Trackback it

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This just hit me in a blog my son Morriss just sent me a link to:

"I was going to post this as a comment there, but it’s rather long so I’ll just trackback it. "

My first reaction: no, it has to be "I'll just track it back".

Second reaction, no, you can't do that once you've shifted "trackback" from a noun into a one-word verb. My father always had that kind of formation as a pet peeve — he hated to see "input" and "output" used as verbs, and was especially upset by a sign near the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel that said 'forbidden to discharge or pickup passengers" . I do agree with him about "pickup"; I think they really meant "pick up", since there's no evidence of a distinct derivation from the noun "pickup" here,  whereas the verb "input" is definitely more specific in its meaning than the phrase "put in", and in a way that is clearly derived from the noun "input". So as a descriptivist who appreciates sensible prescriptivism (but not prescriptivist poppycock), I would call the "pickup" example a clear mistake, but I consider the use of the verbs "input" and "output" as instances of perfectly reasonable word-formation processes of English that my father just happened to have an aesthetic objection to. I'm sure he would dislike "trackback" as a verb, but that would be his problem.

But anyway, the formation of such one-word verbs from nouns which themselves came from phrasal "verb plus particle" two-word verbs happens. And once it happens, then the rules about where to place particles with respect to pronouns ("pick up the trash" vs "pick it up") don't apply to the particle part of what was once a two-word verb, and you get "trackback it", which nevertheless sounds really weird to me.

I'm writing in a rush because we fly from Moscow to the U.S. in the morning, and I haven't checked if this phenomenon has already been discussed on Language Log. I apologize if it has been.

By the way, the blog it came from is interesting in its own right, dispelling various myths about dictionaries and discussing pros and cons of various sorts of online dictionary efforts — that was why my son sent it to me in the first place.


  1. Blake Stacey said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:10 am

    The aforelinked blog post, "Language Evolution in the Digital Age" (19 June 2006), makes an interesting point about Wiktionary:

    Lexicographers bring to dictionary-making an understanding of language that the lay-person simply does not have, and cannot have, without specialized training, study, or education. This doesn't require a university education. Many of the best dictionary editors have been autodidacts, but they were autodidacts with discipline and, perhaps most importantly, with mentors who could guide them. Also, the work requires a willingness to deal with the more tedious parts of dictionary-making, like proving a word actually exists, then proving what it means, and then trying to convey that in simple, short language. And it means writing entries for such unspectacular terms as "at" or "do," which the editors of the user-editable dictionaries seem loath to do or to do well.

    I was an active Wikipedia editor for two years, before drifting on to new online-writing interests; you will probably not be surprised to hear that in my experience, Wikipedia suffered much the same problems as Wiktionary (and science blogs, where I hang out these days, have their own versions of the same disease). It seems to be a basic rule of massively multi-editor content creation: in order to predict what sort of content will predominate, imagine what is easiest for people to do, and then imagine it being done over and over again.

    In Wiktionary, "the entries for boring but needed terms […] languish", while over at the encyclopædia side, trivia and "in popular culture" sections proliferate. These have a kind of value all their own, but they can drive even a moderately conscientious editor completely mad. Consider the article for a subject of pop-cultural interest, say the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Everybody wants to mention their own favourite Calvin and Hobbes strip, so the article dies the death of a thousand cuts, until somebody (or a small group of somebodies) with enough free time overhauls the whole thing. During my two years as a Wikipede, I had to do that two or three times to some pages (and I shudder to think what they became after I left. . .). On more technical subjects, an article on some abstruse corner of a field (a particular mathematical theorem) might be quite good, as long as you're familiar with the necessary prerequisites (which might entail being at least a postgraduate student in mathematics). But, just like the dictionary entries for "at" and "do", introductory articles on broad subject categories languish in the limbo of the unsexy, gathering cruft like "Calculus in popular culture" bullet points.

  2. Rod Whiteley said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 11:51 am

    It should have been: "…I’ll just trackback there" or "…trackback to there."

    Trackback works by sending a notification (a ping) that contains a track (a URL) back to the blog that sent the notification. So it's a track-back ping, or trackback for short.

    Grant wrote, "I was going to post this..", "this" referring to the article he is writing, "…but it’s rather long…", meaning that the article is rather long, "…so I’ll just trackback it", meaning that he'll send a ping to his own article, which makes no sense. He needed to send the ping to the place where he wanted the link to appear. (In the end he had to go there himself and make the link in a comment.)

    Even so, it is possible to imagine a sentence where "trackback it" does make sense. If you don't like the sound of that, then you'll have say something like "send it a trackback". You can't say "track it back" because that changes the meaning — the implied verb was never "track" in the first place, the verb was "send" or "ping".

  3. Grant Barrett said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    Rod has it. "Trackback" specifically referred to a method of communicating related information and links between blogs, as started by the makers of the blog software "Moveable Type."

  4. David Starner said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    Why is not defining "at" a real problem? If you speak English, you know what "at" means. In any case, my "Webster's New World College Dictionary" says it means "1. on; in; near; by 2. to or toward as the goal or object 3. through 4. from 5. attending 6. occupied in; busy with" and so on for 9 more definitions. Even with the examples I omitted, do you really think that helps anyone?

  5. marie-lucie said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

    @David Starner

    If you speak English, you know what "at" means

    Dictionaries are not only for average native speakers, they are also for teachers (of both native and second-language speakers) and for proficient second language students, as well as to translators. A word like "at" is not at all obvious: why do you say "at school" but "Look at this" or "Don't laugh at me"? Why not "at hospital" or "Look to me"? As a native speaker, you intuitively know how to use the word in the proper contexts, but you are not necessarily able to give a general definition or to explain the differences between the various usages. The most common words are often the most difficult ones to define, or to explain to a non-native speaker.

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