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Archive for January 23rd, 2023

Evergreen sumac isn’t always evergreen

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While most of the leaves on an evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) do remain green in December, it’s not unusual for the leaves on a damaged or dying branch to turn brown or maroon. That was the case with this one in my Great Hills neighborhood on December 21st of the recently expired year. Call it fall foliage by proxy.



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Because native speakers of a language learn it by assimilation, they don’t notice many things that a foreigner does when learning the language. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve probably never thought about the familiar prefix re-. If a foreigner asked you about it, you might think for a bit and say something like: We put re- in front of a verb to convey the meaning ‘back’ or ‘again.’ For example: “The platoon captured the high ground, later got repulsed, and then recaptured the high ground.” Or: “This story, which originated in China, has been retold in many other countries.”

So far, so good. But now suppose the foreigner asks you: “How do I know which verbs I’m allowed to stick re- on and which verbs I’m not allowed to stick re- on?” Your likely answer will be: “What do you mean?” As a native English speaker, you’ve almost certainly never realized that we can’t just put re- on any verb we want to. Take these examples:

  • I was in Barcelona in 1985 and I rewas in Barcelona in 1990.
  • Come visit as soon as you can. Recome as often as you’d like.
  • She wanted to be in movies but after repeatedly failing to get a part she gave up on the idea. A year later she rewanted to be in movies.
  • Look at that beautiful sunset. Relook at it to really appreciate it.
  • There are people who’ve had a fortune, gone bankrupt, and eventually rehad a fortune.
  • Once I knew where I was going in life. Later I lost my way. Now I reknow where I’m going.

A foreigner sees nothing illogical about any of those uses of re-, but a native speaker would never say any of them (except maybe in jest). Someone who knows a little about word origins might be aware that re- got borrowed from Latin, whereas the verbs in those examples—be, come, want, look, have, and know—are all native English words, and so maybe English just doesn’t put Latin-derived re- on native English verbs. There are a couple of problems with that hypothesis. First of all, very few English speakers know which words are native. More importantly, we can stick re- on some native verbs: we can rebuild a church, redo a chemistry experiment, remake a tarnished image, reset a slow clock, and resend an email that wasn’t received.

The situation is even more complicated: sometimes we can use re- with a native English verb but doing so changes the meaning to something other than ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Compare these two:

  • Years after his mother’s death, he still recalled her fondly.
  • He called his mother last night but she had company and couldn’t talk long. He recalled her the next morning.

The recall in the first sentence does not mean ‘call again’; it means ‘remember.’ In the second example, we’d normally say “he called her back”; we wouldn’t say “he recalled her,” or maybe we could marginally get away with that if we paused slightly between the re- and the called; we’d write that with a hyphen: “he re-called her.”

Now you see how complicated the situation is. I haven’t figured out a way of telling which English verbs we can stick re- on, which we can’t, and which we might get away with although it would sound a little strange. Native speakers somehow just know.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 23, 2023 at 4:27 AM

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