Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Tense discussion

with 28 comments

EGG Nonpast tense
Image via Wikipedia

The past tense can be a strange chap.

In a recent TV programme, the chief executive of a large London council was speaking fluently about budget cuts when this suddenly stumbled out of his mouth:

…the effects are being beared by the poor.

That should, of course, be ‘borne’. Now speaking to camera is a tough potato and I’m not criticising him for his momentary lapse of eloquence, but it did get me thinking about tenses. It also reminded me that I recently heard a captain in the American army talking on the radio about how he ‘drug’ an injured colleague out of the way.

The standard English past tense of ‘drag’ is, of course, ‘dragged’.

Wiktionary explains that ‘drug’ is used in the southern United States as the simple past tense and past participle of ‘drag’. It provides the following example (which I fully intend to use at some appropriate juncture):

You look like someone drug you behind a horse for half a mile.

Wiktionary goes on to explain that Merriam-Webster used to refer to ‘drug’ as ‘illiterate’, but now allows that it is dialect. Generous.

There are several interesting examples of non-standard past tenses. For example, the standard English past tense of ‘sneak’ is ‘sneaked’, but many people would say ‘snuck’, as in:

I snuck past him while he was looking the other way.

‘Snuck’ says my Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) is mainly used in North America, and now regarded there as a standard alternative to ‘sneaked’ in all but the most formal contexts.

The past tense also throws up other anomalies:

  • I hit you. (Present tense)
  • I hit you. (Past tense)
  • I fit the shelves. (Present tense)
  • I fitted the shelves. (Past tense — but the ODE says both ‘fit’ and ‘fitted’ are used as the past tense in the US)

Deep waters. (Into which I dived or dove?)



28 Responses

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  1. I once earned the displeasure of my English teacher, in the late 50s, for using “searched” instead of “sought”. Now, of course, it’s quite normal.

    In US cop shows, “pled” for “pleaded” always jars, too, though apparently a legitimate usage in the US.


    06/08/2010 at 10:54 am

    • Now that’s intereresting, Ron. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why (to me) using ‘searched’ would ever be wrong, and I had to look it up to check. ‘Sought’ is the past tense of ‘seek’ and ‘searched’ is the past tense of ‘search’. So, I don’t think you would have been wrong, even back in the 50s, to have used ‘searched’ unless you were using it as the past tense of ‘seek’?

      ‘Pled’ is also interesting. I was talking to someone else about this the other day. ‘Bleed’ and ‘bled’ make for an interesting comparison; ‘bleeded’ would sound horrible, and yet ‘pleaded’ does not.

      Thanks very much for those interesting points, Ron.


      06/08/2010 at 1:02 pm

      • Re “searched,” I didn’t feel I was wrong at the time, either!

        “Pled” is, apparently, used in Scottish law (but not outside that field), so that’s probably where the colonials got it, and allowed it to escape into the wild.

        “Sped” for “speeded” – as in “he sped up his car…” (US again, though it’s leaking into British English), is equally irritating. . . (“Sped up the road” is, of course, fine.)

        Btw, I’ve got a new Kindle on order (I’ve pretty much run out of book space; I’ve found a corner I can squeeze another bookcase into, but that’s already spoken for) – apologies, by the way, if I’ve already said this – and it contains a copy of the ODE. Glad I forgot to order mine now.


        06/08/2010 at 1:47 pm

        • You have been vindicated — better late than never! I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the Kindle.


          06/08/2010 at 2:02 pm

          • I’ve been pretty hard on it in the past but, with increasing disability (reading a 4lb hardback recently was purgatorial), it’s looking a lot more viable than it did a year ago. I think, especially at the price, it might prove very useful to the disabled community.

            I still feel, overall, that ereaders are a solution in search of a problem, though.

            There’s an argument that the Kindle locks one into Amazon as sole ebook supplier, but it doesn’t really. Ebooks can be sourced anywhere and, using software, converted into a format native to Kindle – PDF seems the best option as it will preserve the original formatting, and I already have conversion software (PDF Creator, which installs as a printer option).


            06/08/2010 at 2:27 pm

  2. It’s odd or telling that most of the erroneous past tenses are efforts to take the regular past (doubled consonant plus -ed) and make it irregular. Yet kids always make the opposite mistake: growed for grew, tolded for told, etc.

    Michael Farrell

    06/08/2010 at 6:11 pm

    • Hi, Michael — yes, it is interesting. It’s also strange that children naturally form tenses in that way, but it’s deemed wrong by the grammatical rules that have evolved over centuries. I wonder why we like to make things difficult for ourselves?


      06/08/2010 at 6:30 pm

      • A lot of rules that appear to make little sense grew out of the mistaken belief that Latin was the perfect language, and English was forced into contortions in an attempt to emulate it.

        The split infinitive is the classic example – you can’t actually split an infinitive in Latin, it’s one word. In English, though, it’s two words and can be split without, for the most part, impeding comprehension, yet it’s still considered a major crime in some quarters.

        The s-f writer Clifford Simak would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid splitting an infinitive, which gave his books a uniquely distinctive style – charming but slightly stilted, especially the dialogue, as speech naturally contains more errors than does written English.

        I know only one guy who claims to speak perfect English – and he does – but god, he’s dull!


        06/08/2010 at 6:48 pm

      • Now I’m off to get my hair did.

        Michael Farrell

        06/08/2010 at 6:52 pm

  3. Another such verb is slink: the past and past part. are “slunk,” but you’ll sometimes hear “slinked” or even “slank.”

    Michael Farrell

    07/08/2010 at 8:27 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — I very much like ‘slank’. Much more evocative than ‘slunk’. Fritinancy tweeted this today, which made me laugh:

      Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.


      07/08/2010 at 8:55 pm

      • *slanking away, embarrassed*

        Michael Farrell

        07/08/2010 at 9:48 pm

        • I didn’t want to embarrass you … just the past tense of ‘freak’…???


          08/08/2010 at 9:35 am

      • Thanks very much, Deborah, but I must come clean: mine was a retweet of @dbarefoot’s very clever original.


        07/08/2010 at 11:04 pm

        • Hi, there — you’re very honest, and I am very thick in relation to all things Twitter. Thanks for taking the time to explain! I recommend your blog to anyone reading this. Thanks again; you’re always welcome here.


          08/08/2010 at 9:09 am

  4. More tense talk from Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s Errors & Omissions column (interesting differences between American and British usage of the past tense):

    Aged pedants who moan about “Americanisms” usually mean items of vocabulary, such as “sidewalk” and “apartment”, failing to remember how much duller the English language would be, especially its political vocabulary, without such American expressions as “bandwagon”, “filibuster” and “pork barrel”. Less often noted are the differences of syntax.

    What follows is neither an error nor an omission, merely an instance of a grammatical divergence between British and American English, and of how easily writers and speakers go native. On Monday Guy Adams, a true-born Englishman who has been our Los Angeles correspondent for some time, commented on the effect of recession on Las Vegas: “The city’s unemployment rate just broke 13 per cent.” In British English that should be “has just broken 13 per cent”.

    Where British uses the present perfect tense – “has broken” – American prefers the past simple – “broke”. British observes a distinction that American does not bother with. It is a distinction not only of tense (past or present) but of aspect (simple or perfect). It is not so much about time – in both cases the action is in the past – as about the speaker’s relationship to the event.

    When a speaker of British English says “I broke my leg”, the breaking of the leg is an event in the past that no longer affects the speaker. “I have broken my leg”, on the other hand, places the speaker now in the position of a person with a broken leg.

    The capacity of a language to convey such shades of meaning through its grammar is a precious heritage. That is hugely more important than whether you say “flat” or “apartment”.


    06/01/2011 at 10:36 am

  5. Fiddlesticks. I bet most of us would say “has just broken 13” (then we’d solidify “percent”). We’d say “I broke my leg,” if referring to a ski trip last weekend, but “I have broken my leg” (followed by profanities) if it just happened on the current run.

    And no one in a major urban setting would blink at “flat.”

    Michael Farrell

    07/01/2011 at 4:59 am

    • Aaah — I strongly suspected Guy might have been fiddling sticks while penning this. Thanks, Michael.


      07/01/2011 at 6:48 am

  6. Guy again:

    Shrinking away: Here is Steve Richards, writing on Tuesday: “He genuinely believed that if the state shrunk, other more efficient providers would fill the gap.” That should be “shrank”.

    Over recent years “shrunk”, the past participle of “shrink”, has been taking over the role of past tense also, driving out “shrank”. The Society for the Preservation of English Irregular Verbs has placed “shrank” on its endangered list (along with “sank”, “rang” and “striven” ). Use it or lose it. I think the title of the 1989 comedy film Honey, I Shrunk The Kids has a good deal to answer for. Maybe US usage is to blame for the decay of “shrank”. But let’s not be snooty about it; remember that stalwart America preserves “gotten” and “dove”, where British English prefers the dull “got” and “dived”.


    19/02/2011 at 12:44 pm

  7. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    There are times, at the Penn Museum here, when you are almost hesitant to breathe. And it has nothing to do with the recent flurry of events in which Chinese officials suddenly forbid the display of the remarkable objects in the exhibition “Secrets of the Silk Road.”

    The past tense is “forbade.”


    06/03/2011 at 1:02 pm

    • Rhymes with “glad.” My US version of ODE gives “forbad” as an alt. spelling.

      Michael Farrell

      06/03/2011 at 4:30 pm

      • Thanks, Michael — I didn’t know that. I don’t think it’s a word I use very much, but I’m sure I would have said ‘bade’ to rhyme with ‘made’. My ODE also gives the alternative spelling.


        06/03/2011 at 5:31 pm

  8. Hi Deborah – it’s so nice to see you posting again! I’m glad you raised the thorny issue of the perfect v. simple tenses. As Keleny states, it is a precious heritage; but a bloody difficult notion to explain to people learning English as a second language. There is an appreciable difference in time, to me anyway, between the simple past and the present perfect. The former is clearly a past event, the latter is happening now.


    06/03/2011 at 9:53 pm

    • Hi, Jo — many thanks.

      Here is Oxford Dictionaries on the perfect tense:

      Grammar(of a tense) denoting a completed action or a state or habitual action which began in the past. The perfect tense is formed in English with have or has and the past participle, as in they have eaten and they have been eating (present perfect), they had eaten (past perfect), and they will have eaten (future perfect).


      07/03/2011 at 7:02 am

  9. From Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s Errors & Omissions column:

    Desperate plea: Last Saturday on this page, no less a stylist than Robert Fisk wrote: “Nicolas Sarkozy has many times beseeched Netanyahu to get rid of him.” “Beseeched” is recognised by dictionaries, but those who treasure irregular verbs will be sad to think that “besought” is beyond help.

    And a week later:

    Use it or lose it: Last week I lamented the apparent ousting of “besought”, the agreeably irregular past tense of “beseech”, by the dully regular “beseeched”. Roy Evans writes in from Harpenden to remind us of the following “relishably rhymed” lines from Noël Coward’s song “Nina”: “She declined to begin the beguine though they besought her to. / And with language profane and obscene she cursed the man who taught her to. / She cursed Cole Porter too.”

    Remember: every time an English irregular verb dies, the world becomes a bit greyer. Before you write “beseeched”, pause and think what we would have missed if “besought” had not been available to Noël Coward.


    21/01/2012 at 4:48 pm

  10. From Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s Errors & Omissions column:

    Highly irregular: On Monday an arts page published an interview with the actress Joanna Page – “small, blonde and irrepressible, her sentences a torrent of lovely sing-song Welshness, with longer words cleaved neatly down the middle (‘mil-lion’, ‘act-ress’)”.

    This column is ever the champion of English irregular verbs. Few are as gloriously irregular as “cleave”, that old Teutonic survival meaning to split or hew asunder. The OED recognises no fewer than four past participles: cloven, clove, cleaved and cleft. So “cleaved” is not wrong, but why choose the most boring option?

    Remember the scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, when the greenhorn reporter William Boot is sent to a London store to buy his kit for Africa? In his innocence, he asks for cleft sticks “for my despatches”. The assistant replies brightly: “We can have some cloven for you. If you will make your selection I will send them down to our cleaver.”


    17/04/2012 at 5:56 pm

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