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Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: damn vs. damned
Question: I have had many arguments regarding the use of damn as an adjective instead of damned. As I understand it, damn can only be a verb, noun or interjection. It must have an adjectival suffix to be considered an adjective, yet people use the unmodified verb form as an adjective rampantly. The friend with which I argue most asserts that usage, not logic defines language, to which I reply, ''then why make rules at all?'' After researching, I see that there is theory of null morphemes and I wonder if that is why damn is even used in examples in the Merriam Webster online dictionary as an adjective ( ) when all logic tells me it is wrong. What makes damn an adjective when linguistic rules say it should be damned?
Reply: The sorts of rules you refer to are called "prescriptive," that is, they result from people at different times and for different reasons attempting to prescribe what usage should be in the language. At its best, prescriptivism provides a standard for professional language users to work within--and around. The Associated Press Style Sheet, and the Chicago Manual of Style are good examples of this. At its worst it represents arbitrary prejudices that differ from person to person and tend to be woefully inconsistent, both internally and with what language users actually do. A good example of this is the injunction against splitting infinitives, a prohibition that goes back only to about the 1860s and never had a legitimate place in English grammar. The shift from "damned" to "damn" as an adjective or adverb is part of a larger loss of participial suffixes in English when the participle is used as an adjective or adverb. We no longer say "iced cream," "skimmed milk," etc., although we do still say "mashed potatoes." I've seen "mash potatoes" on diner menus, but not widely. This loss of the -d suffix is so common that it's even called "the 'ice cream' effect," and it's obviously applied to "damn." I should think that anyone who insisted on "damned" would also want to say and write "iced cream," just to be consistent. But these change processes are not completely consistent, and standards are, as my colleagues and your friends have pointed.out, are determined by usage.
Reply From: Herbert Frederic Stahlke      click here to access email
Date: 31-Jan-2009
Other Replies:
  1. Re: damn vs. damned    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (31-Jan-2009)
  2. Re: damn vs. damned    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (02-Feb-2009)
  3. Re: damn vs. damned    Joseph F Foster     (31-Jan-2009)

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