Irregular verbs

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English has many irregular verbs, and at first, there seems to be no rhyme or reason in these verbs. However, historically, irregular verbs can be put into different groups, and these verbs are listed here for those interested.

First things first, it is important to know that irregular verbs can be split mainly into two categories of conjugation: strong and weak. The difference is:

  • Strong verbs form their past tense and past participle forms with a change in vowel, and the past participle ends (or formerly ended) with -en. This change in vowel is called ablaut.
  • Weak verbs need an additional ending such as -ed for their past tense and past participle forms.

There are also two other categories: preterite-present and "anomalous". Verbs of those two categories are few, but are nonetheless among the speech's commonest verbs.

Strong verbs[edit]

See here.

Weak verbs[edit]

See here.

Preterite-present[edit]

In Proto-Germanic, there were certain verbs commonly thought to have come from the Proto-Indo-European perfect, but these verbs came to have present significance. For example, the archaic verb wit (meaning know) is akin to Latin videō (I see), and it is not hard to see how past sight of something implies present knowledge thereof. Hence, these verbs have the same form in the first and third-person singular present, unlike normal verbs. Most of these verbs came to be used as modal auxiliaries.

Note that the preterite-present verbs originally sprang from strong verbs, and it is usually clear from the forms which class they belonged to. For example, OE wāt has the same vowel as past tense forms of Class 1 strong verbs.

The preterite-present verbs, their Old English forms, and their modern descendants are (all reconstructed OE forms are in brackets):

Infinitive Present indicative Past indicative Past participle Original strong class
cunnan cann (can) cūþe (could) cunnen Class 3
magan mæg (may) meahte (might) [magen] Class 5
[sculan] sceal (shall) scolde (should) [sculen] Class 4
[mōtan] mōt mōste (must) [mōten] Class 6
āgan (owe) āh (owe) āhte (ought) āgen (own) Class 7
[durran] dearr (dare) dorste (durst) [durren] Class 3
witan (wit) wāt (wot) wisse, wiste (wist) witen Class 1
[dugan] (dow) dēah dohte (dought) [dugen] Class 2
munan man munde munen Class 4
[nugan] nēah nohte [nugen] Class 2
þurfan þearf þorfte [þurfen] Class 3
unnan ann ūþe unnen Class 3

Notes:

  • Can, may, and shall are defective verbs, as they no longer have infinitives or participles.
  • Can originally meant know, which later became know how to, whence its current meaning of be able to.
    • The past tense would have become couth, but in Middle English, the th became d by analogy with the d used for the weak past tense. Later on, it became could by analogy with should and would.
    • The present participle cunnende later became the adjective cunning, which now means sly.
    • The old past participle was couth (OE cūþ), but by Old English, it had become an adjective meaning known. The adjective became archaic, but it is preserved in uncouth, which originally meant unknown and now means unrefined; the modern couth is a backformation from uncouth.
  • May originally meant have the power to do, whence its current meanings of possibility and permission.
    • The original meaning of may is found in the related noun might and the adjective mighty.
    • In Middle English, the infinitive has a few different variants; the reflex of magan did not survive into Middle English, but would have yielded mawen (which would now be maw). One variant is traced back to an unattested OE variant mugan, which yielded muwen (later written as mowen), and this variant would now be mow rhyming with cow. The vowel was later transferred to the past tense, which then yielded the variant mought (now used only in some nonstandard dialects and rhyming with out). Another variant of the infinitive, also written as mowen, seemed to rhyme with know, according to the Middle English Dictionary. The vowel likely was transferred from a variant of mought.
  • Shall originally meant owe, whence its current meaning of obligation and current use as a future tense auxiliary.
  • Must was originally the past tense form of mōtan (which would have normally become moot), but it was used so often as a past subjunctive that it became a present-tense auxiliary, whence the lack of any distinct past tense form.
  • Owe is now a regular verb and is no longer used as an auxiliary.
    • Owe originally meant have, possess, and so own, originally the past participle, became an adjective, and the regular verb own was later formed.
    • Owe later shifted in meaning from possession to obligation, whence the current meaning of ought. Ought was the past tense of owe, but it was used so often as a past subjunctive that it became its own verb, and it is now used only as an auxiliary of present meaning.
    • OE āgan, notwithstanding that the present tense has ā (a characteristic sign of the past tense of Class 1 strong verbs), is now commonly thought to have been from Class 7 instead. The reason is that āgan showed a lack of vowel distinction between the singular and the plural. In contrast, OE witan showed a singular-plural distinction in the present tense (singular wāt and plural witon).
  • Dare is now a regular verb when not used as an auxiliary. The original infinitive is unattested in Old English, but begins to be attested in Middle English and would have become dur.
    • The past tense form would have become dorst, but in Middle English, it was influenced by forms with u such as the present plural, whence the past tense became durst (which later became archaic).
  • Wit, meaning know, has a full conjugation as well while keeping the irregularity in its forms, much like be, but it is not used as an auxiliary.
    • The verb is now archaic, but it survives in (un)witting and to wit. Related words to the verb include the noun wit and witness.
    • The past participle would have become witten, but later on, the past tense form wist became used for the past participle. The archaic adverb iwis (surely, OE gewiss) shows a trace of the original past participle, but by Old English, it had become an adjective meaning sure, certain.
  • Dow is a dialectal verb meaning thrive, prosper.
    • Its past tense form is dought, and the verb is related to the adjective doughty, which, notwithstanding its spelling, rhymes with pouty (the expected reflex of OE dohtig would have it rhyme with naughty). The vowel in doughty and dought looks to have been transferred from the infinitive dow.
  • OE munan (generally used in the derivative gemunan) meant remember, and the infinitive (attested in gemunan) would have become mun.
  • OE nugan is found only in the derivatives benugan and genugan (both of which have unattested infinitives). Benugan means require, and genugan means suffice and is related to the adjective enough. The infinitive would have become now.
  • OE þurfan means need, require, and in the negative, it means not have to, which makes it the opposite of must not. The infinitive would have become thurve.
  • OE unnan means grant, allow, and the infinitive would have become un.
  • Sometimes, the verb need is conjugated as if it were a preterite-present, and so one may see such phrases as he need not go and need I say any more?. This use is confined to questions and grammatically negative phrases, and it is still usual to treat need like a regular verb, e.g., he does not need to go, do I need to say any more?.

Anomalous[edit]

There are some verbs that are truly irregular, as they do not belong to any of the aforesaid classes. There are only four: be, do, go, and will.

Be, the English tongue's most irregular verb, is historically a blend of two different verbs: bēon and wesan. From the bēon conjugation are:

  • The infinitive, imperative, and present subjunctive, be.
  • The present participle, being.
  • The past participle, been.

And from the wesan conjugation are:

  • The first-person singular present indicative, am.
  • The second-person singular present indicative, art.
  • The third-person singular present indicative, is.
  • The plural present indicative, are.
  • The first and third-person singular past indicative, was.
  • The second-person singular past indicative, were (later changed into wast and wert).
  • The plural past indicative and subjunctive, were.
  • The past singular subjunctive, were (the second-person form later changed into wert).

These forms came from originally distinct verbs.

The past tense of do, did, was originally formed by a reduplicated form, which makes do the only living verb whose past tense came from reduplication. The past participle, done, is straightforward, as it has the past participle ending -en; the OE form was dōn, and the vowel later underwent shortening (also seen in blood and flood).

The past tense of go was originally yede (which itself was a suppletive form), but it soon became replaced by went, a new suppletive form that had originally been the past tense of the weak verb wend (which now uses wended as the past tense). The past participle is gone, which has the usual past participle ending; the OE form was gān, and the vowel later underwent shortening.

Will (distinct from the regular verb will as in God willed it so) was originally gotten from the Proto-Germanic subjunctive. Hence, unlike the other modal verbs, it is not a preterite-present verb. However, it is easy to mistake it as such, since the present tense is now the same in both the first-person singular and the third-person singular, and no personal ending is added to the latter; the OE form for the first-person singular was wille, and that for the third-person singular wil(l)e.

The past tense of will is would, but the verb has no past participle (both in Old English and in New English), nor has it now an infinitive or present participle (which later became the adjective willing). The verb originally was a normal verb meaning desire (like the German cognate wollen), but later came to be used as an auxiliary not only to show desire but also to refer to the future.