The Disappearing Irregular Past Participle

Rudy Dieudonne’s statue of King Alfred the Great (849-899). King Alfred loved books.

Change is a normal characteristic of language. King Alfred (849-899) used a lot of the same basic vocabulary and grammar that we do, but the English of 2017 is a far cry from that of a thousand years ago. For one thing, the grammar is much simpler.

The tendency of linguistic change is toward simplification.

One way in which English grammar has changed is in the forms of the verbs.

In Old English, verbs had more past forms than they have now. Most of our verbs have become “regular.”

A “regular” verb forms its past and past participle by adding the ending –ed to the present form. For example:

Today I walk. (present)
Yesterday I walked. (simple past)
As of now, I have walked for twenty minutes. (past participle)

NOTE: The past participle is the form used with the helping verbs have, has, and had.

Most verbs we use nowadays are regular –ed verbs. We do, however, retain a few verbs that don’t follow the –ed pattern. We call them “irregular” verbs. Historically, frequently used verbs are slow to change. The verb sing (sing, sang, have sung), for example, hasn’t changed so much from Alfred’s day that he wouldn’t recognize it if he heard it.

It’s impossible to say how many verbs are in the English language. Just about any English word can be “verbed,”

It is, however, possible to estimate the number of verbs that don’t form their past with –ed: fewer than 400 remain in common usage. Many of these are in the process of changing. For example, do you say pled or pleaded? lit or lighted? shone or shined?

I would not be surprised to see even more irregular verbs make the shift to –ed endings. The old forms of one of my favorites—slay (slay, slew, have slain)—are losing ground. To say, “Buffy slayed a vampire” jars my ear. I prefer, “Buffy slew a vampire. She has slain plenty of vampires.”

Nevertheless, the –ed forms march on.

What surprises me is that people who have been educated in English-speaking schools are starting to drop the irregular past participle and replace it with the irregular past. I see it in professionally written texts and on television. Here are some examples:

They could have drove themselves. -—Mayor of Key West.
drive, drove, have driven

Woodard had spoke with his girlfriend. —Channel 5 News reporter.
speak, spoke, have spoken

[They] should have rang in. —The host of Jeopardy.
ring, rang, have rung

You would’ve ran too —Canadian character on Bones.
run, ran, have run

If it had went the other way. —Professional dancer.
go, went, have gone

This one-man dynasty has just began. —Television ad.
begin, began, have begun

Before anyone dismisses the fault as peculiarly American, here’s an example from the BBC site:

Custódio is working with a historian to serve the type of tea [Queen] Catherine would have drank. —Travel writer.
drink, drank, have drunk

[I Googled the travel writer and found she’s a graduate of Pomona College (California), but I’m assuming that her article would have been vetted by a speaker of British English.]

These lapses may indicate a natural shift in the language. But it may just indicate a lack of emphasis on the teaching of Standard English in public and state-run schools.

The teaching of standard English usage has been tarred by the diversity brush. In an effort to make everybody comfortable, the ability to speak and write a form of Standard English seems to be regarded as an unreasonable expectation. All school children are expected to learn algebra and coding, but the memorization of a few irregular verbs is somehow perceived as cultural oppression.

Until all verbs form their pasts with –ed, perhaps elementary teachers could take the time to teach the irregular past participle forms, and professional writers and speakers could make an effort to review them.

You can review the irregular forms at the AmericanEnglishDoctor.