17) Regular and Irregular verbs

Regular and Irregular verbs

All verbs can be put into either the category of regular or irregular verbs. This is based on the way they take their base form (form in the dictionary) and change it into the past tense and the past participle.

1) Regular verbs

Regular verbs form their past tense and past participle in the ‘regular’ way, which is usually by taking the base form of the verb and adding ‘d’, ‘ed’ or ‘ied’ onto the end. This also means the past participle and past tense forms of the verb are always the same. The base form of the verb is the verb we see in the dictionary, the past tense is the form we use to create the simple past tense, and the past participle is the form used to create the perfect tenses, or it can sometimes be used as an adjective, modifying a noun.

Let’s take a look at an example where we add ‘ed’ onto the end to form the simple past tense and past participle:

Base form of verb: want (e.g., ‘I want some food.’)

Simple past tense: wanted (e.g., ‘I wanted some food.’)

Past participle: wanted (e.g., He is a wanted man.’)

Here we have the base verb ‘want’ and its past tense and past participle ‘wanted’. Note how ‘wanted’ is being used to talk about a past event in the past tense example, and is being used as an adjective modifying the noun ‘man’ in the past participle example. Also note how both are formed in the same way: by adding ‘ed’ onto the end. This is the case for a majority of regular verbs, but there are some exceptions.

If the verb has one syllable and ends with a consonant – vowel – consonant we double the consonant and then add ‘ed’ onto the end. For example:

Base form of verb: stop (e.g., ‘Please stop shouting.’)

Simple past tense: stopped (e.g., ‘I stopped singing.’)

Past participle: stopped (e.g., ‘I had stopped singing before she arrived.’)

Here we have the base form ‘stop’ which has one syllable, and ends with consonant (t) vowel (o) consonant (p). Therefore, we have taken the final consonant (p) in ‘stop’, doubled it and added ‘ed’ to give the past tense and past participle form ‘stopped’ (A quick side note here is that the past participle example is forming the perfect past tense, which is formed by ‘had’ + the past participle, and is often used to talk about a completed event in the past which occurred before another event).

As is often the case with spelling rules, this rule has some exceptions. If the consonant at the end is ‘w’, ‘x’ or ‘y’ then we don’t double it. For example:

Base form of verb: fix (e.g., I can fix it.’)

Simple past tense: fixed (e.g., ‘I fixed it.’)

Past participle: fixed (e.g., ‘I had fixed the car before the crash.’)

Here we have the base form ‘stop’ which has one syllable, and ends with consonant (f) – vowel (i) – consonant (x), but which the final consonant is ‘x’, so we don’t double it, instead just adding ‘ed’ to get ‘the past tense and past participle form ‘fixed’. A similar example using ‘y’ is ‘stay’ becoming ‘stayed’ – rather than ‘stayyed’ – and with ‘w’ is ‘sew’ becoming ‘sewed’, rather than ‘sewwed’.

But what about words which end in consonant – vowel – consonant that have more than one syllable? The rule is that if the base form of the verb has more than one syllable, and the last syllable is stressed, then you double the consonant. For example:

Base form of verb: transfer (e.g., ‘I will transfer the money to you tomorrow.’)

Simple past tense: transferred (e.g., ‘I transferred the money yesterday.’)

Past participle: transferred (e.g., ‘I had transferred the money before you came.’)

Here we have the base form ‘transfer’ which ends in consonant (f) – vowel (e) – consonant (r) and has more than one syllable, with the last syllable stressed. Therefore, we take the final consonant (f), double it and add ‘ed’ to get ‘transferred’.

However, if the base form of the verb ends in consonant-vowel-consonant, and has more than one syllable, but the last syllable is not stressed, then you don’t double the consonant, as in:

Base form of verb: happen (e.g., ‘When did that happen to you?’)

Simple past tense: happened (e.g., ‘What happened last night?’)

Past participle: happened (e.g., ‘It will have happened before we arrive.’)

Here we have the base form ‘happen’ which ends consonant (p) – vowel (e) – consonant (n) and has more than one syllable, but the stress is on the first syllable. Therefore, we don’t double the consonant (As a side note, the past participle example here is creating the perfect present tense, which is formed by ‘have/has’ + the past participle, and is often used to talk about an event that started in the past, but is often still going on in the present).

Using stress in these examples does cause some problems because sometimes a word can have the stress at the beginning when it is an adjective, but at the end when used as a verb. Our earlier example of ‘transfer’ is one such word. ‘Transfer’ is pronounced with the first syllable stressed, as in ‘TRANSfer’ when used as an adjective, or noun, whereas it is pronounced with the final syllable stressed, as in transFER, when it is used as a verb. The reason this gives a problem to the rule is that the past participle can work as an adjective, as in the sentence:

The transferred money will be returned tomorrow.

In this sentence the past participle of ‘transfer’ – ‘transferred’ – is being used to modify the noun ‘money’, making it an adjective. However, as just mentioned, ‘transfer’ is pronounced with the first syllable stressed when it is an adjective – as in ‘TRANSfer’. This means that we are dealing with a word which ends in consonant (f) – vowel (e) – consonant (r), and has more than one syllable, but which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable; therefore, the rule would say it shouldn’t have the final consonant (r) doubled. However, in practice, it does.

There also other exceptions in relation to doubling which don’t fit under any particular rule. For example ‘kidnap’ becomes ‘kidnapped’ even though the first syllable is stressed.

At this point it is worth remembering that not all words end in a consonant – vowel – consonant. For example:

Base form of verb: Present (e.g., ‘I will present the certificate during the ceremony.’)

Simple past tense: Presented (e.g., ‘I presented the certificate an hour ago.’)

Past participle: Presented (e.g., ‘I had presented the certificates before she arrived.’)

Here we have the base form ‘present’ which has more than one syllable, and the final syllable is stressed, but it ends in vowel (e) – consonant (n) – consonant (t) rather than consonant – vowel – consonant – so it doesn’t follow the rule. As a quick side note, just in case this is causing confusion, ‘present’ has the first syllable stressed when it is a noun, and the last when it is a verb.

In British English there is also sometimes an exception for words ending in ‘l’ which says the ‘l’ should be doubled if they end in consonant – vowel – consonant and have more than one syllable, whether they are stressed, or unstressed. For example:

Base form of verb: travel (e.g., ‘I travel regularly.’)

Simple past tense: travelled (e.g., ‘I travelled for miles to get here.’)

Past participle: travelled (e.g., ‘I had travelled all the way there before the phone call.’)

Here we have the base form ‘travel’ which ends in consonant (v) – vowel (e) – consonant (l) and has more than one syllable, but the first syllable is stressed, rather than the last. However, despite this, at least in British English, it is usually spelt ‘travelled’.

The next rule is that all verbs that end in ‘e’ simply have ‘d’ on the end. For example:

Base form of verb: move (e.g., ‘I move faster than you.’)

Simple past tense: moved (e.g., ‘I moved before him.’)

Past participle: moved (e.g., ‘I had moved already.’)

Here we have the base form ‘move’ and its past tense and past participle form ‘moved’ where we just add ‘d’ onto the end because ‘move’ ends in ‘e’.

We also see ‘ked’ added to verbs which end in ‘c’. For example:

Base form of verb: traffic (e.g., ‘Their goal was to traffic drugs through the border.’)

Simple past tense: trafficked (e.g., ‘They trafficked drugs through the border.’)

Past participle: trafficked (e.g., ‘The trafficked drugs were found in the basement.’)

Finally, in regular verbs that end in a consonant + ‘y’ we remove the ‘y’ and add ‘ied’. For example:

Base form of verb: try (e.g., ‘I try very hard every day.’)

Simple past tense: tried (e.g., ‘I tried to tell you not to eat them.’)

Past participle: tried (e.g., ‘I had tried to him not to eat them before.’)

An example with more syllables is ‘exemplify’ becoming ‘exemplified’.

If in doubt, spellings can be found by searching for the base form in a dictionary. Also, this seems a good resource for quickly finding the spellings.

There are more regular than irregular verbs in the language; however, the irregular verbs are more commonly used. Let’s look at them next.

2) Irregular verbs

The simple past tense and past participles of irregular verbs are not formed in the ‘regular’ way, making them unpredictable to spell. The simple past tense and past participle forms of the verb also sometimes have a different spelling. For example:

Base form of verb: arise (e.g., ‘I arise from bed every morning.’)

Simple past tense: arose (e.g., ‘I arose from bed this morning.’)

Past participle: arisen (e.g., ‘I had arisen from bed before they came over.’)

Here we have the base form of the verb ‘arise’ which becomes ‘arose’ for the past simple tense and ‘arisen’ for the past participle. Note that these don’t follow any of the rules we saw in regular verbs. The past simple tense and past participle forms of ‘arise’ are also different, which is something not seen in regular verbs. We should remember that this isn’t always the case for irregular verbs though. For example:

Base form of verb: bring (e.g., ‘I bring my guitar every time.’)

Simple past tense: brought (e.g., ‘I brought my guitar every time.’)

Past participle: brought (e.g., ‘I had brought my guitar every time.’)

Here, the simple past tense and past participle of ‘bring’ are both ‘brought’ which also does not follow any of the regular verb rules.

In fact, some irregular verbs have the same form for the base, past simple and past participle. For example:

Base form of verb: read (e.g., ‘I read novels regularly.’)

Past tense: read (e.g., ‘I read the novel last night.’)

Past participle: read (e.g., ‘I had read the novel weeks before her.’)

Note that ‘read’ is pronounced with a short vowel ‘e’ – ‘rĕd’ – in the base form example, and with a long vowel ‘e’ – ‘rēd’ – in the past tense and past participle examples.

One confusing aspect to add to the mix is that some base verbs have both regular and irregular forms. A common one is:

Base form of verb: learn (e.g., ‘I learn everything slowly.’)

Regular past simple tense (in Britain) learnt (e.g., ‘I learnt that subject slowly.’)

Irregular past simple tense (in US) learned (e.g., ‘I learned that subject slowly.’)

Regular past participle (in Britain): learnt (e.g., ‘I had learnt everything by summer.’)

Irregular past participle (In US): learned (e.g., ‘I had learned everything by summer.’)

Here we see that ‘learn’ can take on a regular form, by adding ‘ed’ on the end giving us ‘learned’. This is common in the US. However, in Britain, the irregular form ‘learnt’ is more common.

Irregular verbs are the most common verbs, even though there are more regular verbs overall. Really common verbs like ‘be’ ‘have’ and ‘do’ are all irregular verbs, making it unsurprising irregular verbs are the most common.

3) Questions

1) What is a regular verb?

2) What is an irregular verb?

Now that we have seen regular and irregular verbs, let’s move on to look at the different ways that verbs are inflected.

NEXT: 18) Verb inflection

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