It was a sign at a neighborhood fund-raiser that started me on the quest. Taped to a large, sweaty pitcher was the handlettered sign -- ICE TEA. Although the tea tasted good, one ingredient had been left out -- the D in ICED. (If you take "ice tea" literally, it would mean tea-that-is-made-out-of-ice--for a real anti-caffeine freak -- rather than tea-with-ice-added.)
The next day I went to the supermarket only to come upon a sign for CAN GOODS. Again, that sign literally means "goods" (whatever they are) made-out-of-cans, rather than, say, chicken soup-that-has-been-canned.
The problem was getting serious -- the final -d was disappearing fast. In fact, it was becoming an endangered species.
As Miss Agatha McGee, one of the best teachers in American literature (see Jon Hassler's warmhearted novel, Staggerford) would tell us, the past participle with its -d or -ed often serves as an adjective. And correct English word order usually is adjective-noun-verb, as in canned goods keep well. Otherwise, we have can goods keep well, which, actually, is a question. To which, as Groucho Marx might have replied, "It depends on whose goods they are -- whose goods are they anyway? -- Goods, goods -- who's got da' goods?"
This is not just a dilemma for punsters and English teachers to quibble over; it's basic. It confuses or prevents accurate communication.
A bookstore opened recently near my neighborhood. It's on a narrow street with heavy traffic and no parking. I had planned to brave the traffic, until I noticed a sign in the window: AIR CONDITION. It made me pause. They must mean it's cool in there, but with grammar like that, who knows? After all, this is not a supermarket, it's a bookstore. How many books have they read, and what kind of titles will they stock?
But the other day when I drove by in the heat and humidity, the real meaning came to me. The sign is probably a warning, a sort of last gasp from someone within concerned about air pollution but too weak and out of breath to do more than print the sign as an urgent message: AIR CONDITION.
This search for the lost participle was becoming too much. I decided to get away from misspelled signs and obscure warnings and have dinner at a new restaurant. There on the menu under FISH was "Broil red snapper." Just after I'd begun to relax, there's the menu telling me to get up and go broil the fish.
This kind of thing is scary. It could spoil a night out in no time, turning a relaxed atmosphere into one tense with commands. Mix drinks! Bake salmon! Broil steak! Mash potatoes! Just think of the chaos in the kitchen. By dessert, this disastrous meal could lead to only one, clearly impossible situation -- Bake Alaska!
If we don't use the -ed participle, not only can we not enjoy a quiet dinner out, but some of our basic standards and beliefs could be written inadvertently to mean the opposite of what we intended. Miss McGee's stern warnings against mixed metaphors could become mix metaphors.
Aggravated assault could be written aggravate assault.
Debased currency would be debase currency.
Worst of all would be a listing of endanger species. Why, if people took that seriously, they might go around poisoning whooping cranes.
A society where there's no protection for participles or whooping cranes is pretty barren. My quest is not ended, and the perils of the desert lie ahead. I'm afraid there may be more signs warning AIR CONDITION -- and the only escape will be: Mix Drinks!