Irregular verb: Wikis


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In contrast to regular verbs, irregular verbs are those verbs that fall outside the standard patterns of conjugation in the languages in which they occur.

When comparing languages, one measure often brought into play as one of the few quantitative statistics for a language is the number of irregular verbs in that language. These counts are not particularly accurate for a wide variety of reasons, detailed in this article.


An example of verb classes

Most verbs in English are regular (i.e., if one is told the verb and that it is not irregular, one can know instantly with perfect accuracy how to conjugate it: I procrastinate now, he/she procrastinates now, I procrastinated yesterday, I have procrastinated all afternoon, etc.).

Some languages have more than one class of verbs, each of which behaves regularly within that class, e.g. the Spanish -ar and -ir conjugations. A verb is considered irregular if few other verbs inflect just like it.

How many patterns of conjugation are considered to be standard in a given language is often up for debate. If a large enough group of irregular verbs in a language have parallel conjugations, it is almost arbitrary whether to count that as an additional "standard" conjugation or as a large collection of irregular verbs. (In Spanish, for example, there are nearly as many verbs that conjugate like pensar as those that do so like vivir, and most of the latter type of verbs are very rarely used, yet vivir is regular and pensar is considered to be irregular (or more precisely, stem-changing).)

It can be useful to divide English verbs into a few classes:

  • Regular: past and perfect end in "-ed" (e.g. procrastinate) - an open class with tens of thousands of members
  • Weak: past and perfect usually have no ending, or end in "-t" (e.g. bend-bent) - a small class with fewer than a hundred members
  • Strong: past and perfect have vowel shift (e.g. drink, drank, drunk) - a small class with fewer than a hundred members

The weak verbs can be subdivided into two classes: those without vowel shift (e.g. hit, which is hit in the past and perfect) and those with vowel shift (e.g. sleep-slept). There are about twenty-five to forty irregular weak verbs without vowel shift and about fifty with vowel shift. Consider the first class of weak verbs, including let, set, spread, shed, hit, slit, split, fit, cut, shut, hurt, burst, and so on. Each one inflects in exactly the same way, with past and perfect identical to the infinitive. Thus, these verbs could be said to be regular within their subclass. On the other hand, the verb make, with past tense and perfect made, is irregular, because no other verbs show this change from k to d in the past.

The strong verbs can be subdivided into two classes: those with a zero ending in the perfect (e.g., sing-sang-sung, about 25 members) and those with -en in the perfect (e.g., write-wrote-written, about 70 members). Each of these classes contain either many small subclasses, or many irregularities. It is common to refer to all of these verbs as irregular.

Differentiating between regular and irregular

In English, the surviving strong verbs are considered to be irregular because there are so few of them. In Old English, by contrast, the strong verbs are usually not considered to be irregular, at least not only by virtue of being strong verbs: there were several recognized classes of strong verbs, which were regular within their own terms (and in fact still are).

In Latin, similarly, most verbs outside the first or fourth conjugations have three principal parts, which form part of the lexicon and must be learned. The three principal parts are the present tense first-person singular stem, the present infinitive, the perfect tense stem, and the past participle; a variety of inflections, ablaut, and sometimes reduplication are used to form these parts. For example, the principal parts of spondeō ("I promise") include spondēre ("to promise"), spopondī ("I promised"), showing reduplication, and sponsus ("promised"); these forms cannot be predicted from the present stem, but when you know all four, the entire system can be constructed from these three parts by rule. This verb is not usually considered to be irregular in Latin. Latin also exhibits deponent verbs, inflected in the passive voice alone; and defective verbs, missing some principal parts. Truly irregular verbs in Latin are a rather small class; they include esse ("to be"); dare and its derivatives ("to give"); edere ("to eat"); ferre and its derivatives ("to carry"); velle and its derivatives ("to wish"); ire and its derivatives ("to go"); fieri ("to become") and malle ("to prefer"). Most irregular Latin verbs are themselves vestiges of the athematic conjugations of Indo-European, a surviving (and regular) group found in Greek.

Greek and Sanskrit show even greater complexities, with widely different thematic and athematic inflection sets; which set goes with which verb stem cannot be predicted by rule. In languages of this type, these variations are not usually enough to label a verb "irregular". They instead form a part of the lexicon; when a verb is learned, the various patterns used to conjugate it must also be learned.

By contrast, in modern English, the strong verbs are largely a closed and vestigial class. (Analogy has created a few new strong verbs, such as dive.) All of the surviving strong verbs differ markedly from other verbs, and thus are classified as "irregular"; here, they are conspicuous exceptions in the midst of a much larger class of rule-bound regular verbs.

Prefixed verbs

In English, to withhold conjugates exactly like to hold, and in Spanish, detener ("to detain") conjugates exactly like tener ("to have"). In each case, it is questionable if the compound verb and the main verb are both irregular verbs, or as a single irregular verb, with an optional prefix. The question is compounded by the fact that it is not always predictable if the compound conjugates the same as the base. In Spanish, bendecir ("to bless") conjugates almost exactly like decir ("to say"), but there are significant differences in a few tenses that are impossible to foresee.

Irregular in spelling only

In some languages, the count of irregular verbs could be greatly expanded if one were to count verbs that are irregular only in their spelling, but not in their pronunciation. For example, in Spanish, the verb rezar ("to pray") is conjugated in the present subjunctive as rece, reces, rece, etc. The substitution of "c" for "z" does not affect the pronunciation. It is strictly a matter of orthography and can be perfectly predicted (if one knew the rules of Spanish pronunciation and orthography but had never seen the verb "rezar" before, one would still know that the verb would have to be spelled with a "c" in the present subjunctive). Therefore, this verb is not always considered to be irregular. Another example of a verb similar to rezar is pagar - to pay. In this verb, g always changes to a gu before an e.

English has similar cases; the verb "pay" sounds regular: "I pay", "I paid", and "I have paid" are all pronounced as expected. But the spelling is irregular and that cannot be perfectly predicted—for example, "pay" and "lay" turn into "paid" and "laid", but "sway" and "stay" turn into "swayed" and "stayed". For this reason "pay" and verbs like it are almost always considered to be irregular.

See also

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