Teaching English Irregular Verbs

In teaching irregular verbs, it is always best to begin by defining regular verbs.  Verbs can be easily broken down into their three usable forms: the present form, the past form, and the past participle form.  Imagining the blanks to be any action or state of being, say to your students: today I _____; yesterday I _____; all week long I have _____.

Hence: today I walk to school; yesterday I walked to school; all week long I have walked to school.  The three forms of walk are walk, walked, and walked.  The past and past participle forms are arrived at by merely adding “ed” to the present form.  In the case of some verbs, it is necessary to change an ending “y” to “i” and add “ed”, as in I studied hard for the test or tried hard to do my best.

Regardless, regular verbs are easy.  You just add “ed” and avoid such catastrophes as studyed, tryed, amplifyed, etc.  Now, irregular verbs are a whole other matter.  Their past and past participle forms follow no particular pattern (hence the term “irregular”).  These puppies have to be memorized, but don’t use the word “memorize” with your students.  Half of them will glaze over and the other half will commit suicide.

It is probably better to say one simply has to “know” these forms.  Supposing your students know how to speak English (a questionable proposition, I grant you), ask them to use their “ear” to determine what is correct.  This doesn’t work when teaching English as a second language.  Other languages make a lot more sense than English, and the “ear” test relies upon a familiarity with England’s mother tongue (and her many, many children).

Consider the difficulties. If ring, rang, rung is correct; and sing, sang, sung is correct; why isn’t bring, brang, brung correct?  In vain I have sought to tell some students that “brought” is the correct term for the past and past participle forms. They brung me a different opinion.  (I should mention that I live in the southeastern United States.)  Then I brought up swing, swung, swung; and sting, stung, stung.  Their derisive response really stang.

If you want a more nationwide dilemma, try to explain the difference between “saw” and “seen”.  Today I see; yesterday I saw; all week long I have seen.  Yet I constantly hear stories that involve such sentences as, “I seen it with my own eyes,” and “He seen a bear so he loaded his gun.” I explain that he saw a bear, and the response is, “Well, he saw what he seen, and that’s a fact.”  Correctly, “seen” is never used without a helping verb (has, have, had, etc.).  Incorrectly, it is so commonly used in place of “saw” that a lot of people don’t know the difference.  I have encountered outright disbelief that “I seen my friend yesterday” isn’t correct.

There isn’t an easy method to remedy this.  It has to be explained carefully to someone willing to listen.  And that person has to learn and remember the correct forms.  I still have to prick myself to remember that “I have swum a mile without stopping.”  Actually, “swam” has become so commonly used that you would think it is acceptable as the past participle, but it isn’t.  Today I swim, yesterday I swam, all week long I have swum.  “Have swam” is just as incorrect as “I seen”.  A similar problem occurs with “have drank” which of course should be “have drunk”.  How do you teach this stuff other than just saying, “Learn it!”?

Keep a sense of humor.  Make jokes about it.  Today I bear a burden; yesterday I bore it (I’m probably boring you right now); all week long I have borne it.  I knowed you weren’t going to want to hear this. Pardon me, knew.  Have known.

 I have a B.S. degree in education with thirty-six semester hours of English credit, and people still think I don’t know any better when I say, “I knowed that.”  I say it as a joking imitation of some of my less educated neighbors and people sincerely correct me, not realizing it’s a joke.

Bite, bit, bitten.  Write, wrote, written.  Smite, smote, smitten (rarely used except as an adjective: “He was immediately smitten with her,”).  Or when reading about King Arthur or Robin Hood: “He smote the villain a crushing blow.”  Spit, spat, spitten?  No, spit, spat, spat.  But some very accomplished writers use “spit” for the past tense “spat”.  “Infuriated by the scoundrel’s behavior, John spit in his direction.”  It should have been “spat”, but not many textbooks concern themselves with such words.

Which brings up a sidebar topic for adults only: the indecent word meaning to defecate: sh*t, sh*t, sh*t.  Only once in my life have I heard a person – describing a past experience – say that a cat “sh*t” down her leg, using the ‘a’ (she was an English teacher).  One would assume that the past tense would follow the example of “spit”, but not necessarily.  Especially since we can’t seem to agree on the past and past participle forms of “spit”, sit, sat, sat, notwithstanding.

This forum (Helium) does not provide a convenient format for listing the principle parts of verbs in columns.  Good text books are available.  It can be fun to compile your own list with a class of students by calling out the present form of various verbs and letting the students provide the other two forms.

Ultimately, it just has to be accepted that the inconsistencies that exist – sang and rang but no brang nor stang – are just quirks of English like some plurals: mouse/mice and louse/lice but not house/hice nor spouse/spice (there’s a mature joke in that one).  Goose/geese but not moose/meese.  English is just weird that way.