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Saturday, 14 June 2014

Problems with past participles

It seems to me that many people are getting themselves in a real muddle over verb forms in the past tense.  Undertaking Key Stage 2 writing moderation at the moment, I see many examples of children getting confused with simple past/past participles forms, especially those commonly used in dialects, e.g. she done, he swum, etc.  But I’ve also become aware of the problem in the media.  On Springwatch this week, I heard one of the presenters talking about an eagle that ‘he had rung’.  Not long ago I heard Jeremy Vine using ‘he pled guilty’.  So what’s going on and why is it important for primary teachers to be aware of this?

In the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test frameworks for 2016 (p.14) it states very clearly that only British English conventions will be credited and attention is specifically drawn to the British English variations of irregular past tense forms, including past participles.

There appear to be two separate areas of confusion around past participles: the way verbs with more than one meaning use a different form and the influence of American English.

Languages change over time. As a Germanic language, verb forms in English originally depended on whether they were weak or strong verbs and, although modern English retains many of the irregular forms from earlier usage, new verbs form their simple past and past participle by adding the weak verb suffix –ed.  This also occurs to existing verbs when they develop a new meaning.

So in the example above where the Springwatch presenter used the term ‘he had rung’, he was confusing the meaning of ‘ring’.  There are two definitions of this verb.  One meaning is making a clear resonant or vibrating sound and the verb forms for this word would be ‘he rings, he rang, he has rung’.  The other meaning seems to be more related to the noun ‘ring’, where something is encircled, e.g. a crowd or a bird’s leg.  The forms of this version would be ‘he rings, he ringed, he has ringed’.

English is such a flexible language and it is possible to create verbs from other word classes.  Any word that comes into modern English as a verb now has the –ed ending for both simple past and past participle forms.  Recent additions I have heard include ‘yellow-carded’, ‘facebooked’, ‘blogged’, ‘friended’, ‘defriended’, etc.

We must also note the influence of American English when using the past participle to create the perfect form of the verb.  The following examples show differences between some British English and American English past participles:

Simple present tense
Simple past
Past participle
Past participle (American)
I plead
I pleaded
I have pleaded
I have pled/pleaded
He gets
He got
He has got
He has gotten
They prove
They proved
They have proved
They have proven/proved
She saws
She sawed
She had sawed
She had sawed/sawn

It should be noted here that, just as the American English permits either past participle to be used, British English also has its verbs with two acceptable versions of the past participle: burned/burnt, dreamed/dreamt, learned/learnt are just three examples of past participles with alternative forms and interestingly these can also be used as alternatives for the simple past form too.

  • ·         I dreamed last night.
  • ·         I dreamt last night.
  • ·         I have dreamed often.
  • ·         I have dreamt often.

These alternative versions are likely to indicate a transitional period in the verb due to language change.  Because of the predominance of the –ed version, many of the irregular past participles have developed regular counterparts and, until the older version becomes archaic, both versions are acceptable.  The difficulty for us is that British English and American English verbs have evolved in different ways, since languages also change when they are separated geographically. 

It’s a tricky area, but one that we do need to be aware of.  I’m sure there will be more to come from me on this!