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More Fun with Irregular Verbs

“In the past, they have not went if it was out of the country.” So spoke a poised, informed young woman last week on a political talk show. And this was no anomaly. Abuse of irregular verbs is sweeping the nation—so much so that some readers will see nothing wrong with the sentence quoted above.

So take a moment to take today’s irregular-verb quiz. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular-Verb Pop Quiz

1. The child took the portrait and ___ it on the wall.

A) hung
B) hanged
C) A and B are both correct

2. You have clearly ___ me for someone else.

A) mistook
B) mistaking
C) mistaken
D) mistooken

3. I have ___ relatives who offer criticism but no support.

A) outgrew
B) outgrown
C) outgrowed
D) outgrowing

4. I would have probably ___ the sweetest dessert.

A) chose
B) chosen
C) A and B are both correct

5. The last time we were together, we ___ all our favorite songs around the fire.

A) sing
B) sung
C) sang

6. He felt that his life had been cruelly ___ apart.

A) torn
B) tore
C) toren
D) turn

7. This game has, despite its success, ___ a complete makeover.

A) underwent
B) undergone
C) under went
D) under gone

8. Fred has ___ the lawn every Saturday.

A) mowed
B) mown
C) A and B are both correct

9. A bee ___ her as soon as she opened the door.

A) stang
B) stung
C) sting

10. The public is ___ to leave the trail.

A) forbid
B) forbad
C) forbade
D) forbidden



1: A) hung

2: C) mistaken

3: B) outgrown

4: B) chosen

5: C) sang

6: A) torn

7: B) undergone

8: C) A and B are both correct

9: B) stung

10: D) forbidden

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Posted on Monday, August 8, 2016, at 6:41 pm

The Haves and the Have Gots

In a recent post we bemoaned the widespread overuse of surreal: “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got?” A reader found the sentence objectionable: “Really? ‘is that all you’ve got?’ How about ‘all you have’?”

His email insinuated that “all you’ve got” is unacceptable English. Many grammar mavens down through the years have challenged the legitimacy of have got, claiming that the phrase is no more than an ungainly and protracted way of saying have.

But we see an appreciable difference between is that all you’ve got? and is that all you have? Our sentence was meant to convey exasperation—is that all you have? just doesn’t work there. It sounds too dainty.

All you’ve got is good idiomatic English. “Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got,” wrote the poet Maya Angelou. Does anyone think that changing the last sentence to Give it all you have would be an improvement?

Our emailer will be heartened to learn that an anonymous eighteenth-century grammarian (quoted by Eric Partridge) agreed with him: “It may, therefore, be advanced as a general Rule,—when Possession is implied, it is vulgar to use HAVE in Construction with GOT.”

But today this “general Rule” seems to have gone the way of promiscuous capitalization and commas before long dashes. We consulted our reference library and came up with the following:

Have got has been used … in literary English for more than four hundred years … It is found in the writings of Scott, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Morris, Ruskin, Carlyle, and most of the great nineteenth century English authors.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“The words have got, as in ‘I have got a really good car,’ have long been put down by schoolmaster sticklers as an error, but most authorities agree that it is not.” —Theodore M. Bernstein, 1977

“The phrase have got—often contracted (as in I’ve got)—has long been criticized as unnecessary for have. In fact, though, the phrasing with got adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.” —Bryan A. Garner, 1998

“It’s idiomatic, standard, and especially common when special emphasis is intended … No modern authority with a reputation to lose cares if you use have got for have or must, and you needn’t waste your own energy worrying about it either.” —Charles Harrington Elster, 2005

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Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at 11:02 am

Might You Mean May?

What is the difference between may and might? There may have been a clear difference long ago, and there still might be a difference in some sticklers’ minds, but today the two verbs are, with few exceptions, interchangeable.

Grammarians tell us that might is the past tense of may, but that fact, while interesting, does not offer much guidance, considering how frequently we use both may and might to talk about the present (I may/might be ready to leave now) and the future (I may/might call you tomorrow).

Many scholarly discussions of may vs. might state that may is used when something is more likely to happen, and might is used when something is less likely to happen. So when you say I may be ready to leave, there is a good chance you are departing, but when you say I might be ready to leave, you’d probably prefer to stick around awhile.

It is remarkable how many authorities, even today, buy into this. In the 2016 revised edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes, “May expresses likelihood … while might expresses a stronger sense of doubt.”

We find this assertion baffling, and we are not alone. The online American Heritage dictionary says in a usage note: “It is sometimes said that might suggests a lower probability than may … In practice, however, few people make this distinction.” This echoes what the language scholar John B. Bremner wrote forty years ago: “Some lexicographers see a nuance between may and might in the context of probability … If such distinction exists in common language, the distinction is even thinner than nuance.”

Here are some exceptions to the interchangeability of may and might:

• Sometimes might means “should”: You’d think he might be more careful means he should be more careful. No one who speaks fluent English would substitute may for might in that sentence.

• Most of us choose may over might in wishful or hopeful statements, such as May they live happily ever after.

• When a hypothetical sentence is set in the past, might is usually a better option: If she had worked harder, she might have kept her job. But when such sentences are in the present tense, either may or might can be used: If she works harder, she may/might be able to keep her job.

• And you will note that the first word in the title of this article could not possibly be “May.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, at 4:43 pm

A Couple of Things, and a Couple More

The word couple literally means “two,” but it is often used to mean “an indefinite small number.” So if you were to say, “I only have a couple of dollars,” you would probably not be called out if you really had three or four.

However, your friend the grammar stickler might take exception if you said you had “a couple dollars.” Although “a couple dollars” is common in everyday speech, traditionalists insist on “a couple of dollars.” And since a couple of dollars doesn’t sound stuffy or pretentious, why leave of out?

But things get tricky when couple is used with words and phrases of comparison, such as more, fewertoo many, too few. Many people would say a couple of more dollars, but in that construction the of is dropped: a couple more dollars and a couple too few dollars are correct. However, if we slightly revise those phrases, ofmust be put back:  a couple of dollars more and a couple of dollars too few are correct.

When the noun couple refers to two people, you often see it used as a singular: The couple was having dinner. But the more one writes, the more one discovers that with couple the plural verb should be used unless there is an excellent reason not to.

While it is true that The couple was having dinner is unobjectionable, what if we expand the sentence a bit. If the subject of a sentence starts out singular, it should remain singular. So if we wanted to say where the dinner took place, we would be forced to write The couple was having dinner in its home. That is atrocious, but so is The couple was having dinner in their home. Therefore, make it  The couple were having dinner in their home. And make couple plural whenever possible (which is most of the time). You’ll be in good company.


We recently heard from a reader who objected to a sentence she found in one of our online quizzes:  We’ll hire the applicant whom we talked with. She urgently informed us that “you do not end a sentence with a preposition!!!!”

This “rule” is the Walking Dead of English-grammar superstitions—a festering pest that cannot be destroyed. We are scolded about it at least once a year, and without exception those who upbraid us offer no evidence to substantiate their claims. (That is because none exists.) So we hereby challenge anyone who still swears by this dubious principle to relocate the preposition in this sentence: Speak when you are spoken to.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, at 9:03 am

Irregular Verbs: Handle with Care

During a recent broadcast of America’s professional-basketball playoffs, a popular commentator said, “I wish he had did it” instead of had done it. A few days later, a longtime Washington insider with his own TV show said “if he had ran” instead of had run.

When those who should know better misuse irregular verbs, it is jarring and distracting. We use these verbs all the time. We might as well get them right. See how you do on the quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. She was gazing at a picture that her son had recently ___.

A) drawed
B) drew
C) drawn

2. You have finally ___ me a reason to trust them.

A) gave
B) given
C) give
D) gived

3. Have you ___ that thank-you note to your aunt yet?

A) write
B) wrote
C) written
D) writ

4. Just hearing that old song ___ back a lot of memories.

A) brang
B) brought
C) A and B are both correct

5. She still has not ___ him for the mistake he made.

A) forgiven
B) forgave
C) forgive
D) forgived

6. Lannie had his favorite shoes ___ in the back of the closet.

A) hid
B) hidden
C) A and B are both correct

7. A problem had suddenly ___ with our dinner reservations.

A) araised
B) arose
C) arised
D) arisen

8. The sweet smell of orchids ___ in the air.

A) clung
B) clinged
C) clang

9. My jacket ___ her perfectly.

A) fit
B) fitted
C) A and B are both correct

10. We had not even ___ two miles before we came to a fork in the road.

A) rode
B) ridden
C) ride
D) riden


1: C) drawn

2: B) given

3: C) written

4: B) brought

5: A) forgiven

6: B) hidden

7: D) arisen

8: A) clung

9: C) A and B are both correct

10: B) ridden

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Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, at 4:20 pm