Studio Musings

Monday, June 29, 2015

Who Stole my Irregular Verbs?

Fair warning:  this is a totally random blog post about a crazy topic of purely personal interest.  Any one who's ever visited my home knows I'm an avid reader.  I love falling into other worlds, other lives through the pages of a book, and I've had a long-time love affair with the English language.  Most of all, I love beautifully written fiction where the language is part of the feast.  Over the past few years, I've noticed a disturbing trend.  The wonderful, eclectic, beautifully irregular past tenses of a number of verbs are disappearing from mainstream publishing!  Reading, "I hanged my hat on the hook by the door" makes me cringe.  It's just wrong:  wrong, wrong, wrong! 

In recent books, characters have hanged instead of hung, dreamed instead of dreamt, beholded instead of beheld, weaved instead of wove.   Beholded? Weaved?  Really?  Mrs Gates, my fifth grade teacher, would have made me rewrite my paper if I'd tried such a thing in her class! 

Interestingly, Blogger's spell check believes dreamed is correct, but cautions against beholded and dreamt (it has no opinion on weaved vs. wove).  The proper past tense of dream does depend upon context - 'I dreamt a lovely dream last night while sleeping', but 'dreamed of being a ballerina as a child'.  The lovely textual and contextual nuances of irregular verbs!  I find myself wondering, is this breakdown in the beauty and intricacy of the English language due to the tyranny of faulty spellcheck programs?  Of programers who didn't pay quite enough attention to their English teachers way back when?

I decided to try to find an answer and did a search "why are irregular verb past tenses disappearing?" I found several blog references to a Harvard study trying to mathematically model the regularization of irregular verbs based upon their frequency of usage.  Basically, the more often a particular verb is used, especially in its past tense, the less likely it is to be regularized.

That said, the study apparently gave 'be/was' and 'have/had' half-lives of 38,000 years!  Meanwhile they gave less commonly used irregular verbs, such as 'dive/dove' a half-life of 700 years.  What the blog post doesn't say is when the count started, because I hate to say it, but I've seen 'dived' in at least one of the books I've read recently (and Blogger's spell check accepted it, even if Mrs. Gates wouldn't have).  I wonder if the study looked at the potential for incompletely designed spell checks to regularize irregular verbs more quickly?  Also, I wasn't able to find a link to the original study, so I can't say that I've actually read it myself. 

So I wonder, am I the only one who 'corrects' the past tense of irregular verbs as she reads?  I find I enjoy my reading far more if I substitute my favorite irregular tenses for the regularized versions appearing on the page. 

While 'researching' this topic over the weekend, I did find a wonderful list of English Irregular Verbs.   Don't worry if you don't see your favorite irregular verb on the list.   While this is the most comprehensive list I've found, it seems that none of the lists are truly complete.  If you look at multiple lists of irregular verbs, you'll likely find yours among them. 


  1. In a book I read recently, someone "laid down on the bed." But I suspect this is more a result of the pervasive misuse of the words lie/lay in the present tense than a past tense problem.