What Are Irregular Verbs in English?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Someone swimming in a pool
Someone who swims may say that they swum.

da-kuk / Getty Images

In English grammar, an irregular verb (pronounced i-REG-u-lur verb) is a verb that does not follow the usual rules for verb forms. Also known as a strong verb.

Verbs in English are irregular if they don't have the conventional -ed ending (such as asked or ended) in the past tense and/or past participle forms. Contrast with regular verb.

According to the 2002 edition of the book, "Longman Student Grammar," the nine most common lexical verbs in English are all irregular: say, get, go, know, think, see, make, come, and take.

Exercises

Examples and Observations

Sheila Watson

The bridge they built brought traffic in both directions.

Water slopping from the buckets froze on the feet as it fell."

Bo Links

"He said Roadmap Jenkins got the good loops because he knew the yardage and read the break better than anyone else."

George H. Devol

"Hearts were trumps. I stood, and made three to his nothing. I dealt; he begged; I gave him one, and made three more."

Muriel Spark

"It was true, thought Miss Taylor, that the young nurses were less jolly since Sister Burstead had taken over the ward."

180 Cussed Exceptions

According to Steven Pinker, Candian-born American experimental psychologist, "At first glance irregular verbs would seem to have no reason to live. Why should language have forms that are just cussed exceptions to a rule?....

"Irregular forms are just words. If our language faculty has a knack for memorizing words, it should have no inhibitions about memorizing past-tense forms at the same time. These are the verbs we call irregular, and they are a mere 180 additions to a mental lexicon that already numbers in the tens or hundreds of thousands."

The Origin of Irregular Verbs

According to Bernard O'Dwyer, grammar textbook writer, "[I]rregular verbs...derive from the Old English period. At that time they were called strong and weak verbs respectively. Strong verbs formed their past tense and past participle with an ablaut or vowel gradation (a means of marking different functions of a word by varying the vowel sound in its base). Weak verbs formed their past tense and past participle with an inflectional suffix, that is, a {-d} or {-t} suffix. With the loss of inflections during the Middle English period, all new verbs took on the weak verb formation with an {-ed} or {-t} in past forms. This weak formation soon became the norm for what we now refer to as English regular verbs; strong verbs became irregular verbs."

Pam Peters, emeritus professor at Macquarie University in Australia says, "In modern English there are roughly half that number, in classes which overlap and have deviant internal groups, and in addition, a number of weak verbs have joined the class of irregular verbs. The 'Comprehensive Grammar of English,' (1985) presents seven classes of irregular verbs, five of them with subgroups. The total membership of the modern irregular verb system is a question of criteria, depending on whether you include:

i) verbs which are conjugated both regularly and irregularly
ii) verbs which are prefixed or compounded forms of monomorphemic irregular verbs
iii) verbs which fall into the category of 'old-fashioned' or 'archaic' English

To provide maximum help—and to avoid prejudging such issues—the Comprehensive Grammar (QGLS) presents a list of 267 irregular verbs, but it shrinks to about 150 if you apply all three criteria just mentioned."

The Future of Irregular Verbs

Steven Pinker weighs in on irregular verbs: "Do irregular verbs have a future? At first glance, the prospects do not seem good. Old English had more than twice as many irregular verbs as we do today. As some of the verbs became less common, like cleave-clove, abide-abode, and geld-gelt, children failed to memorize their irregular forms and applied the -ed rule instead (just as today children are apt to say winded and speaked). The irregular forms were doomed for these children's children and for all subsequent generations (though some of the dead irregulars have left souvenirs among the English adjectives, like cloven, cleft, shod, gilt, and pent).

"Not only is the irregular class losing members by emigration, it is not gaining new ones by immigration. When new verbs enter English via onomatopoeia (to ding, to ping), borrowings from other languages (deride and succumb from Latin), and conversions from nouns (fly out), the regular rule has first dibs on them. The language ends up with dinged, pinged, derided, succumbed, and flied out, not dang, pang, derode, succame, or flew out.

"But many of the irregulars can sleep securely, for they have two things on their side. One is their sheer frequency in the language. The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, and get) are all irregular, and about 70% of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb. And children have a wondrous capacity for memorizing words; they pick up a new one every two hours, accumulating 60,000 by high school. Eighty irregulars are common enough that children use them before they learn to read, and I predict they will stay in the language indefinitely."

A New Strong Verb in English

Author Kate Burridge says, "The magazine Ozwords published by the Australian National Dictionary Centre has confirmed something that I've suspected for some time—snuck as the past tense of sneak is now more usual than sneaked.... It is always good news to hear of a successful new strong verb in English!

"Fewer than 60 of the original 350 strong verbs remain—and even this very small number includes many rather dodgy ones like glide/glode, beseech/besaught, cleave/cleft/cloven, beget/begat/begotten, chide/chid/chidden, slay/slew/slain and smite/smote/smitten. Hardly part of a Modern English speaker's active vocabulary! So you can see that a new strong verb like sneak/snuck is a cause for celebration—that is, if you are worried about the extinction of forms like glide/glode."

The Lighter Side of Irregular Verbs

From the "Verbs Is Funny" poem:

"A boy who swims may say he swum,

But milk is skimmed and seldom skum,

And nails you trim; they are not trum. 

"When words you speak, these words are spoken,

But a nose is tweaked and can't be twoken.

And what you seek is seldom soken.

"If we forget, then we've forgotten,

But things we wet are never wotten,

And houses let cannot be lotten.

"The things one sells are always sold,

But fog dispelled are not dispold,

And what you smell is never smold.

"When young, a top you oft saw spun,

But did you see a grin ever grun,

Or a potato neatly skun?"

Sources

Anonymous. "Verbs Is Funny."

Biber, Douglas. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. 1st ed, TBS, 2002.

Burridge, Kate. Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. ABC Books Australia, 2011.

Devol, George H., Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi. 1st ed, 1887.

Links, Bo. Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins: Tales From the Caddie Yard. Simon & Schuster, 2001.

O'Dwyer, Bernard T. Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position. 2nd ed, Broadview Press, 2006.

Spark, Muriel. Memento Mori. Macmillian, 1959.

Peters, Pam. "American and British Influence in Australian Verb Morphology." Creating and Using English Language Corpora: Papers From the Fourteenth International Conference on English Language and Research on Computerized Corpora, Zurich 1993. edited by Udo Fries, Gunnel Tottie, and Peter Schneider. Rodopi, 1994.

Pinker, Steven. Quoted by Lewis Burke Frumkes in Favorite Words of Famous People: A Celebration of Superior Words From Writers, Educators, Scientists, and Humorists. Marion Street Press, 2011.

Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules. Basic Books,1999.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, et al. Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1989.

Watson, Sheila. Deep Hollow Creek. McClelland & Stewart, 1992.