Watch Your Language: Language rules can be perplexing

Published 6:09 am Friday, November 3, 2023

It turns out that this semester I have had to teach past participles to students in two different classes. The first class is an advanced translation class, the second an intermediate-level Spanish class, but students in both classes were puzzled by past participles in English and not so much by past participles in Spanish. Past participles are something they use frequently in their native language, but these forms tend to remain below their level of awareness. Primary uses of the past particle are (1) as adjectives modifying nouns: glazed donut, isolated incident, broken glass and (2) as the second of two verb forms in the perfect tenses: I have eaten, we had paid. 

There is a good bit of change taking place in the formation and use of past participles in contemporary English. One change in progress is the curious case of the disappearing suffix -ed from past participles. We are encountering forms such as “bottle water”, “can food”, and “whip cream” more and more often. As astonishing as some of these forms may seem when compared to standard usage, this is a change that began a long time ago in English and it is working its way through the language with varying degrees of success. Some forms will resist the change and other forms will not. Much of this depends on the knowledge of and exposure to the written standard of language. With fewer people reading deeply or extensively, fewer people are aware of the standard language structures, especially irregular ones. This could hasten the change because infrequently used irregular forms tend to look and sound more and more archaic.

The use of variant forms of the past participle in the perfect tenses in non-standard English is an example of the variation inherent in language. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “I have went”, “I have ate”, or “I have wrote”.  As shocking as these uses may sound to some, there is a very practical and logical rule at work in the system creating these structures. Because regular verbs use the same form for the past tense and the past participle (I walked vs. I have walked; you liked vs. you have liked), the non-standard uses cited above follow the same rule, substituting the past tense form of the form for the past participle. So the set “go, went, gone” becomes “go, went, went” using the sequence of forms such as “walk, walked, walked” or “hope, hoped, hoped” as a template.

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What is important to point out here is that because language is always changing, some native speakers are currently casting off old participle forms and adopting new ones, which often follow patterns of verbs with similar structures. It is within this category of change that many of us often need to stop and think about the standard form of the past participle. I offer some examples here. We have “ring” and “rang” (present, past). What is the past participle?  It is indeed “rung”, although I had a student tell me last week that “that just doesn’t sound right” (!) We have “steal”, “stole”, and “stolen” but what is the third form in the series “shine”, “shone or shined”, ________ ? There are actually two accepted forms in U.S. English, “shone” and “shined” can be used if the verb is intransitive (does not take an object). If the verb does take an object such as “shine a light on something”, then there can be only one past participle, which is “shined”. In this particular structure, the standard language advises against using the past participle “shone”. 

See if you can complete the following verb form sequences with the correct past participle in standard English. Answers follow

Go went _________

Begin began _________

Fly flew _________

Get got _________

Sink sank _________

Take took _________

Ride rode _________

Lie lay _________

Lay laid _________

Cut cut _________

Wake woke _________

Awake awoke _________

Answers: gone, begun, flown, gotten, sunk, taken, ridden, lain, laid, cut, waked/woken, awaked.