Mind Your -ed’s

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The English verb ending -ed is a curious construction.

Although always spelled -ed, it has three different pronunciations. Two of them can lead to misspellings:
/ed/ as in faded
/d/ as in turned
/t/ as in wrecked

The suffix -ed is the sign of the past tense. That is, most English verbs form their past tenses by adding -ed. For example, walk/walked, love/loved, sneeze/sneezed. The same ending marks the simple past tense and the perfect: Yesterday I walked. I have walked for hours.

In earlier periods, English verbs presented more variety in the way they formed the simple past and the past participle. A few of the older forms survive in what the grammar books call “irregular” verbs. These verbs do not form their past tenses by adding -ed:

sing sang (have) sung
give gave (have) given
write wrote (have) written

These “irregular” verbs are sometimes called “strong” verbs. Once very numerous in English, only a few survive–fewer than 70. Many of them, like help, became –ed verbs long ago so we no longer say holp or holpen. Some of the survivors, like wake and dive, are in the process of changing and the old and new forms are both in use:

He woke the baby. or He waked the baby.
He dove from the top board. or He dived into the pool.

One changing form that makes me sad is “slayed” for “slew.” The characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer made the -ed form current. My view is that “slay” is an old-fashioned word that deserves old-fashioned past forms. If I ever slay a vampire, I will say that I have slain it, and I want the reporters to say that I slew it.

And speaking of “old-fashioned,” don’t commit the error of leaving off the -ed when it is called for. Don’t write “old-fashion girl” for “old-fashioned girl,” or “I was suppose to go home early” for “I was supposed to go home early.”

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17 thoughts on “Mind Your -ed’s”

  1. hi team:

    i’ve been reading daily writing tips from the beginning and enjoy most all of your posts. I particularly enjoyed the “mind your ed’s” post. I learned a lot from it. I wanted to write to you and tell you that you inspired me to start a blog of my own about sex, love and fantasy. I’m hoping to build it into something special and I’m really excited about its potential. I’m looking forward to your next post. There is one request i have, please don’t make your post soooooooooo long, i only have so much time after a long day at work. Thanks, john card.

  2. Funny to see a post on this topic now.

    Just a few nights ago my mates and I had an argument over the poker table about the correct past tense of the word “fold”

    “Folded” seems to be an accepted word in poker jargon but is this a real word? We couldn’t figure it out!

  3. Kate,
    I suppose you mean that I should have written Mind Your -eds instead of Mind Your -ed’s. That would probably have been clear because of the hyphen. But what if I’d wanted to write about the letter “i”? What would readers make of Mind Your is?

    We could save much apostrophe confusion by refusing to use an apostrophe to indicate any kind of plural. Usage like the following, however, is very common in textbooks:

    There are too many buts’s, and’s, will’s and shall’s in the text. The A’s in the book are too big. The 5’s and 7’s in the book have been printed clearly. ..

    Actually your remark comes as I’m struggling with this very thing. I frequently write about words and parts of words so I need a clear way to denote their plurals without confusing the reader. Clearly I can’t write Mind Your is, but I could write Mind Your “i”s.

  4. For what it’s worth, I vote for “Mind your Is.” On the other hand, I have enough trouble minding my Ps and Qs. We have an article in our training manual, entitled “End Apostrophe Abuse,” that addresses this topic. Just today, I saw a sign stating, “Firewood’s selled here.” Ack.

    Oh, and please don’t get me started on textbooks!

    Back on topic (maybe): I have often seen “suppose to” in place of “supposed to.” I wonder if people make this mistake because they do not pronounce the “-ed” sounds (the “-eds”?) when they say “supposed to.” The connection between speaking and writing is very strong.

  5. @Andy: “to fold” is a regular verb in English, and its past tense and its past participle are both “folded”.
    [Its present participle is “folding”, just the same way as in all verbs in English. All present participles are regular, with the possibility of dropping a vowel at the end of the verb for pronunciation’s sake.]

    For example: “Anson was such a papered boy that his mother even folded his underwear for him and put it into his drawer.”

    “The U.S. Army and the Canadian Army had folded up the German Army into a tight pocket in Normandy and then set about destroying it during the summer of 1944.”

  6. The English language does not have a “few” irregular verbs, but rather it has more irregular verbs than any other language does.

    German is in second place. However, English has received irregular verbs from Anglo-Saxon-Jute, from Old French, from Danish, from Latin, and from Greek.

  7. Not mentioned here were some archaic past tenses and past participles that still exist in British English:

    “spelt” instead of “spelled” in larger and more populous places like the United States and Canada. Also, “dwelt” instead of “dwelled”.

  8. One changing form that makes me sad is “slayed” for “slew.”

    Yes, according to the Old Testament, Samson SLEW 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass in one day.

  9. @Dale: Actually, that Old Testament in which you read that story about Samson was a translation. (I don’t believe the word “slay” exists in Aramaic or Hebrew in THAT form. If it does, I really doubt it means the same thing as it does in English.) Translations into English are dependent upon whatever particular usage is in fashion. One could argue that Shakespearean English is more “poetic” than the English used by more recent poets and playwrights but it’s neither more nor less correct.

    What’s worth pointing out, though, is that using “slayed” seems more, well, correct, for “Buffy.” You may ask why. Well, take any standard English dictionary and look up the word, “slay.” More than likely, the definition will read, “to kill violently” or some similar wording. Now–strictly speaking–killing is an act of taking a LIFE. Vampires have no LIFE to take, especially in the world of the Slayers as Joss Whedon envisioned (and other writers further developed). A vampire is a type of demon that inhabits, and animates, a CORPSE (one could get bogged down in semantics since “animate” derives from the Latin word, “anima” meaning “breath or soul” but that way leads to madness).

    OTOH, I believe the use of “slayed” existed in entertainment circles for years before “Buffy” ever took up her calling.

  10. @Dale … If a stem change is the mark of a strong verb, then Spanish is full of them. I haven’t ever bother to count them, but there are a LOT of them.

    Most spelling reforms recommend going BACK to the ‘t’ endings like wisht, mixt, fixt, and so forth.

  11. Anwulf: I did not say anything about “strong” verbs. I said “irregular verbs” there are many irregular verbs besides the strong ones. For example, bet, bet, bet, let, let, let, mow, mowed, mown, hid, hide, hidden, and so forth.

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