Dear Language Nerd,
My English Second Language teacher last year always said to us, “Do you know the secret way to learn the irregular verbs? … Memorize them all!” Ha ha ha, right? But is there a better way?
I won’t lie, you’re going to have to do some memorizing. But we can make it a little better than that.
Irregular verbs aren’t random — they’re leftovers from older grammar patterns. Usually, they’re words that are in such common use that we keep them the same even while the language overall is changing. According to Pinker, the top 10 most common English verbs are irregular: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. The “be-verb,” or copula, is far and away the most common verb, and is also the most irregular, with 8 different forms (be, being, am, are, is, was, were, been) compared to the usual 4 (climb, climbed, climbs, climbing). In fact, copulas are irregular in most languages, and often so are verbs similar to “do” or “make.” We use these verbs all the time, so we’re constantly reminding ourselves of their forms, so we don’t forget that they’re irregular.
There’s a happy flipside to this: there are fewer than 200 irregular verbs in English, compared to thousands of regular verbs. Less common verbs tend to become regular over time. “Work,” for example, used to have the past tense “wrought,” which you can still see in phrases like “wrought iron.” But you’re hardly likely to hear someone complain that she wrought twelve hours of overtime last week. Lots of words are undergoing this regularization process right now — you hear both “hanged” and “hung,” “swinged” and “swang.” So you’ll need to pick up the most common irregulars if you want to understand a conversation, but if you meet a new word in a dark alley, you’re probably safe assuming it’s regular.
So how can we simplify the memorizing process? Well, I mentioned that these verbs are hanging onto older grammars. Turns out, many of them are hanging onto the same stuff — the Germanic strong verb patterns. Instead of using “-ed” to show past tense, Germanic strong verbs change ther vowels. Germanic linguiusts sort them into classes based on the kinds of change they had in ancient Germanic languages, which doesn’t exactly match up perfectly with how the verbs sound in modern English, but can still make groups that hang together, like sing-sang-sung, ring-rang-rung, drink-drank-drunk. Here’s a website that does a good job of putting the irregular verbs into bite-sized groups by sound.
Or, as I would prefer, here’s the 50 most common irregulars, and you’ll probably be fine just picking the others up as you go along. Some of the lists of irregular verbs that students recieve contain waaaay too many, with words that have already become regular in normal speech and writing, so keep an eye out and don’t let anyone waste your time with those. Unless you’re taking a course in 17th-century literature, if someone tries to make you memorize “chide-chid-chidden,” you just stand up and walk right out of there. If they fuss, send ’em to me. I got your back.
The Language Nerd
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References references references:
A pair of Pinkers. Is this the first time I’ve cited Pinker? Man, who would’ve thunk it’d take twenty-odd posts to get a Pinker citation? (P.S.: Think-thought-thought? Nah! Think-thunk
More on the grammars:
And language-learning sites: