Copy and Paste

I was writing an email at work today (I’ll spare you the details) which included a pretty basic phrase. As soon as I’d written it however, I immediately deleted it and rewrote it, changing it only slightly, but in a way that, to me in the moment, made it correct. What was that phrase?

Copy and pasted.

It was in a pretty simple sentence, something like, I’d copy and pasted it yesterday.

Fairly innocuous, but you might have figured out why I rewrote it, and what I changed it to.

Yes, you’re right, I changed it to copied and pasted. And I’m sure you can see why. I was using the past simple, and talking about two different actions, so both verbs were in the past-simple form. Easy.

But then, what I’d originally written, I’d copy and pasted it, doesn’t sound very wrong though, does it? I mean, I wouldn’t have written it in the first place otherwise, would I?

And there’s a pretty simple reason for that.

Originally, the phrase copy and paste was a pretty straightforward, fairly literal (only fairly, as there’s no actual paste involved) description of two actions performed on a computer. There was nothing particular impressive about these two actions, apart from the fact that they logically go together, and therefore are found together frequently. And, more importantly, always in the same order. Again, logically, as you have to copy something before you paste it.

Over time, as computers became more of a part of daily life, and we used this phrase more and more often, it became, effectively, a binomial expression.

Don’t worry there’s no maths involved. A binomial expression, in linguistic terms, is a fixed expression of two words joined by a conjunction or preposition, with the two main words usually in the same order.

Safe and sound, peace and quiet, hustle and bustle, etc.

As such expressions are so common, and usually have a singular meaning, we tend to think of them as almost like single words. And I think because of this, copy and paste felt like a single verb to me, and it therefore felt logical to put a D only at the end of paste, and not copy.

And I don’t think we need to be sticklers for grammatical correctness here: we’re so used to copying and pasting that it feels almost like a single action, so why not treat it like a single verb?

4 thoughts on “Copy and Paste

  1. There used to be glue involved. Before word processors existed, if you were drafting a business document (or writing a novel) you literally had to cut your first draft into strips and paste it to a base sheet in the desired order, hence cut and paste and copy and paste. It’s a matter of preference but I wouldn’t have gone for copied and pasted because, though grammatically correct it sounds wrong, since strips the phrase of its historical resonances. I would have hyphenated it to acknowledge that it was originally a single, very specific operation – copy-and-pasted. Gotta be creative, sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

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