which the server wished her clients a bless day. Another is from a menu in Arizona selling bottle water. Within the last couple of months, I’ve received an e-mail promoting a can goods drive and another from a close relative (a close relative with a master’s degree) asking if I want sweeten or unsweeten tea when I come for a big family meal. This is not a change bound by dialect, class or even region any more, although people north of the Mason-Dixon line do notice we in the South have screen porches instead of screened-in porches and there is more than one Promise Land church.

In case you are wondering if the change is impudently taking place in all past participle forms, be assured verb forms appear to be safe at this point. The change is primarily affecting past participles that have become adjectives and the change seems to be facilitated when the dropped ending results in a familiar word. So for roast potatoes, steam milk and bottle water, we have the well established nouns roast, steam and bottle. Because the shortened form of the past participle recalls another word, the change sneaks in unnoticed. And as uncomfortable as the change makes me, the reality is this change has been creeping in more or less unnoticed for quite some time now.

A long time ago ice cream used to be iced cream and skim milk was skimmed milk, but the older forms of these words sound archaic today. Nor are these isolated examples. Well-known cookbooks commonly refer to roast turkey and roast chicken. And at least in Virginia, cans of black eye peas hail from a variety of companies. You can also find plenty of recipes for candy apples and first come, first serve is heard as frequently as y’all.

As much as the change surprises and fascinates me, the point is language is always changing and this particular change has been underway for a long time now. A recent trip down the grocery aisle in my central Virginia town reassured me that, even in the South, there are still plenty of examples of –ed that don’t appear to be in any danger of disappearing. I was able to find baked beans, fried chicken and smoked ham, but on my way out, I thought I just caught sight of a disappearing –ed on a big sign for BBQ chicken.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.