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The toughest verbs in English

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Oriental man looking confusedKieran McGovern considers why some verbs in English are so difficult for language learners to grasp and how they have changed (and continue to change) over time.

Here are the ten most heavily used verbs in the English language: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. Do you notice what they have in common? They are all irregular.

There are around 180 irregular verbs in English – a small fraction of the many thousands of regular ones. They punch above their weight*, however, making up 70% of the verbs in everyday use.

So how have these tricky customers evolved? And why are they so central to English?

The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has an interesting theory. He says that irregular verbs are “fossils of an Indo-European pre-historic language.” This had a regular rule in which one vowel replaced another.

Over time pronunciation changed. The “rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils.”

Irregular verbs are notoriously difficult for language learners – native speakers struggle with them, too. It takes children years to learn to use ‘spoke’ and not ‘speaked’. Some never learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything (as opposed to ‘wrote’). In fact many of the grammatical mistakes commonly made by native speakers – ‘we was’, ‘they done’ etc. – involve irregular verbs.

The number of commonly used irregular verbs is declining. Some die of natural causes.  Most modern children don’t know the word ‘cleave’ or that its past is ‘clove’. Nor are they likely to come across ‘abide’/’abode’. Other irregulars like ‘dream’ and ‘learn’ are gradually becoming regular. How long can ‘dreamt’ survive alongside ‘dreamed’?

As English becomes ever more international, the simpler verb forms become more dominant. Despite this, there is no danger of irregular verbs disappearing. Even before they learn to read most children can use 80 irregulars. They may not realise that ‘went’ originally came from ‘wend’ but nobody over the age of six seriously tries to replace it with ‘goed’.

The future is less promising for new irregular verbs. All new verbs in English are regular, including all new noun conversions: ‘I accessed’, ‘you emailed’. Even when an old verb takes a new meaning it uses a regular pattern – the army officer ‘rung’ his general but his men ‘ringed’ the city.

For a new irregular verb to survive it must offer some familiar pattern in how it works. One of the most recent irregulars is ‘sneak’/’snuck’, which you find in American English. In Britain we prefer ‘sneaked’ but ‘snuck’ is also logical because it follows the pattern of ‘strike’/’struck’.

What are your favourite irregulars? Which ones do you find hardest to remember?

*Punch above their weight – an idiom taken from boxing. It means to excel/over-perform.

Kieran has a new blog called English Language FAQs and you can follow him on Twitter (@eslreading).

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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17 thoughts on “The toughest verbs in English

  1. Nice Post!
    I really face difficulties with my students especially with irregular verbs .My students ask me always not to ask them about present perfect .They are afraid of regular verbs.
    Thanks

  2. Hardest to remember, considering meaning and pronunciation: lay-laid-laid (eg. She laid the baby) vs. lie-lay-lain (eg. My cat lay in front of the computer). =:o(

    • Read/read/read is hard, too, espec with pronunciation change. To confuse things even more the English town Reading is pronounced ‘red-ing’.

    • lie, lied, lied = not to tell the truth.
      You lied to me. / He lied about her.

      lie, lay, lain [Intransitive verb] = to be in a position in which your body is flat on the floor, on a bed, etc.
      He spends hours lying in the shade of that big tree.

      lay, laid, laid [Transitive] = put something down, lay bricks, lay eggs

      Mother (has) laid the table.

      • Just going to say, even though it may not be “correct” in a formal setting, most native speakers just use lay for both cases (as both the transitive and intransitive verb). Also, just because it is nonstandard does not mean it is incorrect, language changes, if you really think about it what we are speaking is very bad middle english which is in turn very bad old english and so on.

    • These are definitely hard to remember, Kuka. I’ve been a teacher for many years and I always have to look them up to make sure I’m using the right form.

  3. I think Pinker’s “theory” is a theory in the same sense that evolution is a theory. It’s kind of hard to dispute it empirically.

  4. I’m not qualified to judge, but though I’m a great admirer of Pinker (and others like Judith Rich Harris) I do have reservations about what you might call the ultra-Darwinist position as expressed by Dawkins and others.

    But I guess that leads on to a million other arguments.

    All best

    Kieran

  5. Well I am French raised 100% in French but I learnt them all with a lot of fun by using absurd memotechnic way.
    The most absurd it was the best I remembered them and I have to say it is still in my mind 15 years after…
    For instance thinking of the noise of a knitting needle when you knit knit knit etc.
    The fun part is to find your own one which by using them help almost up front to remember everything!
    If only my teacher were that fun we would have been the full classroom not only few to know them all!
    So just bring some fun please !

  6. I’d say one ‘new’ verb that can be irregular would be ‘text’. I’ve heard plenty of people use ‘text’ for both the present and past simple, though rarely as the past participle strangely.

  7. Really? For the past simple? That’s interesting. Suspect it might be a an affected dialect in some cases (as in ‘I ask him yesterday but will look out for this usage.

  8. Loved the posts. I just wanted to add a couple more to the list.
    What about rise(irregular versus raise (regular)? Not to mention verbs that can be irregular or regular depending on the meaning,for example: ring (make a call, ring a bell (irregular)opposed to ring, meaning encircle ,or ring an area (regular).

  9. Surely the Army officer rang his General?

  10. …and of course hung / hanged 🙂

  11. Well, these verbs really aren’t that hard. Swim swam and swum — It’s simple really. Just think about it. I’d rather think about how to conjugate swim in English than conjugate “être” in subjunctive tense in French. Piece of cake.

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