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Friday, June 19, 2015

This one's got me beaten

I was brought up short by this sentence in a Toronto Star article:
"Kate Cayley has beat out established writers including Margaret Atwood to win the 2015 Trillium Book Award worth $20,000."

"That should be beaten!" I harumphed schoolmarmishly.

But then the thought occurred to me (this rarely happens) that I might be (gasp) WRONG.

It's always a good idea to check some dictionaries before making a pronouncement.  Most dictionaries give only "beaten" as the past participle of "beat", but Merriam-Webster's Collegiate and the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledge the existence of a past participle "beat". OED points out that, although "has beat" has been in use in all of the many senses of this verb since the Middle Ages, it most commonly occurs in the meaning "overcome, defeat, surpass".

Looking at some corpus databases of American English text, I discover that "has beaten" (in all senses) is now about 10 times as common as "has beat", but historically it was only about 5 times as common. So "has beat" may well be on its way out, but it's not quite dead yet. 

The participial "beat" is firmly established in colloquial phrases like "It can't be beat" or "you've got me beat", and in the adjective "beat-up".

What is the past participle of "beat" for you? If you saw a participial "beat", would you automatically "correct" it to "beaten"?  Would you call a dilapidated jalopy a "beat-up old car" or a "beaten-up old car"?

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  1. Interesting. My reaction would have been the same as yours.

    However, I don't really like either in this context. "Beating out" someone is fine for a direct competition (sports being an obvious example), but it grates on me a bit for other than a competition in which each competitor can influence the outcome directly.

    Just to be difficult, you understand ...

  2. Does more frequent "beaten" correspond with more frequent "gotten" in North American English? (if you haven't gotten tired of the subject). I guess everyone still uses "got" for simple possession - "she's got blue eyes" (unless they're tinted contacts, in which case I guess she could have gotten blue eyes...)

    Thanks! That was fun.

    1. "gotten" is a different story. It was the older past participle that was gradually replaced in Britain by "got". In Old English "beaten" was the past participle.

  3. Why, I'd call that jalopy a beater.

  4. I'm with you on this. "Has beat" sounds very non-standard to me (I always hesitate to say "wrong").

    - Mark Jones.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.