English Irregular Verbs


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Everyone has trouble with English irregular verbs. So why do we have them? And why are all new verbs regular?

Related learning activities here: http://englishlanguage.eslreading.org/english/irregularverbs.html

Part of a series of articles on the development of the English language found here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/yb52dxs

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English Irregular Verbs

  1. 1. IRREGULAR VERBS HTTP://ENGLISHLANGUAGE.ESLREADING.ORG/ Irregular Verbs Fossils? English borrows words from many What are irregular verbs? languages - particularly Latin, French and Greek. Is this imported vocabulary the Most English verbs source of the irregularity? follow a simple Perhaps surprisingly all the ‘foreign’ pattern. ‘I paint’ verbs are regular. Latin had a big influence becomes ‘I painted/ on the English lexicon (see here) but not I have painted’ and on the grammatical structure of the so on. Irregular verbs do not follow this language or any other rule. ‘I see’ for example, The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has an becomes ‘I saw/I have seen’. interesting theory. He says that irregular This lack of pattern makes irregular verbs are ‘fossils’ of an Indo-European pre- verbs more difficult to learn. According to historic language. the linguist, Noam Chomsky, we are born The Indo-Europeans wandered across with a ‘universal grammar’: an inherited Europe and southwest Asia. They spoke capacity to learn languages. language with a regular rule in which one Small children, for example, learn to vowel replaced another. speak and understand at an incredible Over time pronunciation changed. The speed. Imitation plays some part in this ‘rules became opaque to children and but is not enough to explain a seemingly eventually died; the irregular past tense intuitive mastery of complex grammatical forms are their fossils.’ rules. There are now around 180 irregular Illogical verbs in English. That may sound a lot – This in-built logic makes children but it is a small fraction of the thousands of regular verbs. But irregular verbs are instinctively assume that all verbs are regular. That’s why a child might say heavily used. They make up: ‘buyed’ instead of ‘bought’ for example. 70% of all the verbs we use Language students also struggle with The ten verbs we use most often: strange irregular verb endings. Why does be, have, do, say, make, go, 'go' become ‘went’? Or ‘get‘ turn into take, come, see, get. ‘got’? Irregulars can seem like traps set up to make life difficult! Learning Irregulars To confuse things further, some verb We need to work hard to memorise an endings are the same in the past and irregular verb. It takes children years to learn present. The book you read today is the to use ‘spoke’ and not speaked. Some never same as the one you read yesterday. learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything. So why does English have these In fact many of the grammatical mistakes illogical, infuriating words? And why are commonly made by native speakers – we was, they so important? they done etc – involve irregular verbs. © 2002-10 KIERAN MCGOVERN HTTP://WWW.ESLREADING.ORG/ENGLISH/ENGLISHLANGUAGE.HTML
  2. 2. IRREGULAR VERBS HTTP://ENGLISHLANGUAGE.ESLREADING.ORG/ And yet children have a remarkable capacity to memorise new words. They learn a Glossary new one every two hours and know an average 60,000 by the age of 13. Common - frequent or typical Decline Declining - reducing or going down The number of commonly used irregular verbs Fraction - percentage is declining. Some die of natural causes. Most modern children don’t know the word cleave Intuitive - by instinct or that its past is clove. Nor are they likely to come across abide/abode. Other irregulars like dream and learn are Lexicon - vocabulary, collection of words gradually becoming regular. How long can dreamt survive alongside dreamed? Linguist - studies language As English becomes ever more Memorize - learn something by memory international, the simpler verb forms become (e.g a phone number) more dominant. Despite this there is no danger of Opaque - not clear, difficult to see or irregular verbs disappearing. Even before they understand learn to read most children can use 80 Vowel - letters with open sound: a, e. i, o, u irregulars. They may not realise that ‘went’ originally came from ‘wend’ but nobody over the age of six seriously tries to replace it with ‘goed’. Irregular Verbs: Quiz & Crossword Video: How to learn Irregular Verbs The Future? The future is less promising for new irregular verbs. All new verbs in English are regular, Kieran McGovern has written over twenty ELT including all new noun conversions: I accessed, you emailed. readers, including ‘Love by Design’ (Mamillan). He Even when an old verb takes a new has been described as 'amongst the best writers meaning it uses a regular pattern – the army of language learner materials in English’. He officer rung his general but his men ringed the city. currently edits ESl Reading and blogs at This For a new irregular verb to survive it must Interested Me. He is also a guest blogger for the offer some familiar pattern in how it works. OUP ELT Global Blog, the BBC World Service & One of the most recent irregulars is sneak/ the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. snuck, which you find in American English. In Britain we prefer sneaked but snuck is also logical because it follows the pattern of strike/struck. More about the English language here: © 2002-10 KIERAN MCGOVERN HTTP://WWW.ESLREADING.ORG/ENGLISH/ENGLISHLANGUAGE.HTML