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Remembrance of past participle things

Stan Carey’s recent post about irregular verbs reminded me of a topic that occurs to me from time to time; to be more precise, a topic that occurs to me every time I notice someone fail to vocalize a past participle when grammar requires it, and opt for the simple past instead. Of course this only happens with irregular verbs because with a regular verb you can’t go wrong: the simple past and past participle have the same form. The peculiar thing about this phenom is that it occurs quite regularly with some verbs among some speakers, so you have to ask: are certain irregulars on their way out, and will speakers of the distant future find some irregular past participles quaint and old-fashioned, if not downright archaic?

Here’s what I mean: I have never heard anyone use the verb phrases has was or has were. They’re patently incorrect. That gets us past English’s most frequent irregular verb, be. Leaving aside have, which is semi-regular (identical past and past participle) we come to do. Has did? It’s not frequent, and it’s grating on the ears of most speakers, but there are a respectable number of hits for it in Google Blogs, even after you discount the false positives.

The next most frequent verb in English, get, is a problematic case, since it’s semi-regular in British English, and quasi-semi-irregular in American: Yank speakers use both got and gotten as past participles of get consistently, depending on the sense, but Brits use only got. When you get to go, the next most frequent verb, the trouble begins. There are speakers for whom has went is a standard utterance. “Wrong!” you say. But if a group of speakers uses this form regularly in their speech community and it goes unremarked and uncorrected, it’s hard to argue it’s not an acceptable variant—or on its way to becoming one.

You don’t find many such examples in corpora, which tend to consist of mainly edited English, but Google Blogs has 174K hits of “has went,” including sentences like these:

Everyone that has went to college with a guy that used to frequently set his hand on fire knows that burning flesh is really rank.

It’s Friday, and I’m feeling like this week has went by so fast.

United won the game 1-0 and Fergie has went onto [sic] win 12 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, a Cup Winners Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a World Club Championship.

As you trawl further through the list of English’s frequent irregular verbs, inflectional infelicities become fairly common. A few examples from blogs:

My oldest brother has drank since I can remember, and has just progressed to 20+ beers per day.

God has saw fit to use mere humanity to co-create creatures that shall exist for ever with Him.

A retired Navy Seal has wrote a tell [sic] all about the day and the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

The nurse came in and informed us that she thought one of my waters had broke and she was going to call my doctor to come confirm.

Ignoramuses!”, you may say, and you may be right. Or you may be looking at the cutting edge of language change toward simplification. English is peculiarly subject to simplification of this kind, as the most popular second language in the world. Immigrant speech communities in Anglophone countries often find housing where it is most affordable: side-by-side with the least educated native speakers and with other English learners. Both of these groups are very likely to be opting for simpler English that has only one irregular verb inflection, not two. After enough time passes, and enough irregular past participles fail to find expression in sentences, many may wither and die. I agree with Stan on this one: it would be a pity to see words like striven and woken fade because they are part of what make English beautiful. But you can’t stop progress.

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Orin Hargraves


  • People seem to struggle with “drink” more than they do with similar-sounding verbs like “sink”, presumably because “drunk” has taken on a different meaning. The strangest one I’ve heard is “drinken”.

  • On the other hand (I have known folks who have consistently used the simple past in what I consider the perfect past slot) there are signs that folks are learning toward a strong verb where a weak verb is considered standard. I have seen sunk/sank fairly often in the last few years. I was startled (and offended) when a columnist found “snuck” peculiar (as opposed to sneaked?), since I use it consistently. There are more than a few like this. When in doubt, I like to use the “stronger” sounding verb. Feel free to invent your own strong verbs if they sound right (or even if they only sound reasonable).

  • I heard it said years ago that the past simple form instead of the past participle in the present perfect was standard in East Midlands (UK) dialects of English. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this also applies to other regional varieties …

  • These mistakes hav been made for centuries. You can only keep noting the words rightly so that others can see them. I’m with Jonathan … sometimes I slip with and say “drank” when I should hav said “drunk” otherwise I tend to note old strong forms when writing that are now thought by most to be archaic … like “slidden”.

  • Then there’s the opposite problem of people saying (and I quote the way I’ve heard it in Birmingham), “I sin ya down the pub last week”!

  • Of course, no one laments or curses the changes that happened before they noticed them. “He has holpen me” has as close to vanished as a word can (it’s labeled archaic but I doubt anyone has actually said it in centuries”.

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