Word Matters Podcast

'Sneaked' vs. 'Snuck' and Other Irregular Verbs

Word Matters, Episode 63

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: verbs, of the regular and irregular type. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

We, of course, love the English language and all, but you know, some of its verbs are just such divas. I mean, play is fine. Play, played, have played, but then you have be with its be, was, have been. And fly with fly, flew, have flown. And then there's dream: Is it "I dreamed it," or "I dreamt it"? Today, a conversation about regular and irregular verbs. I'll start things off.

A few episodes ago, we talked about the word plead and its two possible past tense forms: pled or pleaded. I want to talk a little bit more about how just bizarre it is that English has all these different kinds of verbs. We've got a verb like play, which is what we call a regular verb. I played today. I played yesterday. I was playing the other day. And then, we've got a word like to be, the infinitive form is be. And then you have I am, I was, I have been. It just is all over the place. We also have a word like think. I think today. I thought yesterday. I was thinking. As anybody who is a native speaker of English mostly masters these without giving it too much thought, but it really is rather strange when we think about it. And there are some verbs that have competing forms, and some English speakers go with one versus another. And some English speakers choose one in one context and another in another context. The verb that comes to my mind when I think of this is the verb dream. Okay, Ammon and Peter, I have a dream. Last night I ...?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, I dreamt.

Ammon Shea: I dreamt.

Emily Brewster: Dreamt, okay. Dreamt is actually quite a bit less common than dreamed.

Peter Sokolowski: Dreamed. I dreamed a dream.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. But according to research I did, not that long ago, dreamed is now three times more common than dreamt in the US. Dreamt used to be more common, but what we have seen in recent years is the word dream doing this weakening into regularity. So, we have regular verbs and we have irregular verbs. And regular verbs follow the pattern that play follows. Play, played, playing. And irregular verbs follow some other pattern. They can do a number of different things. They can be very strange. Even the word put, for example, the word put just stays the same the whole way through. I put today. I put yesterday. I have put it down. It's just put all the way through.

Peter Sokolowski: That's terrible for learners of English. I putted. I pat.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, it's ridiculous. It's really just absurd. Linguists and other language people divide these categories not just as regular and irregular, they also talk about these in terms of weak and strong. And the weak verbs are the regular verbs. They're the verbs that play by all the rules. They're the verbs that do what they are told. And then the strong verbs are the verbs that buck the trend, that won't into their car seat when you tell them to.

Ammon Shea: Doesn't it feel like we're kind of reinforcing bad behavior at this point, like calling them weak and strong?

Emily Brewster: I guess so, but-

Ammon Shea: It's really encouraging, well, it's just fine, but it does seem like we're encouraging irregularity.

Peter Sokolowski: And what's behind that weak and strong? Is that phonetic? Why do we call one group strong?

Emily Brewster: I don't know exactly why we call one group strong, except that one group follows the rules. And if you follow the rules, you're docile and tractable and you're a rule player. And if you're strong, you're busting out of whatever is trying to constrain you, I guess.

Ammon Shea: I mean, it seems like we could go with troublesome and non-troublesome, or pleasure to teach and kind of a pain.

Emily Brewster: Or we could just stick with regular and irregular. But then, that has those digestive connotations that also is kind of unpleasant. I think it's interesting how these two kinds of verbs have existed for all of the history of the English language. We have always had these regular and irregular verbs but, over time, verbs that were formerly irregular have become more regular, which is what dream has done. It's still shifting. Dreamt is not completely gone.

Peter Sokolowski: But that was the older form.

Emily Brewster: That's right. But in English it seems like there are a lot of irregular verbs, but it's not really a very high number. In Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learners English Dictionary, this is the dictionary that was written for non-native English speakers, there's a list of irregular verbs at the back of the dictionary in the appendix. And it's only about 300 words, and two thirds of them are really simple, single-syllable words. And the remaining 100 are words that are formed from these. So, a word like feed, then you get spoonfed, or undersell. So, they're really just extended versions of those core 200 irregular verbs. The reason they make such an impression on us, these irregular verbs, like think, like drive, I mean, there are just so many of them, is because they are the most common of our verbs. Of the ten most common English verbs, linguist Steven Pinker lists them, be, have, do say, make, go, take, come, see, and get, they are all irregular. And chances are really good, like 70% good, that if you're using a verb, you're using one of these. So, these verbs are just everywhere.

You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More irregular verbs coming after this break. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for The Word of the Day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: As a verb becomes more common, I kind of find myself inclined to give it a different conjugation, an irregular one.

Peter Sokolowski: Is that because you work with them so much?

Emily Brewster: I don't know. I actually think it's because the most common verbs are irregular.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, so your ear takes you there.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. So like, the word tweet.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. I twote.

Emily Brewster: I twote.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Right. That's not it. That's not it. I think we've talked about the word sneak before, right? And sneak has developed a strong irregular form. It used to be that the past tense form, the only past tense form that was widely used was sneaked, but snuck has developed, and is now a very common past tense form of sneak.

Ammon Shea: I think I've been doing snuck my whole life, I don't know.

Emily Brewster: No, me too. I have also been doing snuck my whole life.

Peter Sokolowski: But you're saying historically, snuck was not a strong verb, in other words?

Emily Brewster: That's right. Historically, it was not a strong verb. It has become a strong verb.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Ammon Shea: And when you say it has become, you're talking about kind of in a broad historical sense. You don't mean like since 2008, you mean over the last hundreds of years it's changing.

Emily Brewster: Yes, or the last like hundred, not actually that long. I mean, most of the time, these irregular past tense forms drop away. And so, if you look at a dialect dictionary, like the Dictionary of American Regional English, you will encounter past tense forms of verbs like climb, you'll see a sentence like, "I love to climb trees, but have never "clomb" that one there." "I have clim." "I have clumb."

Peter Sokolowski: "Clumb," yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: And we'd understand that perfectly. To an English speaker's ear, you would have no question about the meaning of that sentence. It's kind of interesting how transparent these can be.

Emily Brewster: They can be, but they also might really stick out. There would be implications for using clumb.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Especially on social media, you might get torn to shreds.

Peter Sokolowski: No, of course. But comprehension is the first barrier, and you would be understood.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. The word creep used to have the past tense crope.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Emily Brewster: You can still see that past tense form in the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah? Okay.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Okay.

Emily Brewster: Crope is all through there.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting to play with this. You must hear it in developing speakers.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. An interesting thing about creep also, is that we have the past tense of creep is crept, but when you have the phrasal verb, creep out, it's not crept out.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah no, it isn't that interesting that we associate crept out with literal movement, and creeped out with this metaphorical sensation?

Ammon Shea: Horripilation of the skin.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: That's right. So, there's nothing wrong with this lineup of sounds.

Peter Sokolowski: We've made a distinction there though. We've somehow settled on this distinction.

Emily Brewster: I think it's the same impulse that's at work when we use mouses as the plural for a computer mouse.

Peter Sokolowski: There you go. Yeah, sure. We're making a distinction just by pluralizing it that way.

Emily Brewster: A word developing a new meaning means that all bets are off for whatever the formation is.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: It can be the formation that makes the most sense.

Peter Sokolowski: So, the morphology can be fluid at that point.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: That makes sense.

Emily Brewster: The term awake, there's the modern verb awake and it was born from two older verbs. One was regular and one was irregular. And this mixed parentage kind of resulted in these multiple acceptable conjugations. So, you've got the past tense of awake can either be awaked or awoke. I awaked before dawn. Or I awoke before dawn. If we were talking around like 1780, it almost certainly would've been awaked.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Emily Brewster: But awoke has from the 19th century on it's become significantly more common. And it is now the one that people use. So what is it that drives a change like this? In the dictionary business, it's not our job to answer why? We just let those questions simmer in our minds. As we adjust our entries, and change our definitions, and the question as to why these changes occur, we just ruminate on it, and come up with no answers.

Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski, and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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