Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
English Irregular verbs
English has 283 irregular verbs, believed to be the most of any widely spoken contemporary language.
Almost all irregular English verbs do not conform to standard methods of forming past participles and/or past tenses. With these verbs other conjunctions and inflections — such as the present 3rd person singular -s or -es, and present participle -ing — broadly follow the same rules of spelling as the regular verbs.
The exceptions are the verb to be and also defective verbs which cannot be conjugated into certain tenses.
All English irregular verbs are native, originating in Old English. They also tend to be the most commonly used verbs. The ten most commonly used verbs in English are all irregular.
All loanwords from foreign languages are regular. So are verbs that have been recently coined and all nouns used as verbs use standard suffixes. Almost all of the least commonly used words are also regular, even though some of them may have been irregular in the past.
Formation of irregular verbs
Most irregular verbs exist as remnants of historical conjugation systems. What is today an exception actually followed a set, normal rule long ago. When that rule fell into disuse, some verbs kept the old conjugation. An example of this is the word kept, which before the Great Vowel Shift fell into a class of words where the vowel in keep (then pronounced kehp) was shortened in the past tense. Similar words, such as peep, that arose after the Vowel Shift, use the regular -ed suffix. Groups of irregular verbs include:
- The remaining strong verbs, which display ablaut among their several tenses; e.g., ride/rode/ridden. These verbs are inherited from the parent Germanic language, and ultimately, from Indo-European. Many strong verbs have a past participle in -en or -n rather than -ed.
- Weak verbs that have been subjected to sound changes over the course of the history of English that have rendered them irregular. Many of these acquired a long vowel in the present stem, but kept a short vowel in the preterite and past participle; e.g., hear/heard/heard.
- Weak verbs that end in a final -t or -d that made the addition of the weak suffix -ed seem redundant; e.g., cost/cost/cost.
- A handful of surviving preterite-present verbs. These can be distinguished from the rest because their third person simple present singular (the he, she, or it form) does not take a final -s. These are the remnants of what was once a fairly large Indo-European class of verbs that were conjugated in the preterite or perfect tense with present tense meaning. All of the surviving verbs of this class are auxiliary verbs or quasi-auxiliaries; e.g., can/could/could.
- Verbs that contain suppletive forms, which form one or more of their tenses from an entirely different root. Be is one of these, as is go/went/gone.
Other than historical legacy, other irregular verbs have been changed due to ease of pronunciation so that it is shorter or more closely corresponds to how it is spelt.
- A number of verbs whose irregularity is chiefly due to the peculiarities of English spelling; e.g., lay/laid/laid.
- Past tense ending -ed written phonetically when devoiced to -t; e.g., burn/burnt/burnt (which also has a regular conjugation with a [d] pronunciation).
- Weak verbs that have been the subject of contractions; e.g., have/had/had.
There are fewer strong verbs and irregular verbs in modern English than there were in Old English. Slowly over time the number of irregular verbs is decreasing. The force of analogy tends to reduce the number of irregular verbs over time. This fact explains why irregular verbs tend to be the most commonly used ones, verbs that are more rarely heard are more likely to switch to being regular. For instance, a verb like ablate was once irregular but today ablated is the standard usage. Today irregular and standard forms often coexist, a sign that the irregular form may be on the wane. For instance, seeing spelled instead of spelt or strived instead of strove is common.
On the other hand, contraction and sound changes can increase their number. Most of the strong verbs were regular, in that they fell into a conventional plan of conjugation, in Old English; there are so few of them left in contemporary English that they seem irregular to us.
Common irregularities include:
- Change whatever existing vowel to [O], orthographically represented by ou or au, e.g.
- beseech → besought
- bring → brought
- buy → bought
- catch → caught
- seek → sought
- teach → taught
- think → thought
- Change whatever existing vowel to [oU] or [@U] (depending which dialect is spoken), orthographically represented by o with a word-final e, e.g.
- break → broke
- choose → chose
- freeze → froze
- speak → spoke
- steal → stole
- Then, to form past participle, add nasal suffix -en, e.g., broke → broken
- No change, e.g., bet, bid, burst, cast, cost, cut, fit, hit, hurt, knit, let, put, quit, rid, set, shed, shit (can also be "shat" in the past tense), shut, split, spread, sweat, thrust, wed, wet.
List of irregular English verbs
See also: Wiktionary list of irregular verbs.
Irregular verbs in other languages
What counts as an irregular verb is strongly dependent on the language itself. In English, the surviving strong verbs are considered irregular, largely because they are sui generis. In Old English, by contrast, the strong verbs are usually not considered irregular, at least not only by virtue of being strong verbs: there were several recognised classes of strong verbs, which were regular within themselves.
In Latin, similarly, most verbs outside the first or fourth conjugations have three "principal parts," which form part of the lexicon and must be learned. The three principal parts are the present tense stem, the perfect tense stem, and the past participle; a variety of inflections, ablaut, and sometimes reduplication are used to form these parts. For example, the principal parts of spondeo ("I promise") include spopondi ("I promised"), showing reduplication, and sponsus ("promised"); these forms cannot be predicted from the present stem, but when you know all three, the entire system can be constructed from these three parts by rule. This verb is not usually considered irregular in Latin. Latin also exhibits deponent verbs, inflected in the passive voice alone; and defective verbs, missing some principal parts. Truly irregular verbs in Latin are a rather small class; they include esse ("to be"); dare and its derivatives ("to give"); êsse ("to eat"); ferre and its derivatives ("to carry"); velle and its derivatives ("to wish"); ire and its derivatives ("to go"); and fieri ("to become"). Most irregular Latin verbs are themselves vestiges of the athematic conjugations of Indo-European, a surviving (and regular) group found in Greek.
Greek and Sanskrit show even greater complexities, with widely different thematic and athematic inflection sets; which set goes with which verb stem cannot be predicted by rule. In languages of this type, these variations are not usually enough to label a verb "irregular". They instead form a part of the lexicon; when a verb is learned, the various patterns used to conjugate it must also be learned.
By contrast, in modern English, the strong verbs are largely a closed and vestigial class. (Analogy has created a few new strong verbs, such as dive.) All of the surviving strong verbs differ markedly from other verbs, and thus are classified as "irregular;" here, they are conspicuous exceptions in the midst of a much larger class of rule-bound regular verbs.
In some languages, the count of irregular verbs could be greatly expanded if one were to count verbs that are irregular only in their spelling, but not in their pronunciation. For example, in Spanish, the verb rezar ("to pray") is conjugated in the present subjunctive as "rece, reces, rece", etc. The substitution of "c" for "z" does not affect the pronunciation. It is strictly a matter of orthography. Therefore, this verb is not normally considered irregular.
Other issues affecting the count of irregular verbs in various languages are:
- How many patterns of conjugation are considered standard. If a large enough group of irregular verbs in a language have parallel conjugations, it is arbitrary whether to count that as an additional "standard" conjugation or as a large collection of irregular verbs.
- Which verbs are to be counted as separate, rather than merely prefixed. For example, in English, to withhold conjugates exactly like to hold, and in Spanish, detener ("to detain") conjugates exactly like tener ("to have"). In each case, are these to be counted as two separate irregular verbs, or as a single irregular verb, with and without a prefix?
Number of irregular verbs in different languages
Thus while the term "irregular verb" is not precisely enough defined to allow a definitive count of the irregular verbs in all languages, the following table is illustrative of how much this phenomenon varies across languages.
|Finnish||>=4||Only the verb olla "to be" has irregular endings, and a few verbs (of which only three are common: tehdä "to do, make", nähdä "to see", and juosta "to run") have irregular stems|
|Japanese||>=5||suru "to do", kuru "to come", iku "to go", aru "to exist (inanimate)", and kureru "to give (to the in-group)" are irregular. There are also several categories of verbs with either a very small number of members (the five honorific verbs), multiple possible conjugations (-zuru/-jiru), or conjugations which appear to be based off of multiple stems (aisuru "to love" becomes aiseru instead of *aidekiru in the potential); these are considered by some authorities irregular and by others not.)|
|Chinese||1||有 yǒu forms its negative with 没 méi rather than with 不 bù in Mandarin and has a separate negative form 冇 mou in Cantonese|
|Esperanto||0||(like most constructed languages)|
- Germanic languages
- Romance languages
- ForumRomanum.org (very partial) list of Latin irregular verbs
- The Catalan-language Wikipedia article on irregular verbs includes a list of irregular Catalan verbs.
- Orbis Latinus notes on irregular Asturian verbs
- Orbis Latinus list of irregular French verbs
- Orbis Latinus list of irregular Italian verbs
- Orbis Latinus list of irregular Occitan / Provençal verbs
- Orbis Latinus list of irregular Portuguese verbs
- Orbis Latinus list of irregular Spanish verbs
- Orbis Latinus list of irregular Venetan verbs
- Other Indo-European languages
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