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This is highly irregular

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Written by Stan Carey

English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.

Once you’ve begun learning English verbs (*beginned, though regular, would be wrong), you’ll notice how many are irregular. And it’s usually the more common ones: be and go are as wayward as it gets. It can be trickier than you thought (not *thinked), and the answers are easily forgotten (not *forgetted). Complicating things further, regional dialects often have alternative possibilities, and even in standard English there is disagreement over whether some forms are correct, such as forecasted and broadcasted.

So if you’re struggling with these anomalies, don’t get too hung up (not *hanged up) on mistakes. They pose problems not just for learners but sometimes also for experienced and skilled speakers – especially when the past participles are irregular. (Remember, you can always check the past participle and other forms of a verb by clicking the ‘Word Forms’ box in our dictionary definitions.) Try this test: In the following sentences, fill in the blanks with a form of the verb in brackets:

  1. They fell asleep soon after they had [lie] down.
  2. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap.
  3. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before.
  4. I got up immediately after I had [wake] up.
  5. Their efforts failed, though everyone had [strive] for success.

How did you do? If you struggled with some of these, don’t feel bad. People who have spoken English all their lives are likely to hesitate over a couple of them at least, and may even guess wrong in the end. The answers, by the way, are lain, laid, drunk, woken, and striven (or strived).

To help you practise this difficult part of English – to help you get the grammatical lie of the land – Macmillan Dictionary created the Irregular Verb Wheel. You can play this fun and simple game by yourself – try to beat your own high score – or in a group, for example in a school classroom or a study group. Since its creation the Irregular Verb Wheel has proved (or proven) popular with teachers and students around the world, who use it as part of their efforts to learn English.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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