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