Beware of the Irregular Past Participle Forms

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When reading articles on the web, especially those on personal blogs, if I see one grammatical error I hesitate to be too critical. Typos happen. When I see the same error a second time, I sense a problem.

Here are examples of the same error that occurred in two separate posts on the same site. They really stood out because overall the blogger was writing standard English.

…I’ve began to feed…

… she has began disciplining …

Television dins incorrect forms into our ears every hour of every day, and not many teachers outside the English classroom insist that their students speak a standard dialect at school. Errors with the few remaining English irregular verbs are bound to proliferate.

The most common errors with irregular verbs occur with the past participle form.

The “past participle” is the form of the verb that is used with the auxiliaries has, have, and had.

The usual error is that the writer or speaker uses the simple past where the past participle is called for.

Most English verbs form the simple past and the past participle by adding -ed to the simple present, but about 150 common English verbs do not.

More than half of these irregular verbs do not present a problem with the past participle because it’s the same as the simple past. For example:

fight fought [have] fought
find found [have] found
cling clung [have] clung
feed fed [have] fed

That leaves 65-70 irregular verbs whose past participle form is different from the simple past form. For example:

go went [have] gone
begin began [have] begun
see saw [have] seen

Most ESL sites include alphabetical lists of common irregular English verbs.

If you’d like to see a breakdown of the irregular verbs according to the form of the past participle, I’ve categorized them on my AmericanEnglishDoctor teaching site:

Category One: simple present, simple past, and past participle all spelled the same: Ex. cut cut cut

Category Two: simple past and past participle spelled the same: Ex. find found found

Category Three: past participle different from simple past: Ex. begin began begun

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6 thoughts on “Beware of the Irregular Past Participle Forms”

  1. When I was an English student in the Netherlands, these lists were drilled into us and we were tested regularly.

    “swim swam swum”… and all the other 70+ examples of this type of irregular verb.

    When I explain this to my children they look at me as if I were an alien. There’s a lot to be said for learning by rote as 30+ years on, I have not forgotten.

    As an aside, we also had to learn German prepositions by rote… “aus bei mit nach zeit von zu” etc. Again, I have found this invaluable.

    Get the basics right and then you can be creative.

  2. it is right to alert users, especially (but not only!) those whose first language is not English, to the ‘strong’ verbs in our language.

    Beyond that, however, it is worth pointing out that this group of verbs is unstable in English.

    In the Bible and Shakespeare we find ‘digged’ and ‘catched’. for instance. Both of these are still alive and well in a number of British dialects, along with ‘teached’. Then you Americans have invented a new one with ‘dive/dove/dived’! And in East Anglia here in England we traditionally say ‘snow/snew/snown’ to go with ‘mow/mew/mown’ and ‘show/shew/shown’.

    Note that the following verbs are mixed weak/strong in Standard English (i.e.they show both -ed/t forms and -en, or at least vowel change plus -d/t):

    sow/sowed/sown; showed [older ‘shew’]/ shown (though ‘showed’ is found);
    swell/swelled/swollen (my native dialect from East Anglia uses ‘swoll/swollen’)
    catch/ caught/ caught;
    dig/ dug/ dug;
    speed/sped/ sped (though ‘the car speeded up’ is surely more usual? It is in Britain).

  3. Do K-12 schools still teach grammar? Based on 20K years working with, training, and supervising K-12 teachers, I think that a child’s chance to receive formal, sustained grammar education is about 20%.

    Regarding past participles: the main error I see is using the past participle without the auxiliary, e.g., “I seen him,” “I been there,” “We swum at the pool,” “She begun a new project.”

    On the other hand, I rarely see this problem with people whose first language is other than English–because they have received formal English grammar instruction.

  4. showed [older ‘shew’]/ shown (though ’showed’ is found)

    According to the OED, “shew” is simply an archaic spelling variant of “show”: it’s “shew, shewed, shewn/shewed” (not “show, shew, shown”)

    I had a philosophy lecturer at university who always spelled it that way. First time I saw it, I thought it was a mistake; the second or third time, that he was a lousy speller…after a while I looked it up, but it always annoyed me…

  5. @Tony … Dig came into ME thru French from a Germanic source … it was digged and pp of idigged (gedigged). Catch is a Latinate thru French and was catch, catched, catched. Oddly enuff, latch was latch, laught, laught. Catch = latch so catched became caught … and somewhere , laught became latched.

    As for “dove”, as an American, I’d like to take credit for dove but the truth is that dive, dove, doven are from Old English. I wrote about it here:

  6. Sigh. As a middle-aged American who was lucky to have gotten what I consider to be a generally good education (except you all know I can’t parse a sentence), I know all this stuff. Maybe it was drilled into me, or maybe it’s just that I came from a home where good English was spoken. At this point, I don’t care if they want to regularize all our verbs. I will say catched and teached, dived and swimmed, whatever. Can we just minimize the agony and get it over with now, all at once? Let’s not drag it out or I will claw my eyes out!

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