English is a weird language. None of our grammatical rules ever seem to be evenly applied without exceptions, and irregular verbs are no different. For most verbs in the English language, changing to past tense is as simple as adding ‘ed’ on the end. But then there’s a whole host of words that don’t conform to that rule. What gives?
As explained in a video by Mental Floss, the answer to this lies in the history of the English language. With a whole host of linguistic influences on its development, it’s no wonder English is messed up.
It might surprise you to know that what we now call irregular verbs were actually once the common past tense of verbs, which made much more sense in older forms of English. So words like ate, drank and rode are remnants of these times. Other words like clamb (for climb) and chode (for chide) didn’t quite make the cut.
Soon the ‘ed’ form of past tense verbs became more popular, but some verbs stayed ‘irregular’ – and some have even swapped back and forth multiple times.
Catch the whole explanation below:
Mixed Irregular Verbs
As if that wasn’t already confusing enough, there are also a small group of verbs where both regular and irregular past tense forms are accepted as correct – often in cases where the two forms are quite similar. These can catch up even seasoned grammarians like you and me.
Some examples include:
- Spilt and spilled
- Leapt and leaped
- Dreamt and dreamed
- Knelt and kneeled
- Spoilt and spoiled
In most cases the ‘ed’ form is more common in American English, while both are used interchangeably in British English, however, the irregular form is often considered more formal or correct.
In some cases, there is a preference for one word or the other depending on the context. For instance, some writers prefer to use spoiled as the past tense verb (ie, the milk spoiled) and spoilt as the past-participial adjective (ie, the spoilt milk). Most advice to writers suggests they use the form that sounds better in the context, however.
This story on unusual spelling rules has been updated since its original publication.