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I found the following phrase in a NYTimes article and I was pretty surprised that it wasn't corrected or edited out: "But when it comes to privacy and freedom, cash can't be beat.".

I am under the impression that this is incorrect grammar and the sentence should actually be "[...] cash can't be beaten." or "[...] you can't beat cash" but definitely not the one used in the article. Am I wrong here?

This sort of grammar is mostly only used in slang in England and I always thought that it was wrong but after a bit of googling, I'm not sure anymore. Is it just another difference between American and British English? I know it's really petty but I'm still interested in the answer!

Article link: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/04/04/bringing-dollars-and-cents-into-this-century/a-shift-toward-digital-currency

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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The form can't be beat isn't "ungrammatical". In X can't be Y[ed], Y is a past participle, but most people accept both beat and beaten as valid past participles. As this NGram shows, can't be beat is far more common than can't be beaten, and becoming more so every year.

One reason for this is that beat is "simple past" ("I beat him yesterday") as well as "present" ("He cries when I beat him"), and irregular verbs like this are always susceptible to shifts in usage.

With regular verbs such as "Cash can't be ignored", the past participle is always the same as simple past ("I ignored him yesterday"), so there's no scope for confusion caused by shifting usage.

Taking another irregular verb where the past participle differs from simple past, we can mimic OP's construction with, for example...

Matricide can't be forgiven.

I'm not aware of any dialects where forgave would be acceptable here. Even speakers who've never heard of the term "past participle" know when they need to use one.

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The NGram is very interesting, especially the difference between American and British usage which is as I guessed. I had no idea that "can't be beat" is so popular though.. I don't remember reading it anywhere until now. Thanks for answering! –  Durand Apr 11 '12 at 18:33
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@Durand: I initially thought treating "beat" as a valid past participle was a new American trend, but as Barrie's reference to OED shows, it was always around - just never the more popular form in the UK until recent decades. –  FumbleFingers Apr 11 '12 at 18:47
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It's a colloquial expression. The more grammatically correct version would be "... can't be beaten."

I write from the perspective of someone raised and educated in central New Jersey and in New York City.

The article you link to is an opinion article; the New York Times employs different editorial standards for different kinds of articles. That statement is based on pieces I've read in the paper describing changes to the editorial approach over the years. I couldn't find any such article to link to, however.

The style guide is apparently available for purchase, but an online version is not available to the general public (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Times_Manual_of_Style_and_Usage for more information).

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Ah right. I guess that makes sense. I didn't think it was grammatically correct but if a style guide from such a big newspaper finds it acceptable, then I guess it doesn't really matter... Thanks! –  Durand Apr 11 '12 at 18:30
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The OED comments that the past participle beat is still occasionally used for beaten in all senses, but chiefly used in the sense of to overcome and in phrases like dead-beat. It’s found, for example, in the lyrics of ‘Save It, Pretty Mama’:

I've a brand of lovin'

Can't be beat;

My way of huggin'

Is sure a treat;

I suspect, however, that the NYT is attempting a bit of demotic.

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Interesting. I wouldn't really use a lyric as a source but you made a good point about the NYT article. Thanks! –  Durand Apr 11 '12 at 18:35
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Beat is often used as the past participle of beat, since it otherwise conforms to the shape and behavior of monosyllabic Zero-Past verbs, all of which end in -d or -t, and all of which have the same form in the Present and Past, like beat. E.g, the principal parts of these verbs include:

  • hit, hit, hit
  • let, let, let
  • spit, spit, spit
  • split, split, split
  • burst, burst, burst
  • thrust, thrust, thrust
  • bid, bid, bid
  • spread, spread, spread

So beat, beat, beat sounds right, just like beat, beat, beaten does, especially when a single syllable makes poetic sense, as in phrases like can't be beat or dead-beat.

It's not unusual for there to be several grammatical forms for past participle or some other inflected word in English. We've been losing English inflections for centuries, and most people don't pay any attention to them any more, since the syntax has taken over most of the grammatical heavy lifting.

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Yeah, that's true. I just never thought beat would be more popular than beaten as it is in the Ngram in FumbleFingers's answer. Thanks! –  Durand Apr 11 '12 at 18:36
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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 26 '12 at 9:53

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