Grammar and the “president elect”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

By the time these lines (written on Sunday) reach you, the election will be over—and all I can say is, I told you so. Which reminds me of the brilliant quip by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean who said, before the 1934 World Series against Detroit, “This Series is already won”—then added, “I just don´t know by which team.”

ballot-into-ballot-boxSo, as you read this, there will (presumably) be a president-elect. The term’s a bit odd: if a candidate is “elected,” why the form “elect”? (Spanish similarly has presidente electo where you might expect elegido.) The answer lies in the difference between “strong” and “weak” verbs in Germanic grammar, which is the main structure for how English works.

A weak verb forms the participle by adding an ending, typically “ed,” to the verb stem without changing the stem. Thus “bake” becomes “I had baked” and the participle can also act as an adjective: “baked chips.”

On the other hand, strong verbs like “seek,”  “sink,” and “bind” form irregular participles, short and punchy: “sought,” “sunk,” and “bound.” So, in English, the verb “elect,” while normally weak, in the phrase “president elect” behaves as a strong verb.

In Spanish, the equivalent principle derived from Latin grammar refers not to verbs, but rather to participles, as strong or weak.  Many verbs have both forms. Elegir (to elect or choose) yields me habían elegido (they had chosen me) in weak form, and presidente electo (president elect) in strong form, as an adjective. Habían freído las papas (they had fried the potatoes) but papas fritas (fried potatoes). Span. conquista and Engl. “conquest” both embody a strong form of verbs derived from Latin conquirere. Span. convencer gives convencido (convinced) but the strong form convicto (convicted); the English noun “convict” also derives from the strong form.

From “president elect” to “convict” in the same column—sadly, in 2016, regardless of who won, it doesn’t seem like such a big leap.

About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo J. Davis is an attorney, historian, and translator. Many of the posts or essays here began as entries in the newspaper column “MIsterios y Enigmas de la Traducción/Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” (published weekly in La Prensa Latina,, since July 2012).

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