Something Odd Happening with Irregular Verbs

By Maeve Maddox

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In Old English—the principal language spoken in England from the mid-fifth century until the Norman Conquest in 1066—English verbs were of two main kinds: Weak and Strong.

OE weak verbs formed their past tense endings with dental suffixes that have survived into modern English as our -ed endings:

walk (present)
walked (simple past)
have/had/has walked (participle forms)

Verbs that form their past forms with -ed are called regular verbs.

OE strong verbs formed their past tenses by changing vowels and in other ways. Some strong verbs have survived into modern English. Verbs with non-ed past forms (like fall/fell/fallen) are called irregular verbs.

Many of the strong verbs morphed into weak verbs even before the end of the OE period. Then, during the Middle Ages, when the elite spoke French, and English was the language of the uneducated classes, many more strong verbs acquired -ed past endings.

Of the strong verbs that have survived into Modern English, several exist with both irregular and regular endings. For example, some folks say lighted; others say lit. Some say weaved, some still say wove.

The verb slay, meaning “to kill,” is another example of an irregular verb in flux. The older forms (slay/slew/slain) are alive and well in New York Times headlines:

Home of the Lion That Hercules Slew
Man Slain
Prisoner Slain
Slain Officer Honored

On the other hand, fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer seem to prefer the regularized forms:

How Buffy Slayed the Musical Episode
Buffy: The Iconic Episodes That Slayed Us

It’s not surprising that rarely used irregular verbs like slay might acquire regular -ed endings, but it’s unthinkable that the handful of irregular verbs we use on a daily basis, words like go and come, will ever take on forms like goed and comed.

Nevertheless, even these well established verbs may be on the cusp of change.

Frequent targets of irregular irregularities are go, come, begin, run, fall, drink, and sing.

Not surprisingly, I could find plenty of irregular verb errors in the self-publishing field:

It seemed like she had went down hill fast . . . . (iUniverse 2003)

Her eyes lulling eyes had went to Damien . . . (iUniverse, 2006)

I was going to try to go back the way, I had came from. (Xlibris, 2007)

. . . they had came from the wall and then made their way toward the battlefield. (iUniverse, 2006)

I expected a higher standard of usage from more conventional sources, but irregular verb errors were not difficult to find elswhere.

Susan has sang for Queen Elizabeth II . . . . Susan’s unforgettable first audition on Britain’s Got Talent 10 years ago also happened to be the first time she’d sang in public since her mother passed away in 2007. (An Australian entertainment blog)

Tax time is in full gear and if you haven’t began filing your taxes, consider this a friendly reminder that Tax Day is rapidly approaching. (Tax-preparer site, 2018)

[an immigrant child who died in detention] had not eaten or drank. (NPR announcer, 2018)

…he did not know why the contract had fell apart. (article about ventilators, New York Times, 2020)

A caller took a beer out of the minibar in his hotel room. After the first swig, he quickly realized that it was urine. A previous guest had drank the beer, then filled it up with urine and put it back so they would not be charged. (Illinois Poison Center site, 2013)

Bowie in Sainsbury’s just was not going to happen. You imagined him living off space-age food. He never got up in the morning to find he had ran out of milk. (Music critic, The Guardian, 2006)

One New York City paramedic described responding to a suicide attempt of a woman who had drank a liter of vodka after her cancer treatments had been delayed, in part because hospitals were clearing their beds for coronavirus patients. (New York government site, 2020)

Readers who wish to avoid nonstandard irregular verb use in a professional context may find these previous DWT posts of use:

irregular participle forms
run, drink
fall, ring, go
go, come, write, give, eat

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3 Responses to “Something Odd Happening with Irregular Verbs”

  • SHERRY ROTH

    Hello Maeve,
    I don’t always get to these posts right away, so here I am a week late.
    I’d like to stick my 2 cents in and say that not all of these verb forms are truly interchangeable, as there are nuances, dialectical differences, idioms, etc.
    For example, weaved/wove. I would use the word wove if I were referring to somebody working with fabric. But if I see somebody zigzagging dangerously in and out of different lanes during rush hour traffic, I would use the word weaved.
    Another example, slew/slayed. I would use the word slew if a living being (human or animal) was intentionally, quickly and violently killed. But the use of slayed when referring to the effects of a really funny comedian on the audience goes back I’m sure a ways, even (IIRC) to Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 60s, if not further.
    Even lighted/lit can have different uses. Candles are lit, but tree ornaments are lighted (that is, they have some mechanism that can be turned on so that they light up, they possess the ability to provide or shed light). I wouldn’t say I lighted a candle, and I wouldn’t say I hung a lit ornament. People might think it was on fire! Am I being picky?
    I’m certainly aware of (and irritated by) the use of the wrong form of a verb, like drank/drunk, sank/sunk and so forth. I figure that once a person grows up using the wrong form, they’re never going to change.
    Cheers. Stay healthy.

  • Maeve

    Sherry,
    Good point. When it comes to lit/lighted, slew/slayed, I’m with you. So far, however, I don’t see a reason to use “weaved” instead of “wove.” That’s not to say I won’t some day.

    I’ve mused about some of these verbs before:
    https://www.dailywritingtips.com/shone-vs-shined-lit-vs-lighted/
    https://www.dailywritingtips.com/hurray-for-slew/

  • Isaac Ge

    As an ESL learner, my wish is to eliminate the tyrancy of irregular verbs, and follow the justice of regular verbs! Although I have accustomed to the former in a way already.

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