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Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain

English verbs are either regular or irregular. We call a verb regular when we add ed (wanted, looked) or sometimes just d (created, loved) to form what are called the simple past tense and the past participle (see third and fourth paragraphs below). A regular verb’s simple past tense and past participle are always identical.

Not so with irregular verbs. They form the simple past tense and the past participle in any number of unpredictable ways. Some irregular verbs, like let, shut, and spread, never change, whether present or past. Others, like feel and teach, become modified versions of themselves (felt, taught) to form both the past tense and the past participle. Still others, like break and sing, change to form the past tense (broke, sang) and change again to form the past participle (broken, sung). And then there are a few really weird ones, like go: its past participle (gone) is recognizable enough, but its simple past tense is a strange new word (went).

Let’s get back to the irregular verb break. The simple past tense is broke, which we use in sentences like I broke your dish. We use the past participle, broken, to form compound verbs in sentences like I have broken your dish. The compound verb have broken is so called because we’ve added a helping verb (have) to the main verb’s past participle (broken). Be careful never to add a helping verb to the simple past form of an irregular verb—I have broke your dish is an embarrassing confession in more ways than one.

The past participle of an irregular verb can also function as an adjective: a broken dish. But the simple past form, if it differs from the participle, cannot function as an adjective: a broke dish is substandard English.

There are far fewer irregular verbs than regular ones, but we use them all the time. “The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, and get) are all irregular,” notes Steven Pinker, an American experimental psychologist and linguist, “and about 70% of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb.” Pinker acknowledges 180 irregular English verbs, but the website has an Extended Irregular Verb Dictionary which contains over 470 irregular verbs, including rare ones such as bestrew, enwind, and hagride.

Proper use of irregular verbs requires old-fashioned memorization—there are no secret formulas or shortcuts. This is why these words can create havoc for conscientious speakers of English. See how you do on the irregular verb quiz below—and please, no peeking at the answers till you complete the last question.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. He should have definitely ___ it before sunset.

A) did
B) done
C) have did
D) have done

2. This year has not necessarily ___ the way they hoped it would.

A) gone
B) went
C) going
D) go

3. He hopes he has finally ___ his last grammar test.

A) took
B) tooken
C) take
D) taken

4. The dry soil has ___ up every last raindrop.

A) drank
B) drunk
C) A and B are both correct.

5. She claims she ___ it happen before it occurred.

A) sees
B) seen
C) saw
D) had saw

6. It looks as if Tanya has actually ___ to visit Reggie.

A) come
B) came
C) coming

7. The Smiths were all ___ by a loud crashing noise.

A) awakened
B) awoken
C) A and B are both correct.

8. It had just ___ to snow when the plane took off.

A) began
B) begin
C) beginning
D) begun

9. Don’t they know I’m already ___ up?

A) shook
B) shaken
C) shooken
D) shaked

10. The wind has ___ like this for a week now.

A) blow
B) blowed
C) blown
D) blew


1: B) done

2: A) gone

3: D) taken

4: B) drunk

5: C) saw

6: A) come

7: C) awakened and awoken are both correct

8: D) begun

9: B) shaken

10: C) blown

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Posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, at 4:05 pm

Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

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Posted on Monday, June 15, 2015, at 12:23 pm

A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words by best-selling writer-editor Bill Bryson offers serious scholarship with a smooth, light touch. It’s a hard book to stop reading once you’ve opened it.

We have a lot of other reference books in our offices, but the most recent of those came out in 1983. That was way back in the dawn of the personal-computer age. Much has changed since then, including the language. Bryson’s book is addressed and attuned to the twenty-first century.

Our 1966 edition of Wilson Follett’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage spends 22 pages on the proper uses of shall and will, including the difference between sentences like I shall see him and I will see him, a difference that would be news to most everyone walking around in 2015. How refreshing, then, to find Bryson’s shall, will entry is less than a page long, concluding with “the distinctions are no longer all that important anyway.”

The book has 222 pages devoted to problematic words and phrases, plus a breezy introduction, an appendix on punctuation, a glossary to explain or review the basic parts of speech, and a list of suggested reading. The appendix, though a bit sketchy, includes an especially good discussion of commas. The glossary is handy, but also sketchy. For instance, verbs are “words that have tense,” but tense is not defined.

Among the spelling snags (dormouse, not doormousestratagem, not strategem), fine distinctions (liablelikely, apt, and prone are not interchangeable), and debunked superstitions (split infinitives are not wrong), several entries contain brief science, geography, and history lessons—things you never knew or knew you wanted to know: London’s Big Ben is not the clock, just the hour bell. Victorian sticklers wanted laughable changed to laugh-at-able.

Bryson’s first priority is the reader: “Readers should never be required to retrace their steps, however short the journey.” That could be the book’s mission statement. Writers will appreciate the author’s comprehensive collation of hazards and snares. How is blatant different from flagrant? Did you know that equally as is always wrong? Why say “the vast majority of” when you mean most?

One of Bryson’s many strengths is his sensitivity to ungainly wording (the fact that is best avoided; precautionary measure can usually be shortened to precaution). And he has amassed an astonishing array of redundancies. Bryson keeps them coming every couple of pages. Most look perfectly respectable until you think about them: admit to, brief respitecompletely surrounded, future plans, join togetherminute detail, old adage, personal friend, self-confessed, think to oneself, visit personally, weather conditions, and so on.

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words respects traditional teachings yet acknowledges the inevitability of change. Check it out.


Pop Quiz

Correct any of the following sentences that need fixing. These sentences illustrate principles discussed in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Answers are below.

  1. No sooner had he thought about her when she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that were his due.
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event.
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the altercation.


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. No sooner had he thought about her than she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that was his due. (Bryson: “Kudos, a Greek word meaning fame or glory, is singular.”)
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event. CORRECT
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the fight. (Bryson: “No one suffers physical injury in an altercation.”)

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Posted on Monday, May 11, 2015, at 9:57 pm

Evolution or …?

Today we’ll home in on three examples of the English language’s capriciousness.

Self-deprecating  Few contemporary writers would hesitate to use self-deprecating to describe someone who is refreshingly humble. But the term’s wide acceptance is yet another triumph of the slobs over the snobs.

Technically, the correct term is self-depreciating. Although deprecate and depreciate appear almost identical, these words have different roots, and different meanings as well. Traditionally, to deprecate is to disapprove of or denounce. To depreciate is to devalue or downgrade. Because the two words are easily confused, most dictionaries caved forty or fifty years ago and started listing them as synonymous.

Why did self-deprecating prevail when self-depreciating is the right choice? Possibly because deprecating sounds mysterious and swanky.

It’s not as much fun to use depreciating, with its unwieldy extra syllable. It’s a dreary word that evokes decline and obsolescence.

Momentarily  Since the mid-seventeenth century, momentarily has meant “for a moment.” But in the twentieth century, casual speakers and writers started using it to mean “in a moment.” This johnny-come-lately meaning of momentarily has caught up with and maybe overtaken the traditional meaning.

There is quite a difference between for a moment and in a moment when you think about it. Most travelers are heartened when they hear “Passengers’ baggage will arrive momentarily.” But this announcement could be stressful news to traveling language sticklers—they might take it to mean that their arriving luggage will disappear after only a few seconds.

So why say something like Let’s speak momentarily and risk being misinterpreted? The solution is to drop momentarily and instead say either Let’s speak soon or Let’s have a short talk.

Presently  This word has changed meanings more than once since its arrival in the fourteenth century. At first it meant now. But today careful speakers and writers use it to mean “in the near future.” Others use it in its original sense. The 2014 edition of Webster’s New World lists both “in a little while; soon” and “at present; now: a usage still objected to by some.”

We recommend that you avoid this fussy word. If you tell a houseful of ravenous guests, “We are serving dinner presently,” many will think you mean right now and start elbowing their way to the front of the line.

Good alternative: “We are serving dinner soon.”
Not so good alternative: “We are serving dinner momentarily.”

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Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at 10:13 am

Stengelese Spoken Here

The long and winding big-league baseball season started this week. Every year at this time we profile a baseball immortal who is equally celebrated for his unorthodox language skills. The choice this year is Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel (1890-1975), who at the age of fifty-eight became manager of the mighty New York Yankees and took them to ten World Series in twelve years.

Casey Stengel broke into the major leagues in 1912 and played for fourteen seasons. He later said, “I had many years that I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill.”

As player and manager, Casey was for decades baseball’s class clown—but a lot of snooty Yankees fans thought he was a no-class clown and opposed his hiring. They weren’t alone. Boston sportswriter Dave Egan’s reaction to the new manager: “The Yankees have now been mathematically eliminated from the 1949 pennant race.”

Instead, Stengel guided the Bronx Bombers to five straight World Series championships (1949-53), a baseball record that may never be broken.

Casey spoke a dialect of English called “Stengelese,” utterances that concealed nuggets of wisdom in a dense matrix of dizzying gibberish. “Stengelese was mostly a public act,” said sportswriter Maury Allen. “He double-talked in part to diffuse pinpoint questions.” An extreme example: “He’s the perdotious quotient of the qualificatilus.”

Stengel seasoned his speech with trademark words and phrases, one favorite being “at the present time,” which he’d drop in anywhere: “Most people my age are dead at the present time.” He also found creative ways to use “fairly,” as in: “This club plays better baseball now. Some of them look fairly alert.”

Some Stengelese could be harsh. On a player’s lack of potential: “He’s only twenty years old and with a good chance in ten years of being thirty.” On another player’s batting prowess: “He couldn’t hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane.” On managing twenty-five men successfully: “Keep the five guys who hate you from the five who are undecided.”

The baseball lifestyle, with its constant travel and unsupervised free time, has ended many a promising career, but Stengel came to believe in players who could hold their liquor: “I have found that ones who drink milk shakes don’t win many ball games.” “We are in such a slump that even the ones that are drinking aren’t hitting.” “Look at him. He don’t smoke. He don’t drink. He don’t chase women. And he don’t win.”

In 1958, Stengel appeared before Senator Estes Kefauver’s U.S. Senate subcommittee on baseball’s antitrust status. Here is one exchange:

Kefauver: I was asking you, sir, why it is that baseball wants this bill passed.

Stengel: I would say I would not know, but would say the reason why they would want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest paid ball sport that has gone into baseball and from the baseball angle. I am not going to speak of any other sport. I am not here to argue about other sports. I am in the baseball business. It has been run cleaner than any business that was ever put out in the 100 years at the present time. I am not speaking about television or I am not speaking about income that comes into the ball parks. You have to take that off. I don’t know too much about it. I say the ballplayers have a better advancement at the present time.

That’s quite an oration. Most of us would have quit talking after the first seven words.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at 11:16 am