Slips of the tongue: read vs wrote

I’ve noticed that I sometimes mix read (past tense) and wrote. When intending to say I just read a good book, I might say I just wrote a good book instead. Or, instead of saying I just wrote a letter, I could just as well say I just read a letter. This has bugged me for some time. I refuse to believe that I’m going crazy. That just can’t be.

The curious thing is that I only seem to mix the past tense forms (read, wrote), and never the present tense forms (read, write). At least I can’t ever recall having made a mix involving present tense forms.

The fact that read and write are semantically linked concepts certainly plays a part, but apparently not sufficiently so in order to cause the mixing by itself. Otherwise I would be making mistakes involving the present tense forms, too. But I don’t. I’m pretty sure about that. Hence the answer must be something else, or at least something additional to that.

The best explanation I can come up with is that my brain links the two past tense forms via a chain of associations that looks something like this:

READ (past tense)
sounds like
  |
RED
means the same things as
  |
ROT (German)
sounds like
  |
WROTE

Indeed, that’s a perfectly logical chain of associations via phonetics, semantics (plus a little bit of phonetics), and phonetics again. And it works both ways, of course. The fact that it involves two languages (English and German) may seem a bit unintuitive at first, but really isn’t. I did study German for seven years, after all.

How’s that for a home-spun theory.

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2 Comments

  1. Patrick said,

    Friday, May 1, 2009 at 5:36

    I am a non native English speaker (my mother tongue is French) and I sometimes make a similar mistake. I sometimes say “I WROTE a book” when actually meaning “I READ a book”. Here is my interpretation, READ (past form pronounced as RED) phonetically just does not convey the past sense to me (why it is so is another topic), for some reason the O as in WROTE (or ROTE) seems more appropriate for this purpose to the language generating part of my brain (which operates mostly on auto-pilot) which therefore creates this error.
    Patrick.

  2. jfmaho said,

    Friday, May 1, 2009 at 16:15

    I imply mainly phonetic reasons for the mix-up, but your suggestion that READ (past) doesn’t “convey the past tense” is highly relevant, perhaps even preferable.

    There’s probably an interference from verb paradigms like SPEAK-SPOKE, WRITE-WROTE, RISE-ROSE, etc. For some reason, my brain (and yours) expect READ-ROTE instead of READ-READ, even though there are plenty of past tense formations similar to that of READ, e.g. FEED-FED, MEET-MET, etc.

    Either way, I still think phonetics contributes to the mix-up, at least to some degree.


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