Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Writing 101: Irregular Verbs

Most of the rules of English are pretty clear. When you want to make something plural, you add s or es. When you want to put something in the past, you add an ed. But when you want to write perfectly, you'll take time out to pay attention to your irregular verbs. These words defy all logic, and they know no you pretty much have to know exactly what to do for each one of them.

Irregular Writing and Reading

Irregular verbs are a big problem. Normal verbs are pretty easy to deal with in fiction writing -- instead of typing that Shelley walks away, you type Shelley walked away to transform your book into past tense. But some verbs refuse to play by the rules. Shelley can't awake in the past; she awoke instead. Many irregular verbs operate like whole new words; writers have to change a letter within the word instead of adding a suffix. Begin and begun, blow and blew, and forget and forgot are all examples of this type of irregular verb.

Makes things confusing, right? Lots of irregular verbs are confusing. Some even have an -en ending instead of the traditional -ed. If you beat eggs yesterday to make a cake, they were beaten. And other irregular verbs want to have their own special letter for reasons undetermined. If something caught on fire last week and was subsequently reduced to ash, it was burnt. Other irregular verbs actually need a letter taken away to be put into the past tense. You can lead a horse to water, but if you did last June then the horse was led to the watering hole.

But the worst irregular verbs, by far, are the ones that don't change at all. Everyone's aware that to be is irregular, because its past tense is was. You've heard the word was, and words like forgot, enough times to know how to use them. Other words aren't used so much. For example, have you ever heard the past tense of the word split

Was that wood pile splitted or splitten, or maybe splot? The answer is none of the above. Split can exist in any time period you like. Judy split those logs Tuesday. Simon is going to split logs tomorrow. I split logs all the time.

Cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, read, shed, shut, spread and thrust are all unchanging -- no suffix is brave enough to join with them. In any tense, these words just don't change. You can't spreaded the mortar for the bricks or letted John borrow the car.

The biggest problem with irregular verbs is that they're not static. Once upon a time, writers used the word holp as the past tense of help, but nowadays we just use helped. Sneaked is traditionally the past tense of to sneak, but over the years it's somehow turned into an irregular verb to become snuck

So how are writers supposed to deal with irregular verbs? If something in your language just doesn't look right, it could be because you've attached the wrong ending to the right word. Check this irregular verbs list if you just can't figure it out. You can also look for specific earmarks of irregular verbs. Commonly, they're one-syllable, actionable words. Cut, beat, bend, burn, buy, choose, fight, freeze, go, keep, split -- these are all quick, short words that make a call to action...and they're all irregular.

Irregular verbs do change, however, and regular verbs change to become irregular. If you're unsure about how you're using your verbs in a particular sentence or passage, read it out loud. Listen to your own voice. If it doesn't sound like it makes any sense or it sounds silly, you're probably wrong. Try making changes, such as deleting the suffix, and repeat it aloud again. Every writer has an "ear" for reading books, so hear yourself saying the words and you'll make much better writing decisions.

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  1. Thank you Jade.

    Angelina Light

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