A word, please

In a recent column, I explained that past participles are easy. They’re all in the dictionary. So if you just know how to find them, you never again have to worry about whether it’s “We had sang” or “we had sung.”

The answer’s right there in boldface type next to the word “sing.” (Spoiler: It’s “We had sung.”)

But in hindsight I realize that I failed to complete that thought. Thanks to an email I got about the participles column, I now know I should have said: “Participles are easy … except when they’re not.”

The “not” part hit me after Sam in Costa Mesa wrote to ask about “hanged” and “hung.” This wasn’t the first occasion I’ve had to research the past tense of “hang.” But I never bothered to commit the answers to memory. There’s no need because help is never farther than the nearest dictionary.

But when I looked up “hang” to see its past forms, the answers, contrary to what I wrote last week, weren’t immediately clear.

Usually, you need to read just three words to know how to use a past participle: the dictionary’s main entry word, like swim, the bolded word immediately after it, which is the simple past tense (swam), and the word after that, if there is one, which indicates the past participle (swum). Remember, the past participle is the one that usually goes with a form of “have,” so in three words flat we know that it would be correct to say, “In the past, I have swum.”

“Hang” doesn’t give up its secrets as easily.

In the electronic version of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the entry for “hang” has its inflected forms in an odd order.

Instead of the standard “swam, swum, swimming” arrangement in which the simple past tense always comes first, followed by the past participle then the progressive participle, I saw “hung, hanging, hanged.” The past form, “hanged,” came after the “ing” form.

That was a new one on me.

Skimming the rest of the entry, I didn’t immediately see how to make sense of this odd word arrangement. So I did what I always do when an online dictionary lets me down: I checked the hard copy.

The 3-D version of Webster’s New World College Dictionary seemed a lot friendlier to this user. Here’s what I read there: “hung, hanging; for vt. 3 & vi. 5, hanged.”

Below, there were numbered definitions, some for transitive verbs (vt.) and others for intransitive verbs (vi.)

So the entry was saying that, in most meanings, the simple past tense and the past participle of “hang” are both “hung”: “Today I hang the picture on the wall. Yesterday I hung the picture on the wall. In the past, I have hung a picture on the wall.” But for two specific definitions, it’s “hanged.” Both those definitions had something in common. Both refer to execution.

So for the intransitive verb, it’s: “Today the bandit hangs. Yesterday the bandit hanged. In the past, the bandit had hanged.” The transitive form is “Today they hang the bandit. Yesterday they hanged the bandit. In the past, they had hanged the bandit.”

To get these right, you don’t even have to know that transitive verbs are ones that take objects (that is, in which one thing acts upon another) and intransitive verbs take no objects (that is, things just act).

You just need to know that, anytime you’re talking about this form of execution in the past tense, you want “hanged.” But when you’re talking about a picture on the wall or a garland on a Christmas tree, you want “hung.”

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