Column: Everyone’s a clitic


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Babies pretty much can’t do anything. We have a 1-week-old and all he does is cry, eat, sleep, burp and poop; then he repeats the entire cycle approximately 30 times per day at random intervals. He is dependent on my wife and me to do everything.

Believe it or not, there’s a verbal equivalent of a dependent baby; it’s called a clitic.

A clitic is a language unit (otherwise known as a morpheme) that depends on a neighboring word or phrase to have meaning. For instance, the “‘ll” in “we’ll” doesn’t stand alone as its own word; it is part of a contraction but doesn’t stand alone as a word. The “we” gives the “‘ll” meaning.

There are two kinds of clitics — enclitics and proclitics. We’ll tackle enclitics first.

An enclitic is a clitic that depends on the word that precedes it, as we saw in the “we’ll” example. Enclitics are almost always part of contractions. You’ll, we’ve, they’re, and don’t all have enclitics. The words that precede the enclitics stand on their own, but the enclitics themselves depend on their host words.

A proclitic, on the other hand, is a clitic whose host word follows it. As a native Okie, my favorite proclitic is y’all. Seriously, name a more efficient way in the English language to say, “you all.” You can’t. Y’all works.

Many proclitics sound like they come out of a 19th-century British novel where nobles ride in carriages on their way to polo matches. They include the beginning of the contractions in ‘tis, ‘twould, ‘twill, ‘twas and ‘twere. Using these words in a sentence makes you sound like you leapt right out of a Christmas carol.

Sometimes we hear clitics that we usually don’t see written out. For instance, “Do I have ta go to school tomorrow?” is something you might hear any student say on a Sunday night. You’d probably write this out as “to go,” however ,it sounds like “ta go,” where the “ta” is a clitic attached to the word “go.” This even runs together as “half-ta-go,” which almost becomes its own word jumble.

Just as a baby depends on its “host” or parent to give it life and context, a clitic needs its host word to give it meaning. I could have made the same illustration with monarch caterpillars and milkweed plants, but monarch caterpillars don’t wake me up five times a night.


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