Verbs like “chanter” have “sang” and “sang”; verbs like “swing” have “swang” and “swung”. The motive differs only in the past.
OPINION: Several readers ask why some people say He rang me rather than He called me. The story is complex, but perfectly understandable.
English verbs have three distinct parts: an infinitive (like to eat), a past tense form (like eat) and a past participle (like eat). All other shapes can be deduced from these three. In most English verbs, the past and past participle are the same, and this is true for all regular verbs (such as walk-walk-walk) which constitute the majority of all verbs, and many irregular verbs (such as fed fed).
All other things being equal, we expect the past tense and past participle to be the same, but other things are not always equal.
There are many irregular verb patterns out there, and most of them are much less predictable. To take To took and taken, while to wake up To wake up and wake up and to cook is regular. Because so many verbs are unpredictable, speakers vary in the forms they assign to a number of verbs.
* Language Matters: Kiwi metaphors of Covid-19
* Language matters: the known and the unknown
* Language Matters: The label “native speaker” has a problematic history
English users don’t know if knit and suck are regular or irregular; there are several verbs that are regular in American English but irregular in British English (verbs like to burn, to learn, spoil) and some verbs have different forms in different styles or levels of formality.
For example, to come is widespread as a past tense form as well as the past participle wherever English is spoken, although it is rarely formally written. Most people don’t know what the past participle of stride is: stride, stride, walked with great strides and stride everything rings wrong.
Even if wing is regular and to bring is very irregular, most verbs that rhyme with to bring (or even that sound a bit like that) fits into one of the two models. Verbs like to sing have sang and sung; verbs like swing have balance and balance. The motive differs only in the past. The history of English shows some variation between the two patterns in the same verb, and shrink can still be found in either Standard English model.
In the modern norm, verbs like to sing are to start, to drink, ring, to sing, sink, to swim and Course. Verbs like swing are cling, to throw, sling, stealthy, to stick on, prick, string of characters, swing, to win, twist and possibly, at least in (parts of) the United States, to glide and sneak – although these look a little less to bring.
There are two things to note about these lists. The first is that there are more verbs like swing that like to sing. The second is that verbs like swing correspond to the preference to have the past and past participle the same.
Given the lack of predictability of these verbs in general, any means that make it easier to guess the correct form is desirable. If in doubt, the majority model (majority in the sense that it covers more verbs and corresponds to the more general model) is likely to prevail. In fluent English, the sing-sang-sang pattern has almost disappeared and has been replaced by the swing-swing-swing model.
In formal writing, there are still two distinct models. But don’t bet that they will both persist into the future. It’s only a matter of time before the word He rang me also becomes the normal written form.
Laurie Bauer is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, where he taught for 40 years. He is the author of over 20 books on linguistic topics and winner of the 2017 Royal Society of New Zealand’s Humanities / Aronui Medal.
Language Matters is a bimonthly language column. Readers are encouraged to send questions to the authors at [email protected] Not all questions will be answered.