English Corner: Shrink, Shrank, Shrunk – know your verbs

It’s well known that if you want to learn French or Italian you have to memorise many different forms of the verb, while in English, regular verbs have only four forms: walk, walks, walked, walking.

The stem (the part that you add things to) remains the same.

Irregular verbs may have two or three different stems: swim, swam, swum. The vowel changes because English is a Germanic language, and changing the vowel is an important part of their grammar.

In English, as usual, we have kept only bits and pieces of this: broad, the noun is breadth; mouse, the plural is mice. Other bits we’ve thrown away or lost, which is why some irregular verbs have ended up with only one form: put-put-put; hit-hit-hit; set-set-set.

Irregular verbs are one of the last things to be mastered by children learning English. Many times a child coming home has said: “Mummy, we swimmed in the sea today.” And many times Mummy has corrected: “No dear, you swam in the sea.”

But Mummies and Daddies don’t always pay attention, so it’s not surprising that irregular verbs tend, over time, to become regular. The past of work used to be wrought: “They wrought all day in the sun.”

We don’t say that any more, but we still talk about wrought iron, iron that has been worked into a pattern. The past of draw used to be draught, and someone who draws up plans is still a draughtsman.

More surprisingly, regular verbs can also become irregular.

In Standard American English the past of dive is now dove (rhymes with grove,) and the past of sneak is snuck: brand new irregular verbs.

Myself, I am going to keep saying dived and sneaked, but the funny thing is this: the first time I ever heard the word snuck I realised at once that it was the past tense of sneak.

How did I know?

It doesn’t follow any pattern: the past of speak is spoke, not spuck. And how (and why) did millions of Americans gradually decide to say: “He snuck back into the house?”