Irregular Verbs in English

Da secoli i verbi irregolari appaiono nei peggiori incubi degli studenti di inglese. Anche se con il tempo le forme verbali si sono uniformate, non c'è modo che scompaiano a breve, quindi bisogna per forza impararle a memoria...

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Daniel Francis

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Irregular Verbs in Inglese

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All languages have their easier and their more difficult aspects. English, for example, finds very little use for the subjunctive. It does, however, love to confuse with two aspects: phrasal verbs and irregular verbs. An English learner’s worst nightmare occurs when the phrasal verb is also irregular! 

There are approximately two hundred irregular verbs, about 3 per cent of the total number of verbs in English. Sadly, for learners of English, the most common ten verbs are all irregular: ‘be’, ‘have’, ‘do’, ‘go’, ‘say’, ‘can’, ‘will’, ‘see’, ‘take’ and ‘get’. 

Old English

Irregular verbs originally came from Old English, which goes back thousands of years to the root source of most of Europe’s languages, the Proto-Indo-European language. Some linguists do not like the word ‘irregular’. They say these verbs are part of a system, which simply means changing vowels in the middle of a word. The other system of regular verb endings for the past – adding ‘-ed’ – actually originated much later in the history of English.

More in the Past

Learners of English should actually be happy. There were many more irregular verbs in the past! At the time of Beowulf, the Old English poem from the 9th century, only 75 per cent of verbs used the ‘-ed’ rule. Over time, many irregular verbs become regular. A recent Harvard University study looked at 177 irregular verbs from that time. Only 98 are still irregular. Believe it or not, the verbs ‘laugh’ and ‘help’ once used to be irregular. Some irregular verbs change but still maintain their old form. These ‘schizophrenic’ verbs include ‘learned/learnt’, ‘spelled/spelt’ and ‘dreamed/dreamt’.

Pressure to Change

The same Harvard study says that irregular verbs are “under pressure” to become regular. Infrequently-used verbs, such as ‘dive’ (‘dove’ in the US) and ‘tread’ (‘trod’), will probably adopt the ‘-ed’ ending … by the year 2500. Sorry, English-learners, but irregular verbs are not going anywhere soon.

Irregular but Useful: top 5 irregular verbs in English

426 Irregular Verbs s
  1. To Be. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ is one of the most famous lines in English literature. The English language’s most important verb has multiple forms – ‘am’, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘been’ – and actually comes from four separate verbs!
  2. To Go. The simple past – ‘went’ – comes from a completely different verb, ‘to wend’. The phrase ‘to boldly go’ is part of the opening lines from the original Star Trek TV series from 1967 and is the most famous example of a split infinitive in English!
  3. To Have. Hugely important, the verb is used to form the present perfect tense in English. In the mouth of Martin Luther King, it carried the message of America’s most passionate defence of human rights: “I have a dream …”
  4. To Do. The English language’s most important auxiliary verb, and home to its best-known irregularity: ‘does’. Used many millions of times in marriage ceremonies (‘Do you take …?’ ‘I do.’), the verb has been the source of an infinite quantity of happiness … and sorrow!
  5. To Say. “He said/she said”has been written millions of times in works of fiction down the centuries, in uncountable works of genius. It is the English language’s most common way of attributing dialogue and its most important messaging tool.
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