“Pet” or “Petted”? “Grit” or “Gritted”?
Verbs usually become regular, but some verbs are becoming irregular. Find out about why some verbs buck the trend.
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First, like most irregular verbs, they’re all single-syllable words.
Second, they all end in a dental consonant, that is, T or D.
Third, they contain only short vowels. We have the short A [æ] sound in “cast.” We have the short E sound in “bet,” “let,” “set,” “shed,” “spread,” “wed,” and “wet.” We have the short I sound in “bid,” “hit,” “slit,” “split,” “fit,” “quit,” and “rid.” We have the short O sound in “cost.” We have the short U sound in “bust,” “cut,” “shut,” and “thrust,” and, depending on how you hear it, in “burst” and “hurt.” Lastly, we have the other short U sound, “oo,” in “put.”
Weird, huh? In fact, the only verb with a long vowel that has a past tense identical to its plain form is “beat,” and even that isn’t like these other verbs, because its past participle is different: “beaten.”
Of course, not every one-syllable verb that has a short vowel and ends in a dental consonant is an irregular verb. For example, verbs that are derived from nouns are almost always regular. For example, you wouldn’t say, “Last year, Squiggly head the entertainment committee”; you’d say he headed it.
There are also plenty of one-syllable verbs with a short-vowel and a dental consonant at the end that aren’t related to nouns and still have regular past tenses, such as the ones in these sentences: “The movie lasted two hours,” and “The goat butted the troll off the bridge.”
Even so, there’s enough of a pattern here that if speakers notice it at an unconscious level, they may start extending it to other verbs. That’s how we get sentences like “He grit his teeth when he pet Otis,” and “I had my confidential documents shred,” and one that you might have heard if you went to see The Avengers this summer. In one scene, Natasha Romanov says to Bruce Banner, “You didn't come here because I bat my eyelashes at you,” referring to an earlier incident in the movie. Different speakers may extend the pattern to different verbs, leading to the kind of variation and disagreement that I described earlier.
So what do you do if you don’t know whether a verb in standard English has one of these irregular past tenses that are identical to the plain form? The usual advice with irregular verbs is that you just have to memorize them. If you memorize the 23 listed in this episode, that’s 23 verbs that you know can use their plain form for the past tense. If a verb’s not on the list, and assuming it’s not some other kind of irregular verb, you’re safe in using the regular past tense.
Now if the regular past tense sounds just plain wrong to you, and the irregular past tense sounds right, check the verb in a dictionary, a usage guide, or a corpus, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
These irregularizations are changes in progress, and it may be that there’s an irregular past tense that has caught on enough to be recognized in sources other than the Cambridge Grammar. For example, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, published in 2001, lists “knit” and “shred” as alternative past tenses alongside “knitted” and “shredded,” even though they’re not in the list of 23 verbs in the song. However, if even the dictionaries and usage guides don’t recognize an irregular past tense, and the regular past tense decisively outnumbers the irregular one in a corpus search, give up. Accept that even though you learned the verb as an irregular, and it feels comfortable to use it that way, that’s just not how it’s used in standard English. At least, not yet.