Episode 331: August 2, 2012
by Neal Whitman
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It’s time for another look at irregular verbs. In episode 291, I said irregular verbs are those that don’t form their past tense by simply adding an “-ed” suffix, and that they tend to get turned into regular verbs over time. For example, the past tense of “help” used to be “holp,” but now it’s been regularized, and we say “helped.”
Also in that episode, I talked about the strange case of “sneak,” which has been doing just the opposite, at least in American English. Its regular past tense, “sneaked,” has been losing ground to a newly created irregular form: “snuck.”
Today, I’m going to talk about some more regular verbs that have been going in the surprising direction of becoming irregular.
“Grit” or “Gritted”? “Pet” or “Petted”?
Imagine that your friend Fenster is afraid of dogs. But he knows how much you love your bulldog Otis, so when he came to visit last week, he did his best to make friends with Otis. He knelt down, and Otis trotted up and licked Fenster’s hand. Here’s what happened next, as Fenster battled with his emotions: He grit his teeth as he pet Otis.
How did that last sentence sound to you? Many of you may have been gritting your own teeth as you thought, “No! Fenster gritted his teeth as he petted Otis!” For others, it may have sounded just fine. Still others may have accepted one of those irregular past tenses, but thought the other one should have been regular. What’s going on?
Regular Verbs Versus Irregular Verbs
Some irregular verbs are more irregular than others.
The answer is that some irregular verbs are more irregular than others, and even within irregular verbs, you can sometimes find patterns of regularity. One of these patterns is noticeable enough to have started spreading to other verbs. The irregular verbs we’re interested in today are the ones whose past tense and past participle are exactly like their plain form. The verb “split” is an example. You’d say, “I split the wood yesterday,” and “I had split the wood, before I remembered that Fenster said he’d do it.”
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language lists 15 verbs besides “split” that behave this way.”
bid, burst, cast, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set, shed, shut, slit, spread, thrust
It also lists several verbs that have both irregular and regular past-tense and past-participle forms:
bet, bust, fit, quit, rid, wed, wet
So for example, you might say, “When I tried it on, the dress fit perfectly,” or “Aardvark carefully fitted the cover on top of the bowl.”
A Song About Verbs
To help you remember these 23 unusual verbs, here’s a little song:
[to tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”]
Bid and rid and burst and bust,
Spread and wed and shed and thrust,
Split and cost, cut and slit,
Hit and hurt, shut and quit,
Cast and fit and bet and set,
Lastly put and let and wet.
Why Are These Verbs Different?
Besides all having past tenses that are identical to their plain form, there are three other things these verbs have in common.
First, like most irregular verbs, they’re all single-syllable words.
Second, they all end in a dental consonant, that is, T or D.
Third, they contain only short vowels. We have the short A [æ] sound in “cast.” We have the short E sound in “bet,” “let,” “set,” “shed,” “spread,” “wed,” and “wet.” We have the short I sound in “bid,” “hit,” “slit,” “split,” “fit,” “quit,” and “rid.” We have the short O sound in “cost.” We have the short U sound in “bust,” “cut,” “shut,” and “thrust,” and, depending on how you hear it, in “burst” and “hurt.” Lastly, we have the other short U sound, “oo,” in “put.”
Weird, huh? In fact, the only verb with a long vowel that has a past tense identical to its plain form is “beat,” and even that isn’t like these other verbs, because its past participle is different: “beaten.”
Of course, not every one-syllable verb that has a short vowel and ends in a dental consonant is an irregular verb. For example, verbs that are derived from nouns are almost always regular. For example, you wouldn’t say, “Last year, Squiggly head the entertainment committee”; you’d say he headed it.
There are also plenty of one-syllable verbs with a short-vowel and a dental consonant at the end that aren’t related to nouns and still have regular past tenses, such as the ones in these sentences: “The movie lasted two hours,” and “The goat butted the troll off the bridge.”
Even so, there’s enough of a pattern here that if speakers notice it at an unconscious level, they may start extending it to other verbs. That’s how we get sentences like “He grit his teeth when he pet Otis,” and “I had my confidential documents shred,” and one that you might have heard if you went to see The Avengers this summer. In one scene, Natasha Romanov says to Bruce Banner, “You didn't come here because I bat my eyelashes at you,” referring to an earlier incident in the movie. Different speakers may extend the pattern to different verbs, leading to the kind of variation and disagreement that I described earlier.
So what do you do if you don’t know whether a verb in standard English has one of these irregular past tenses that are identical to the plain form? The usual advice with irregular verbs is that you just have to memorize them. If you memorize the 23 listed in this episode, that’s 23 verbs that you know can use their plain form for the past tense. If a verb’s not on the list, and assuming it’s not some other kind of irregular verb, you’re safe in using the regular past tense.
Now if the regular past tense sounds just plain wrong to you, and the irregular past tense sounds right, check the verb in a dictionary, a usage guide, or a corpus, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
These irregularizations are changes in progress, and it may be that there’s an irregular past tense that has caught on enough to be recognized in sources other than the Cambridge Grammar. For example, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, published in 2001, lists “knit” and “shred” as alternative past tenses alongside “knitted” and “shredded,” even though they’re not in the list of 23 verbs in the song. However, if even the dictionaries and usage guides don’t recognize an irregular past tense, and the regular past tense decisively outnumbers the irregular one in a corpus search, give up. Accept that even though you learned the verb as an irregular, and it feels comfortable to use it that way, that’s just not how it’s used in standard English. At least, not yet.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com, and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.