What are irregular verbs?

2 min read

Have you ever tried to teach someone English? You'll quickly discover it's easy to get tripped up as you attempt to explain this convoluted and complex language. Obstacles like silent letters, double meanings, and outdated grammar rules make this language a difficult one to navigate. Another obstacle that falls in that group is irregular verbs. These grammar anomalies have been lurking under your nose for years, and we’re finally going to highlight what they are and how to spot ‘em.

Irregular verbs and the past tense

Typically, it's correct to say that the past tense of a verb ends in an -ed. For example, “I drop the kids off in the morning” in the present tense becomes, “I dropped the kids off this morning.” Or, “I scrub the dishes until they’re clean,” in the present changes to “I scrubbed the dishes until they were clean” in the past tense. Those two letters added to the end of a word are a pretty good indicator of past tense.

But this rule only applies for a handful of verbs. And you get a word like speak. In the present tense, you’d say, “I speak too loud sometimes.” In the past tense, however, you would not say, “I speaked too loud.” Instead, you’d say, “I spoke too loud.”

Boom. You’ve just hit on an irregular verb. As you might have guessed, irregular verbs break the standard rule of ending in -ed.

To further confuse the issue, irregular verbs have no discernible pattern themselves. They're just, irregular. And irregular verbs are some of the most common verbs in our language. Like go, say, see, think, make, take, come, and know. These commonly-used words all take on different shapes in the past tense.

In general, irregular verbs are easy enough to spot in the past tense — if it doesn’t end in -ed, it’s irregular.

Spotting more irregular verbs

It’s still quite easy to get confused by irregular verbs, especially when you look at the difference between simple past tense and past participles.

For example, “Stacy drived to the public pool where she swum for hours.” Hopefully this sounds wrong to your ears, because it’s just an irregular mess.

There are two irregular verbs in this sentence, but neither example above is correct. The first is obvious – drived attempts to follow the regular verb -ed ending. It sounds awkward, because it’s not actually a word at all. The correct past tense is drove.

The second one is a little trickier. Swum is in fact a word, but it’s the past participle of swim, not the simple past, which would be swam.

So: “Stacy drove to the public pool where she swam for hours.”

But plot (or grammar) twist alert! There are some cases where using the past participle is pretty much interchangeable with the simple past tense of the irregular verb.

For example, “She lighted another cigarette” is just as acceptable as “She lit another cigarette.”

Test yourself: Which of these examples of irregular verbs are correct?

  1. She drunk the glass of water.
  2. The phone rung and rung.
  3. The pants shrunk in the dryer.

Answer: Only number three is correct. In one, the correct verb tense is drank, and in number two, the phone rang.

When in doubt, try looking up the past tense or past participle of the verb you’re dealing with to vanquish irregular verb troubles once and for all.

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