Irregular Verbs

Why do we have both "dreamed" and "dreamt."

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #291

Irregular Verbs

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.

Think of irregular verbs as relics from Old English.

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).

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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.”


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