A word, please

A lot of adults gave up on grammar long ago. They didn’t learn as much as they would have liked in school. Now there’s too much too learn. Amid a sea of gibberish about sentence-ending prepositions, dangling participles and split infinitives, it’s impossible to even know where to begin, right? Not exactly.

Lifelong grammar learning is about priorities – getting the most out of the time you invest. And in my experience, no grammar lesson gives you a better bang for your buck than a crash course in past participles. Invest just a few minutes learning about past participles and you never again need wonder about things like:

“He has drank” vs. “He has drunk.”

“I have swam” vs. “I have swum.”

“We had got” vs. “We had gotten.”

“He had laid down” vs. “He had lain down.”

“She has dreamed” vs. “She has dreamt.”

If you don’t know about past participles, it seems a lifetime isn’t enough to learn the answers countless grammar conundrums like these. But in fact, to tackle these issues with 100% confidence, you only need to know two things: 1. what a past participle is, and 2. how to spot one in a dictionary.

Put simply, the past participle is the form of the verb that works with “have” to put something in the past. For example, “I walk” is present tense. “I walked” is simple past tense. But “I have walked” and “I had walked” combine a form of “have” with the past participle “walked” to convey time and duration.

The grammar terms (present perfect and past perfect) and the why don’t matter. All you need to know is that the verb form that works with of “have” and its cousins is the past participle.

Past participles can be regular or irregular. Regular past participles are identical to the simple past tense forms. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked. Last week, he worked hard. In recent weeks, he has worked hard. Yesterday she baked a cake. In the past, she has baked many cakes.

Notice how these simple past tenses and past participles are formed just by adding “ed” or “d” to the base.

Irregular past participles are any that don’t follow that formula: thought, been, sung, taken, given, swum, brought – the list goes one. Some irregular verbs use the same form for the simple past tense as they do for the past participle. Yesterday he thought. In the past he has thought. But some don’t. Yesterday he sang. In the past he has sung.

Irregular past participles cause more than their fair share of grammar confusion – but only if you don’t know that all the answers are at your fingertips. Open a dictionary. Hard copies are good but online dictionaries work, too. Turn to any irregular verb, for example “eat,” and chances are you’ll see next to it in bold: “ate, eaten.” That’s how most dictionaries indicate irregular forms, usually in the order: simple past tense, then past participle. Sometimes you’ll see them written like this “got, got or gotten.” This means that the past tense is “got,” but the past participle can be one of two forms. The “or” choice. (A tip: dictionaries list the preferred form first).

If you see no such boldface type after the main verb, you know it’s regular. And if you ever forget this method, it’s usually explained right in the front of the book in a section titled something like “How to use this dictionary.”

That’s it – the answer to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grammar dilemmas right at the tip of your fingers.

June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at

A word, please

Here’s my favorite sentence: “Aren’t I?” In recent months, I’ve trotted it out half a dozen times to end an argument about grammar. It works. Better than any other sentence I know, “Aren’t I?” illustrates an important fact about grammar: It’s not all about grammar.

Let me explain.

When you’re trying to determine whether something is correct in English, you can often turn to a dictionary. For example, if you want to know whether you should say “I have brought” or “I have brung,” it’s right there in your Webster’s (or Merriam-Webster’s or American Heritage). Just look up the word “bring,” notice that right after the main entry word is “brought,” and if you understand how dictionaries work you know that “brought” is the word you want.

So the dictionary is one of the major determinants of correctness in English.

Another is syntax, which usually just means grammar. The sentence “Me cake much wants vanilla” is ungrammatical. “Me” isn’t a subject, “wants” isn’t a first-person conjugation, “cake” should come after the verb and so on.

So syntax – that is, grammar – is another thing that determines correctness.

There’s one other, very important determinant of correctness, but a lot of people don’t like it: idiom.

Idiom means common usage. More precisely, says Webster’s New World, it’s “a phrase, construction, or expression that is recognized as a unit in the usage of a given language and either differs from the usual syntactic patterns or has a meaning that differs from the literal meaning of its parts taken together.”

Example: By the rules of syntax, you can’t ask, “Who did you meet?” You must ask, “Whom did you meet?” That’s because the object of the verb “meet” is supposed to be in object form, like “whom,” and not subject form, like “who.” But using “who” in a sentence like this is idiomatic. That means it’s OK.

But for some people, idiom is too slippery a slope. It raises the question: “If common usage is all that matters, couldn’t you argue that any popular grammatical atrocity is correct?”

The question of how and when we can slap the “idiomatic” label on an ungrammatical sentence is tricky. For example, academics debate whether “Where are you at?” is an idiomatic alternative to “Where are you?” I’m not authorized to say where we should draw the line on these matters. The point is that there is a line. And nothing shines a light on it better than “Aren’t I?”

When people argue that common usage doesn’t justify ungrammatical structure, I ask them whether they use “Amn’t I?” instead of “Aren’t I?” None do, even though “Aren’t I?” is ungrammatical.

To form this type of question, you swap the places of a subject and verb and add “n’t,” a contraction of “not.” He is. Isn’t he? They are. Aren’t They? You are. Aren’t you? We are. Aren’t we? See how these move the verb to the head of the sentence? Now try it with “I am” and you end up with “Amn’t I?” Yet Americans use “Aren’t I?” – the interrogative form of the indisputably ungrammatical sentence “I are.”

Yet no one I’ve ever talked to has a problem with “Aren’t I?” Not the people who argue against “Where are you at?” Not the people who argue we should say “He is taller than I” instead of “He is taller than me.” And not the people who insist you can never use “who” where “whom” would do.

So “Aren’t I?” proves that, although idiom may be a murky, slippery and highly debatable, sometimes it reigns supreme.

June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at