Tag Archives: grammar

But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

The English language is a glorious bastard child. Like the English themselves, its words and grammar are the result of the promiscuous and incestuous interbreeding that has been going on since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes decided that they’d like an island vacation rather than sprawl out topless on the beaches of 5th century Europe – just as their current descendants do. Add to the mix the vocabulary of the Picts and Scots, along with a smattering of the ancient Welsh and Irish, and you’ve got yourself a language that turns out to be more wanton and debauched than a Roman orgy hosted by Caligula in a particularly creative mood.

As a result of this linguistic licentiousness, speech pathologists and English Language teachers find themselves having to teach a host of irregular, eccentric, and downright capricious words and grammatical structures. And there’s no finer example of this than something we call “the irregular verbs.” In fact, the very name “irregular verbs” tells us all we need to know; that here is a bunch of words so odd that we’ve just given up on them and tossed them into a huge bucket labeled “irregular.”

Irregular verbs cartoonOccasionally, you might hear the uncomfortable question…

“But Miss, Miss, Miss, why is it went and not goed? Why is it saw not seed? And why can’t I say taked instead of took?”

As pragmatists, 99% of us will just say, “Because it is” and then focus on the job at hand – teaching the exception to the rule. But 1% of us – and I count me as “one of us” – really does wonder “But why IS it went and saw and took rather than goed and seed and taked?” After all, when we invent a new verb such as to google or to tweet, it only takes a few weeks until folks have googled and tweeted or maybe even Facebooked. We know the rules; we apply the rules; we’re done!

Well, much as we all like to think we are hip, modern, trendy, and capable of being innovative game-changers who think outside of the box and shake up current thinking, as far as language goes, we’re tied to our undeniable linguistic history – the ghosts of the philological past are still haunting our etymological present. And like prehistoric flies trapped in amber, some of the words we use are really just fossils from an earlier age.

Back in the mid 1990s, Eva Grabowski and Dieter Mindt published a paper [1] that listed the most frequently used irregular verbs. They didn’t just sit in an office and google “most frequently used irregular verbs” but went back to basics and used the data from two pretty big (at the time) corpora: The BROWN corpus of American English [2], and the LOB corpus of British English [3]. Using real data rather than the “best guesses” of lexicographers was a huge step forward. For those of you who like FREE STUFF, you can click below to get a PDF copy of the top 100 irregular verbs by frequency. And why would you want it? Well, if you’re going to teach irregulars, starting with those used most makes a lot of sense.

Link to 100 most frequent irregular versb100 most frequently used irregular verbs

So let’s take the top of the list item, the verb to say, and crack open the amber to extract its etymological DNA.

Old English, and its Germanic predecessors, had more verb forms than modern English. Today, if you invent a new verb, such as to twerk, you only need to add three different endings to make it sound right: +s, +ing, or +ed.

“Miley can twerk, She twerks too much. Yesterday she twerked, I think she’s twerking too much.”

But Old English was a much tougher, with most verbs having around 14 different forms. And some verbs were strong while others were weak. It wasn’t that the strong ones would bully the weaker ones but the strong verbs would change their forms in a much more dramatic fashion than the punier weak ones. A strong verb would change its base form by muscling in new vowels. A commonly cited example of a strong verb is to sing, where you get sing, sang, and sung, with each form differing by the vowel [4]. Similarly ring, rang, and rung, or swim, swam, and swum. In contrast, the reason weak verbs are so-called is because they merely add an ending to their base form rather than man-up and ram those new vowels between the consonants.

I’m over-simplifying a little. There’s something of a sliding scale from “very strong” to “milquetoast weak,” and Old English scholars talk about 7 classes of strong verbs and 3 classes of weak ones. You have to think that with such a complex system, being a grammar teacher back in the 5th century CE must have paid more than it does today.

Having just explained the distinction between strong and weak verbs [5], take a look again at the verb to say. Is it strong or weak? Well, it’s so weak I’m surprised it hasn’t locked itself in a bathroom for fear of being hassled by to begin and to go! All that happens is that a /d/ sound gets added to the base form of /seɪ/, and the vowel changes ever-so-slightly by getting a tad shorter to leave /sɛd/. It’s technically from an Old English Class 3 weak verb that began life as secgan, meaning “to say,” and now has the pitiful pair of say/said left.

Number two on the list of irregulars, to make, is really pretty similar to to say, and so we should skip hastily on to the much more interesting to go, which has the disarmingly bizarre went as one of its forms. Why not, indeed, *goed?

Well, Old English did, in fact, have a *goedeode. But there was also another verb around in the 5th century that meant “to wander around or go slowly,” and that was wendan. You still hear people talk about “wending their way around” but other than that, the word wend is pretty rare. So between Old English and Middle English (that’s between the 5th and 15th centuries) the word oede got pushed out by wend, the past tense of wendan, and the devoicing of that final /d/ sound to a /t/ gave us the now-familiar went. For those who are geekily curious, this is called suppletion in the world of historical linguistics, and it’s where one word is used as the inflected form of another, but where both words come from different origins. Ever wonder why things go from bad to worse – or worst? Suppletion. Or why things go from good to better and best? Suppletion. Hey, it’s not just a verb thing!

Before I wind up this work and wend my weary way to bed, there’s one other question that might still be nagging at you; why is it these particular irregulars that are irregular and not others? Why say, and make, and go, and come, and take, and see…? It’s because of their frequency! When we started shifting from using those many different types of strong/weak verbs in Old English to the more relaxed syntax of “+s,” “+ing,” and “+ed,” the words that were used most  often had a built-in inertia – a resistance to change. We very easily – and perhaps it’s better to say unconsciously – take new verbs like tweet and twerk and add those three endings to them, but if we wanted to change went to goed [6] or see to seed, we’d have a harder time because it just sounds so wrong! So although we know that many new words are coined and used every day, there’s a core of  thousands of other words that are protected from change by a lexical inertia that anchors them firmly into our language and presents a formidable resistance to change.

So next time you’re focusing on teaching the irregulars, just remember that you’re also providing a small but fascinating lesson on the history of the English language!

[1] Grabowski, Eva & Mindt, Dieter (1995. “A corpus-based learning list of irregular verbs in English.” ICAME Journal 19, 5-22.

[2] Francis, W. Nelson, Kucera, Henry, & Mackie, Andrew W. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage : lexicon and grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Hofland, Knut, & Johannson, Stig (1982). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computing Center for the Humanities, Bergen, Norway: Longman.

[4] Using vowel variation as a form of morphology is called ablaut. It’s from the German prefix ab- meaning “out of” or “away from” and laut meaning “sound.” So it refers to that notion of taking a sound away and replacing it with another.

[5] In today’s era of political correctness with the insistence on not hurting anyone’s feelings – ever, I can see the day coming when there will be pressure to re-define strong and weak verbs as robust versus relaxed. In that way, verbs like to chant and to hum no longer have to feel threatened by to sing.

[6] As every parent knows, kids will, in fact, quite happily “regularize” irregular forms when they are learning to talk. It is not unusual for kids to actually use irregular forms like went before they use regular, but erroneous, forms like goed. This overregularization is, in a sense, a good thing because it shows that a kiddo is learning to apply the more common rules of morphology – even if the words are technically wrong.

Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Mark Durham, we made a couple of corrections to the original text on 5/14/15; n two instances. we originally published tweak and here instead of twerk and hear. Both of these illustrate that relying solely on the built-in WordPress spell checker has some risks. It is, of course, better than not using it at all, but because both tweak and here are “good” words, the spell checker happily leaves them alone. So the teachable moment is “treat your spell checker as a friend who offers suggestions but not necessarily all the answers.”

In Defense of the Grammar Nazi

Watching television is often a complete waste of time and a total abdication of Life. I admit that I suffer from anguish, shame, and guilt if I’ve just spent three hours viewing re-runs of Family Guy, Frasier, and Bar Rescue, so I’m as guilty as the rest of the world when it comes to Couch Potato Syndrome [1].

Nevertheless, if you try really hard, you can turn your sin into a virtue by questioning what you’re seeing and thinking about how it applies to what you should be doing instead. And one of my more recent observations has been in relation to attitudes towards “skills” and “expertise.” So let’s start with one of my favorite gripes – the Celebrity Chef.


Chef: Fuurin Kazan Chef in Black and White (http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/444939001/) / CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Americans in general seem to love watching people in conflict. I dare say that almost every “reality show” is predicated on the need to see people fighting while trying to live on an island, etching tattoos, singing, dancing, or even, for goodness sake, baking a cake! (“You’re going down, punk, when I whip your ass with this amazing fondue!”) The more spiteful and bitter the contestants, the better the ratings. Rome had the Coliseum with gladiators and Christians; we have cable TV with hosts and contestants.

But what all of these shows include is the Expert who exemplifies the target skill; the master who can turn something mundane and mindless into a work of sheer brilliance. Celebrity Chefs are such people. For them, the difference between a winning dish and one that has them vomiting into a bucket is whether the cook added two bay leaves or three.  And woe betide anyone who should cook a steak for 3 seconds too long – because there lies the way to the door. Fundamentally, the message that is being sold to us here is that the fine attention to minuscule details is what make a chef a great chef.

And we all sort of accept that.

Meanwhile, over in the sports arena, the same message is being played, except that the skill here is seen in the slightest of motions and the briefest of actions. In golf, putting just an inch too short of the hole is a miss that could have been avoided if just the merest of extra effort had gone into hit. In swimming, that last kick while extending the finger tips to touch the wall is the difference between a gold medal and nothing. In baseball, a two degree extra angle when the batter hits the ball can mean the difference between a World Series and a long, quiet flight home. And in basketball, that extra tap to push the ball an extra inch over the edge of the hoop can turn a player from good to legendary.

And we all sort of accept this.

Now consider the reaction at work I get when someone says, “So which of these two designs is the best?” and I reply with, “Er, better. It’s the comparative, not the superlative. If we had three choices, we could have a best.” Does this “attention to detail” come across as acceptable? Is this modest defense of some sort of standard seen as the equivalent of Gordon Ramsey tossing a whole plate of food into the trash because the color of the scallop is browner than he thinks tolerable? [2]

Nope. Any attempt at being precise in the use of language is seen instantly as nothing more than bourgeois pedantry, trivial snobbery, or the action of a Grammar Nazi [3]. Just take a look at any discussion thread on the Internet related to some issue of language use and within six or seven responses the level of argument will have dropped to name calling and attacks on anyone who tries to be in any way linguistically precise. There’s a good chance that even you, dear reader, are already feeling the pressure to trot out the “But language is always changing” argument in defense of anyone who seems to be having a hard time using their first language as their first language! When Sarah Palin used the word “refudiate,” rather than ‘fess up that she’d made a mistake, she actually tried to argue that she was no different from Shakespeare who “liked to make up words!” Sarah Palin as Shakespeare! And George W. Bush was the new Cicero.

Now before some of you have collective heart attacks and click repeatedly on the “Comments” button, let me be clear that I am NOT suggesting that everyone has to talk proper, avoid splitting infinitives, never use “their” when “there” is the right word, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, or stab themselves in the eye if they say “irregardless.” No, we know that oral language is frequently dysfluent, peppered with errors, given to jumping from topic to topic, and studded with words whose meanings can be slippier than a bucket of eels in olive oil. And written language can be similarly dotted with misarticulations (“nyoo kyoo luh” for nuclear anyone?), spelling mistakes, wandering apostrophes, malapropisms [4], and just plain unreadable rubbish.

Where the disjunct appears is that while people will accept a Ramsey tantrum to defend standards in cookery, a Simon Cowell insult in defense of musical talent, or Tyra Banks tossing out some poor unfortunate judged not good enough to be America’s Next Top Model, they see no value whatsoever in the idea that there may be some standards in the use of the English language.

A big part of why this happens is that we are all, in our own heads, experts at language. After all, we’ve been speaking it all our lives so we must be experts. So how dare some self-appointed, smug-faced, pedantic, “no-life” critic tell ME that I used the wrong word… or can’t spell… or know my own language.

It’s a manifestation of the well-known difference between knowing a language and knowing about a language. And knowing about language is not regarded as a skill or expertise in the same way that knowing about cookery, golf, basketball, singing, tattooing, baking cakes, surviving on an island, or any other such endeavor is viewed.

In a recent post at Gizmodo, Casey Chain pointed out that Google’s definition of the word literally now includes the following definition:

Used to acknowledge something that is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to indicate strong feeling

Words do, of course, change meaning over time – less than 40 years ago being gay had nothing to do with sexuality – but there is nothing “pedantic” or “petty” about taking a stand to prefer one definition over another. In fact, the failure to try to preserve a word’s meaning can lead to it being totally hijacked by special interest groups.  Take the word socialized as in “socialized medicine.” Here’s a word that has been used particularly by the political right because it sounds close to socialist and serves to taint the very concept of “free health care” as being somehow close to communism – and you don’t support communism, do you? Listen to any Talk Radio show and you’ll hear it being used in the pejorative sense by all right-wing commentators, whereas left-wingers are more likely to talk about “affordable health care” or just “health care.” It’s a good example of where allowing a word’s meaning to change ends up with it becoming pejorative; like gay, or queen, or fag – all of which have slid from having a non-pejorative, non-sexual meaning to become almost taboo [5].

So unfashionable as it may be to talk about things such as “standards” and “norms,” it is possible to be fully aware of the evolutionary nature of language while at the same time taking some effort to protect some of the features that keep the system rich and fascinating without letting it degenerate into an “anything goes” mish-mash of rough words strung loosely together with no thought for the comprehensibility, flow, phrasing, and even beauty of language.

And after all;

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

[1] The saddest and most soul-destroying conclusion that one can come to is that it’s not just the watching of TV shows that is pointless but that one is watching the same thing over and over! With an average four-score years and ten alloted to our miserable time on the earth, depression can really set in when you realize that this is the tenth time you’ve seen Peter Griffin try to flip a dead frog out of the window, and it’s still funny. I guess when I’m lying on my death-bed about to croak, I’ll think, “Gee, if I’d only skipped those re-runs I’d have another few years to live.”

[2] Even the term “Grammar Nazi” itself illustrates the negative regard people have toward those who want to pay attention to those details that make language special and interesting. A Google search for the phrase turns up over 2 million instances, and Wikipedia provides the definition, “A Grammar Nazi is a common term used on the internet and on social websites for an individual noticing a grammatical mistake and correcting obsessively. ‘Grammar Nazis’ usually correct any punctuation or spelling errors they find in a comment or post. British comedians Mitchell and Webb have an interesting take on the Grammar Nazi.

[3] It seems to be de rigueur for celebrity chefs to be loud mouthed and arrogant, so much so that contestants in cookery contests appear to have developed these qualities before actually learning to cook. Thus the pleasure in watching these types of show is as much about seeing pride going before a fall as it is about having any genuine interest in a winner.

[4] A malapropism is where someone uses a wrong word that is phonetically  similar to the intended one. Examples of malapropisms would included “Magellan circumvented the world” for circumnavigated; “He was wearing a turbine on his head” instead of turban; and “When a baby’s born you have to cut the biblical cord” instead of umbilical.

[5] For those curious, the word gay appears to have taken on its meaning of homosexual in the 1920’s. At the end of the 1700’s it was used as a euphemism to describe a female prostitute – a “gay lady.” Queen was first used as slang to refer to male homosexuals way back in 1729 (“Where have you been you saucy Queen? If I catch you Strouling and Caterwauling, I’ll beat the Milk out of your Breasts I will so.” From the book Hell upon earth: or the town in an uproar. Occasion’d by the late horrible scenes of forgery, perjury, street-robbery, murder, sodomy, and other shocking impieties.) Finally, fag (or faggot) comes from US slang in the early 1920’s, most likely by way of its use of a term of abuse for a woman in the 1840’s.