Episode 291: September 15, 2011
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Today, we’ll talk about irregular verbs. Why do we say we saw a movie instead of we seed a movie, and did you know that the past tense of the verb “help” used to be “holp” instead of “helped”?
Regular Verbs Versus Irregular Verbs
Most of the time you add -ed to a verb to put it in the past tense; “slurp” becomes “slurped,” “scarf” becomes “scarfed,” and “offend” becomes “offended,” for example. When you make a verb past tense back tacking on an -ed, you’re dealing with a regular verb. It’s the regular way we make things past tense.
English also has verbs that don’t follow this pattern: verbs such as “am,” which becomes “was”; “tell,” which becomes “told”; and “sing,” which becomes “sang.” These are called irregular verbs because they don’t follow the regular pattern.
People who grew up speaking English just know the irregular verbs, but children and people who are learning English as adults struggle with them. As toddlers are learning the language they often say things such as “He breaked my doll,” instead of “He broke my doll,” and “Daddy goed to the store,” instead of “Daddy went to the store,” and adults who are learning English are faced with memorizing a long list of irregular verbs.
The Root: Old English Irregular Verbs
Irregular verbs are relics from the past. Believe it or not, the rules for conjugation (a fancy word for “working the verb”) were even more complicated Old English. Our regular verbs are called “weak verbs” in Old English, but Old English also had at least seven different kinds of strong verbs. Many of our irregular verbs are holdovers from those seven types of strong verbs (1), which is why you can’t see any one pattern when you look at a list of irregular verbs. There are actually multiple sparsely represented patterns. For example, “teach” and “catch” become “taught” and caught,” “choose” and “freeze” become “chose” and “froze,” and some verbs don’t change at all: “Hit”* and “quit” stay “hit” and “quit” in the past tense (2).
The Role of Foreigners Learning English Irregular Verbs
Over time, English became simpler and many verbs were regularized. Languages become simpler when a lot of foreigners learn the language as adults, especially when they’re just learning by listening to everyday interactions and don’t have formal books and classes (3) as would have been the case between Old English and Modern English.
And researchers noticed something really interesting about which verbs stayed irregular and which verbs changed to become regular: the more often a word is used, the more likely it is to stay irregular. In fact, every one of the 10 most common English verbs is irregular:
“I am” --> “I was”
“I have” --> “I had”
“Do you?” --> “Did you?”
These are all easy words: single syllable words from Anglo-Saxon origins (4). Besides “be,” “have,” and “do,” they are “go,” “say,” “can,” “will,” “see,” “take,” and “get.”
Irregular Verb Evolution
Researchers at Harvard found a strong correlation between how often a verb is used and whether it regularized (1, 5). They think these 10 common verbs held on to their irregular form so firmly precisely because they’re so common. They actually compared the process to biological evolution, in which changes--mutations--in the most important genes are the least likely to propagate.
Think about how often you hear the verbs “am” and “have” in everyday conversation. “I have to go now. I am hungry, and I have a headache.” If you’re learning English just by listening, these are going to be the easiest verbs to learn properly because you hear them over and over again.
But if you were someone learning English in the Middle Ages dealing with words you don’t hear very often--”to chide,” for example--you may not be able to remember that the past tense is “chode,” and instead you’d just default to the regular rule and say “chided” on the rare occasions when you need the word; or you wouldn’t have learned the verb and wouldn’t know to correct your children when they defaulted to the regular form. Once enough children grew up thinking “chided” was the normal form of the verb, “chode” was doomed.
Finally, there’s a nuance and a couple of exceptions to this verb-evolution process that are worth talking about just because they’re so strange and interesting.
“Burned” Versus “Burnt”
First, verbs don’t always evolve at the same rate in different countries. As far as I can tell, nobody knows why, but British English speakers have held on to irregular verbs more than American English speakers, which is why they say “dreamt,” “burnt,” and “learnt” in Britain, and we say “dreamed,” “burned,” and “learned” in America.
“Sneaked” and “Snuck”
Second, there are a few rare verbs that were regular but have taken on an irregular past tense. It’s like evolution going in reverse. “Sneaked” is the regular past tense form of the verb “to sneak,” but sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century, “snuck” started sneaking into English (6).
“Lighted” and “Lit”
Sometime after 1800, people began to prefer the irregular verb “lit” to the regular past tense “lighted” (7). “Lit and “lighted” both currently exist as fully acceptable past-tense forms of “to light.” “Snuck” is still considered slightly less than acceptable, but according to the Harvard researchers, 1% of the English-speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck” every year, with the shift being most powerful in America.
The bottom line is that you either know the irregular verbs because you absorbed them by growing up in an English-speaking country or you have to memorize them, which is a pain. But if you have to memorize them, I hope you at least find it more interesting now that you know you’re digging into the relics of English, and that one reason these irregular verbs still exist is that English learners in the past could remember them.