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English irregular verbs: Wikis

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English grammar

The English language has a large number of irregular verbs. In the great majority of these, the past participle and/or past tense is not formed according to the usual patterns of English regular verbs. Other parts of the verb — such as the present 3rd person singular -s or -es, and present participle -ing — may still be formed regularly.

Among the exceptions are the verb to be and certain defective verbs which cannot be conjugated into certain tenses.

Most English irregular verbs are native, originating in Old English (an exception being 'catch' from Old North French 'cachier'.) They also tend to be the most commonly used verbs. The ten most commonly used verbs in English are all irregular.

Steven Pinker's book Words and Rules discusses how mistakes made by children in learning irregular verbs throw light on the mental processes involved in language acquisition.

All loanwords from foreign languages are regular, as are verbs that have been recently coined and all nouns used as verbs use standard suffixes. Almost all of the least commonly used words are also regular, even though some of them may have been irregular in the past.

Origin

Most irregular verbs exist as remnants of historical conjugation systems. What is today an exception actually followed a set, normal rule long ago. When that rule fell into disuse, some verbs kept the old conjugation. An example of this is the word kept, which before the Great Vowel Shift fell into a class of words where the vowel in keep (then pronounced kehp) was shortened in the past tense. Similar words, such as peep, that arose after the Vowel Shift, use the regular -ed suffix. Groups of irregular verbs include:

  • The remaining strong verbs, which display the vowel shift called ablaut and sometimes have a past participle in -en or -n: e.g., ride/rode/ridden. This verb group was inherited from the parent Proto-Germanic language, and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European language, and was originally an entirely regular system. In Old English and still in modern German, it is more or less regular, but in modern English the system of strong verb classes has almost entirely collapsed. For the history of these, see the article Germanic strong verb.
  • Weak verbs that have been subjected to sound changes over the course of the history of English that have rendered them irregular. Many of these acquired a long vowel in the present stem, but kept a short vowel in the preterite and past participle; e.g., hear/heard/heard.
  • Weak verbs that show the vowel shift are sometimes called "Rückumlaut" in the present tense e.g. think/thought. On these, see the articles Germanic umlaut and Germanic weak verb.
  • Weak verbs that end in a final -t or -d that made the addition of the weak suffix -ed seem redundant; e.g., cost/cost/cost.
  • A handful of surviving preterite present verbs. These can be distinguished from the rest because their third person simple present singular (the he, she, or it form) does not take a final -s. These are the remnants of what was once a large Indo-European class of verbs that were conjugated in the preterite or perfect tense with present tense meaning. All of the surviving verbs of this class are modal verbs, that is, a class of auxiliary verbs or quasi-auxiliaries; e.g., can/could/could.
  • Verbs that contain suppletive forms, which form one or more of their tenses from an entirely different root. Be is one of these, as is go/went/gone (where went is originally from the verb to wend). On the history of their paradigms, see: go (verb) and Indo-European copula.

Other verbs have been changed due to ease of pronunciation so that it is shorter or more closely corresponds to how it is spelt.

  • A number of verbs whose irregularity is chiefly due to the peculiarities of English spelling; e.g., lay/laid/laid.
  • Past tense ending -ed written phonetically when devoiced to -t; e.g., burn/burnt/burnt (which also has a regular conjugation with a [d] pronunciation).
  • Weak verbs that have been the subject of contractions; e.g., have/had/had.

There are fewer strong verbs and irregular verbs in modern English than there were in Old English. Slowly over time, the number of irregular verbs is decreasing. The force of analogy tends to reduce the number of irregular verbs over time. This fact explains the reason that irregular verbs tend to be the most commonly used ones; verbs that are more rarely heard are more likely to switch to being regular. For instance, a verb like ablate was once irregular, but today ablated is the standard usage. Today irregular and standard forms often coexist, a sign that the irregular form may be on the wane. For instance, seeing spelled instead of spelt or strived instead of strove is very common.

On the other hand, contraction and sound changes can increase their number. Most of the strong verbs were regular, in that they fell into a conventional plan of conjugation, in Old English; there are so few of them left in contemporary English that they seem irregular to us.

Common irregularities

In common with most Indo-European languages, in English, such common verbs as to be, to go, to do, and to have are extremely irregular. Many also have pronunciations that are not predictable from the spelling.

  • be (pronounced /biː/)
    • Present: 1sg am, 3sg is (/ɪz/), others are (/ɑr/)
    • Past: 1sg, 3sg was (/wɒz/), others were (/wɜr/)
    • Past participle: been (/biːn/ or /bɪn/)
  • go (/goʊ/)
    • Past: went
    • Past participle: gone (/gɒn/)
  • do (/duː/)
    • Present: 3sg does (/dʌz/)
    • Past: did
    • Past participle: done (/dʌn/)
  • have (/hæv/)
    • Present: 3sg has (/hæz/)
    • Past: had
    • Past participle: had

Common patterns of irregularity in the past tense include:

    • Present bring → Past, past participle brought (/brɔːt/)
    • buybought
    • catchcaught
    • seeksought
    • teachtaught
    • thinkthought
    • Present bear → Past bore, Past participle borne
    • breakbroke, broken
    • choosechose, chosen
    • freezefroze, frozen
    • speakspoke, spoken
    • stealstole, stolen
  • No change, e.g.,
    • Present bet → Past, past participle bet
    • bidbid
    • broadcastbroadcast
    • burstburst
    • castcast
    • costcost
    • cutcut
    • fitfit (esp. U.S.)
    • hithit
    • hurthurt
    • knitknit
    • letlet
    • putput
    • quitquit
    • ridrid
    • setset
    • shedshed
    • shutshut
    • slitslit
    • splitsplit
    • spreadspread
    • thrustthrust
    • upsetupset

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