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Inflect this

Sitting grumbling in the chimney corner over the weekend, I discovered this opening sentence in an article published in The Sun:

The Beatles may have sang that all you need is love, but when it comes to disobedient and dangerous mutts, Cesar Millan firmly yet calmly disagrees.

Is no one taught to conjugate English verbs any longer? You know: infinitive, to sing; present tense, sing; past tense, sang; past participle, sung; present participle, singing, past and present participles used with auxiliary verbs such as is, has and have. Any of this sound familiar?

In standard English, the dialect in which Sun articles are presumably written, the irregular verb sing is still inflected as sang in the past tense and sung in the past participle. Ring, rang, rung, but not bring, brang, brung. Some things just have to be learned.

There are verbs in which some leeway is permitted — Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, in an entry more permissive than is to my taste, says that “sank and sunk are used for the past tense of sink. Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectical as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

That’s as it may be, but Garner’s Modern American Usage and the Sun stylebook say to use sunk only as a past participle.

Sun house style also objects to snuck as a past tense of sneak. Merriam-Webster goes into the history of the word at some length, from its early appearances as “representing the comical speech of a bumpkin” to its current status as “a standard, widely used variant that is about as common as the older sneaked.”

We allow snuck in quoted speech, so it’s up to you, the reader, to decide whether a bumpkin is talking.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (9)


Another instance that I heard recently - and baffled me to no end - was the use of the word 'boughten' as the past participle of 'bought'. When asked where said person had heard that used, there answer was: "We were taught to add '-en' to make past participles". I suppose they are right in some fashion that that is a general rule, but it does behoove them to maybe pick up a book and read a bit on the subject.

"Boughten" is an old past participle, found mainly in rural, colloquial speech. Robert Frost once used it to considerable effect:

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

Is "Sun" the past past participle form of "sin"? Sink, sank, sunk...sin, san, sun...

"I will have sun against the grammar gods by writing this."

I have heard "boughten" in a John Prine song. Fine. Poetic license. But, as for "sung," or any other irregular verb form in print, I'm with you, John. Here's what baffles me: why wouldn't someone (a copy editor, for instance) simply look it up? No one demands we memorize the dictionary in toto. Whatever happened to the dictum "when in doubt, look it up"?

I suppose they are right in some fashion that that is a general rule, but it does behoove them to maybe pick up a book and read a bit on the subject.

They are behooven; Q.E.D. (Quaint English Dictionary?)

Late to the game here, sorry. The reason people don't look up something like "have sang" is that it doesn't sound wrong to them. On the contrary -- I had quite a time recently attempting to convince a bright teenager that I wasn't just making up the participle in "have swum."

BTW, "boughten" is, from a kind of narrow perspective, logical. So-called strong verbs (a.k.a. irregular verbs) inflect by changing stem vowels (ablaut) -- hance sing/sang/sung. So-called "weak" (regular) verbs inflect by adding a dental (d or t) to their stem -- for example, talk/talked.

"Bring" and "think" are technically weak verbs (note the dental on the participle), but there's that odd ablaut in there. (The cause involves some phonological sleight-of-sound in Anglo-Saxon, but never mind that.) The result is a sort of hybrid verb form that for many speakers seems more strong-verb-ish. Hence they instinctively add -en, which would be correct for a _real_ strong verb.

One of the recurring lessons one learns in delving into the historical morphology of English is that there's pretty much always a reason that people speak the way they do. Not that we editors have to let them _write_ that way, of course.

I met a nun who thought that the plural of dwarf was dworft.

She must have confused strong and weak verbs with plurals.

A tome called maybe the An Atlas of Pronunciation in New England found thousands of variations of pronunciation and grammar within a one hundred mile radius. Before Samuel Johnson's first dictionary of the English language, there was little or no uniformity in spelling or grammar. Everything was dialectical. Johnson thought he could stop the decay of culture by inventing and freezing the spelling of English words. He was wrong. About both words and culture.

Grammar? It started in the 18th century for English.

I fretted about my own cringing about my granddaughter who missed on past participles until I finally did some looking into the whys. My answer comes courtesy of Alice Roy, "Linguistics for Composition Teachers," an essay I used to know, used to celebrate as the political radical I was, am, and then, alas, in my old age, I forgot, apparently having morphed into a part-time snob. People who miss on grammar are not bumpkins; they are legitimately identifying with their culture.

I started wondering about this mystery a few months ago when I had read Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetica Merlini in 15th century English. So one thing I noticed (I was first happy to notice I could still read 15th century English as well as 21st century stuff) was that Geoffrey 90 percent of the time did not use any possessives. Ten percent of the time he did, but without apostrophes, or without following modern English usage. Why? Then, I remembered Sam Johnson created the first English dictionary to freeze spelling (to prevent the decline of culture); and then from Roy discovered Johnson also created the first English grammar in response to the rising middle class who wanted to know how to show their best face in writing and speakiing. Of course, Johnson's dictionary as well as those that followed always contain their share of notes on usage from formal to vulgar.

Suffice it to say, our grammar ain't English grammar, it's Latin grammar. I used to know that. Chaucer, for example, said, "I am me," rather wrote it that is. What he said is anyone's guess. "It is I" is a pure Latin construction with English logic attached to verbs of being added to grammar books. So what Johnson was doing was to try to expose the middle class and upper middle class to the same kind of dialectical usage that those who were bred with Latin had been exposed to; you can't split an infinitive in Latin because it is one word; therefore, don't do it in English " boldly go where no one has gone before..." Johnson took us to the dialectical identity of Latin family and culture, i.e., of those who "read," Latin outside of the church. Before the 18th century, we had not gone there.

So why don't so many people pick up past participles. Hey, how about possessives. Possessives are the dead last thing ESL speakers pick up; past participles, almost next to last; and it's the same for native speakers. However, these things are picked up only through conscious or unconscious identificiation with a group. As a matter of dialectical curiosity, Louis L'Amour in some of his westerns has his characters use the past particle as the simple past tense: "I spoken with him about it."

Alice Roy says dialect reflects what one values from their family and culture, that is, the source of one's identity, including economic status, cultural status, location, regional location, ethnic group, and any other thing one might identify with, like books. This may create what I identify as bookish talkers or TV mimics. Middle and upper middle class speakers from Texas and New York have more in common in speech patterns than the poor in both locations--mainly because they read more. Have you ever noticed educated people sound like books?

One primary reason is exposure to and the valuing of standard written English, what linguists call Edited Written English. These people's speech and writing take on the feel of the better written stuff, so it comes across as standard English. Standard English is bookish. Those who have identified with other groups don't even recognize "have sang, have went" as problematic. It's invisible to them. I wouldn't call them bumpkins. But I wouldn't hire them as writers for my magazine either unless full blown ethnic dialects and many other socio-enconomic groups other than the educated middle class are important parts of your audience and subject matter.


I mistyped Chaucer said, "I am me."

I should have typed, "It am me."

It's much more charming and reflective of how usage changes over time. However, try to teach a non-bookish student how to say, "It is I," or "I am s/he." "It's me" will win out every time.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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