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Verbs

Two coworkers independently asked me this week about verbs, and in particular about understanding the various ways of past tense…

Photo by flickr user chooyutshing.

Two coworkers independently asked me this week about verbs, and in particular about understanding the various ways of past tense forms of verbs. I’ve written briefly about this before but thought I’d give a more thorough treatment.

Irregular Verbs

Photo by flickr user chooyutshing.

First we need a basic understanding of what an irregular verb is. Most verbs in English form their past tense by following a pattern whereby you add the “-ed” suffix to the end of the verb. These are called regular verbs because, well, they follow a regular pattern of conjugation. They’re predictable and easy to remember. So irregular verbs are the ones that follow different patterns, things like “swim,” which has “swam” for its past tense instead of “swimmed.” Others include “eat,” “run,” “lie” (as in to lie down — the homophone meaning “to say something untrue” is regular!), “sit,” and “bring.” If you think about how you would form the past tense of each of these, you’ll realize that they don’t follow the regular “-ed” pattern, and you’ll know that they’re irregular.

Participles

Now on to participles. We can make verbs do fun things like behaving as adjectives and nouns by giving them participial forms. So for example, when we add the “-ing” suffix to a verb, it can function as a noun, as in “Running was his favorite sport.” The verb “run” here is acting as a noun, and it can do so because we’ve given it the present participial form. Or consider this one: “The running man tripped over the elephant’s outstretched trunk.” In this case, using the participle lets us treat the root verb “run” as an adjective that modifies “man.” One more, using the past participle: “The embarrassed man said he wished the elephant’s trunk had been truncated.” Again, we have a verb — “embarrass” — acting as an adjective when we use the participial form.

I’ve explained what participles can do for us but not how they’re made. In English, there are two participles, the present and the past. We form the present by adding the “-ing” suffix, plain and simple. The past is a little more complex thanks to our friends the irregular verbs. In most cases, the past participle matches the simple past form. So the past participle of “work” is “worked,” just like the simple past. Note that friendly “-ed” suffix that indicates that the verb is regular. But now think back to that verb “swim,” whose past tense is “swam.” Its participle happens to be “swum,” a new form altogether. “Eat” is similar in that its simple past is “ate” and its past participle is “eaten.” Interestingly, a lot of the irregular past participles tend toward having an “-n” ending (“ridden,” “lain,” “fallen,” “given,” “hidden,” and so on). Another fairly common trend as we go from present to simple past to past participle is a vowel shift from an “a” sound to an “uh” sound:

Present Simple Past Past Participle
run ran run
swim swam swum
begin began begun
ring rang rung

In each of these examples, the vowel shifts to an “a” in the simple past and a “u” in the past participle. This isn’t always true (bring/brought/brought), and I mention it partially as a curiosity and partially as a mnemonic device. If in doubt, see if the form of a present tense verb that shifts to a “u” sound with a terminal “n” sounds right.

Perfection and Progression

The simple past tense is a wonderful thing, but it lacks precision. If we say “The man ran to the store, and the elephant lumbered out of the zoo,” we know only that these events happened in the past. We can discern nothing about how they related to one another chronologically. Luckily, we have in English verbs the notions of perfection and progression.

Perfection in this case has nothing to do with flawlessness but instead indicates whether a thing has been completed or not. So we can say “The man had run to the store when the elephant lumbered out of the zoo,” and we know that the running was completed by the time the elephant made its exit. We’ve here used the past perfect (also known as the “pluperfect”). We can also do the future perfect: “By the time the elephant lumbers out of the zoo, the man will have run to the store.” Thanks to the future perfect verb, we know that the running has already been finished when the elephant exits.

The progressive verbs, then, indicate actions in progress: “The man was running back from the store when he tripped over the elephant’s improbably long trunk.” We know not just that he ran and tripped but that he tripped while he was running back from the store. Or: “I am thinking about avoiding elephants,” which suggests that this is a current line of thought. Compare to the simple present “I think about avoiding elephants,” which suggests a more general and ongoing line of thought. The progressive here allows us to invest our verbs with chronological nuance.

So, again, I’ve told you about the wonders of perfect and progressive verbs but haven’t given a formula for making them. That’s where our old friend the participle comes in. To form a progressive verb, you use the present participle (“-ing”) and a form of the “to be” verb as a helper. To form a perfect verb, you use the past participle and a form of “to have” as a helper. Which forms of the “to be” and “to have” verbs you use depend on where in time you want to locate the action.

Pragmatism

This has been a very short summary of a pretty complex set of issues, and it’s far from complete. My goal has been less to teach a finite practical lesson than to provide a glimpse at what all these vague verb terms mean. Only grammarians need to know all these ins and outs, and people can write capably and beautifully without understanding all the rules, as most of them are fairly intuitive to people who’ve grown up hearing reasonably articulate native speech. Still, I hope I’ve provided the odd useful nugget or two for the idly curious and a couple of hints for those times when you’re struggling with a little-used irregular verb and a tricky verb tense.

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  1. I think it’s worth adding a comment about the ‘en’ ending as I recently saw someone on another post complaining about the use of ‘gotten’ (it’s just ‘got’ here in the UK). We still have a few ‘en’s, as you mention; over 300 years ago pretty much all verbs were treated in this way but most of them were simplified out. It clearly arrived in some areas of what is now USA before that simplification and has survived. But our American cousins have gone further and given slightly different meanings to ‘got’ and ‘gotten’ as past participles.

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    1. I don’t know about UK vrs. US on this! My old auntie the librarian, rest her soul, corrected us all the time. And she taught “got” not gotten.

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  2. And while we’re talking about the slithery nature of English grammar and the way you can turn verbs into adjectives, don’t forget that it goes the other way (to the disgust of traditionalists, but oh well…) After all, this is English; give us a noun, and we’ll verb it.

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  3. So lovely to see a concise, beautifully presented explanation of verbs! When I was learning Italian, my Italian language teacher was blown away that an American knew verb tenses and participles and pluperfect, and so on. I explained that I had been extremely lucky growing up in the 50s in a state that had enough public money for a solid education. I’ll always thank my English teachers for the daily grammar drilling; those lessons became second nature in speaking and in writing, and they’ve enabled me to learn two foreign languages well.

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  4. English is my second language. I’m already afraid of it although I’ve been blogging since 2008 just to improve my writing skill as I wish to be a journalist and writer someday. Your posts are wonderful and described amazingly. The only downside: They give me the feeling that the language is very complex as well. :(

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  5. I teach English as a second language this is one of the hardest concepts to get across for the advanced students thanks. You explained it so well. May I make a copy for my files, please!

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  6. Like carolisle, I teach ESL and verbs are the bane of my (and my students’) existence. I too will be making a copy for my personal files. Thanks for the well thought out and helpful post.

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  7. Excellent write-up for a native French-speaking reader like me, thanks a lot :-)
    However I stay convinced that most people only make no mistakes because drill – which occurred naturally during their childhood – taught them automatisms. The topic is in my opinion ways too complex to even consider thinking about rules when you need it “right now” in the middle of a spoken sentence.

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  8. Your lesson was a little scary until “‚Ķpeople can write capably and beautifully without understanding all the rules.” Let’s me off the hook.
    Blessings – Maxi

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  9. Loved this! Very clear, succint (yes” succint -for those native speakers out there who may feel this was rather long and even a bit intricate, try compiling explanations from any given well-designed course for learners) and readable. Congrats!
    It’s a pity, though, that whoever is able to go through it and appreciate your ‘refresher’ will already be fluent enough to hardly need it as a reminder. English is my second (learned, foreign) language and I am a trained teacher. In a time of “learn (insert foreign language) in 3/4/6 months” I sometimes feel I am holding on to the good old days of drilling and extensive study. Sign of the times, perhaps… Anyhow, I will bookmark this and email the link to a few of my students. I am sure they will appreciate it :)

    By the way, I keep a blog where I share tales/stories and some of the poetry I have written over the past few years, both in English and Spanish. Everybody’s invited to have a browse and a read. Comments, sharing and whatnot welcome.

    Cheers!

    http://www.avadapalabra.wordpress.com

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  10. Hi, thank you so much for the clear and concise explanation. Like Carolisle and Katm, I teach English as a second language and all such explanations are more than welcome!!
    I’d like a copy to use in the classroom, so I shall make a copy too for my professional use. Thanks once again.
    Kavita

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  11. Thanks for this article. I’m a new ESOL tutor/teacher and have spent the last year trying to swot up enough grammar to answer my students’ question, or to at least direct them to sources that they can get the information they need. It is an endless study. I would also like to copy your article. I especially like the part where you pointed out how the vowel shifts often when going from simple past to the past participle. Nice memory trick. There’s an ESL learning website that catagorizes irregular verbs by form, which is quite useful for memorizing them….It was also really nice to read the comments and to see what other people are doing and thinking.

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  12. I recently published a post on one of my blogs, http://b4i4get.wordpress.com, about words beginning with wh–. I wondered out loud why what, when, while, and why are pronounced wot, wen, wile, and wy (with a slight h sound in front of them), but almost any word beginning with who (including “who”) is pronounced with the h sound at the beginning–“hoo.” The word “whopper” is one exception, and it’s a matter of regional preference for the word “whooping.” Do you know of any rule responsible for this? ALso, I have yet to find a word beginning with whu–.

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