Language is like a sparkle machine, producing epiphenomena in use that are unattested in dictionaries or otherwise ungrounded in the norms of speech. One such case is the nonce locution in front of used instead of “before” or “to” in designating the number of minutes preceding the hour, which can be heard emanating from the mouth of the local host of the NPR program “Morning Edition” on WAMC-FM (Northeast Public Radio). There is, of course, no need for such an innovation, whatever its origin, and it can only arouse the ire and annoyance of a language purist, but it nevertheless indirectly reminds one of the issue of innovations in language change.

Language is full of examples of items that are unsanctioned by the speech community. Some of these are purely personal linguistic idiosyncrasies, including unusual pronunciations, morphological deviations, and syntactically ill-formed constructions. But some can also be innovations that have the capacity to be copied and to spread throughout the speech community. One of the tasks of historical linguists interested in the theory of change is explaining just this capacity.