Monday, March 28, 2011

Highly Irregular

Many—too many, if you ask me—verbs form their past tenses irregularly. Instead of adding –ed, like a nice, well-behaved regular verb with slicked-back hair, neatly pressed clothes, and shined shoes, these irregular verbs go their own unruly way, heedless of good manners, doing whatever they like, perversely forming highly improper past tenses and indecent past participles.

Why can’t the past tense of is be ised instead of was, were and been? Why not writed instead of wrote and written, or doed instead of did and done? Well, that’s not for me to say; I have no authority over these out-of-control verbs. I can only lament their reprehensible conduct.

Take sink, for example. Sink wasn’t happy with the idea of forming a past tense by adding –ed, like normal verbs, so instead of plain old sinked she insisted on sank as the past tense and sunk as the past participle. Now look what’s happened: people are getting tired of sank, so they just use sunk for anything in the past. Not only has the ship sunk—it sunk yesterday!

The same is true of some of sink’s pals, like sting and sling, and will soon be true of stink, shrink, sing and spring as well. Stang and slang have long since been replaced by stung and slung, and stunk, shrunk, sung, and sprung are sneaking in surreptitiously by way of the back door even as we speak, spoke, and have spoken.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Merriam-Webster's New International 2nd edition, list sprung as an alternate past tense to sprang, with no indication that it is sub-standard. Both of these reliable lexicons also list other vowel-shifting verbs such as sung and, yes, even sunk, as acceptable alternative past tenses.

Good old spank, though, follows the rules: spank, spanked, have spanked. Hurrah!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also irregular, at least on some occasions. He deals with it by trying to be a regular guy.

I have a gong
That I ring, and I rang, and I’ve rung,
I know a song
That I sing, and I sang, and I’ve sung,
So why is it wrong
If I bring, and I brang, and I’ve brung?

I sail a ship
That I sink, and I sank, and I’ve sunk.
I like a nip,
So I drink, and I drank, then I’m drunk.
I need a quip--
So I think, and I thank, and I’ve thunk.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, it's just the Germanic strong verb. Besides, not even the worst English verbs can stand up to the joy of German noun declensions or any Basque word.

    "To be" is, of course, the obligatorily irregular I-E copula.

    The strong verb adds another layer of "love" to English morphology, and it's interesting to see how the category has changed over time. Reading Shakespeare in English class is good; I've seen help-holp several times. And if I recall correctly, dive-dove is a recent development by analogy from drive-drove, but it didn't carry over to the participle, so we still have dived as opposed to diven.