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A Word, Please: ‘People don’t know where to turn for help choosing past tense forms’

A Word, Please

Award-winning Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tweeted recently about a former politician who “slinked off and went home.”

A follower was not pleased: “I love you Julie, and your work,” a reader named Bill replied. But I can’t let ‘slinked’ go. ‘Slunk,’ please.”

Brown was contrite: “It’s not a word I use very often. Hopefully the Twitter word police will forgive me.”

Somewhat coincidentally, I saw these Tweets not long after starting to write this week’s column on past tense verbs. The example I had in mind was “swum.” After all, when’s the last time you heard the word “swum”? When’s the last time you used it?

But the slinked/slunk debate illustrates the same problem as does swam/swum: People don’t know where to turn for help choosing past tense forms (though that doesn’t stop some of them from telling others which to choose).

Every verb has a past tense form and a past participle, though often they’re one and the same. For most verbs, choosing is easy because they follow a pattern: Just add “ed” for both the past tense and past participle, which is the one that’s used with a form of “have.” Today I walk. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked.

Verbs that follow this rule are labeled regular verbs. No one takes to Twitter to debate those. Irregular verbs are another matter. They don’t follow a pattern.

Slink and swim are great examples of irregular verbs. So is be. And spit. And drink. And begin, think, become and lots more.

Many of their past forms you know by heart. For example, “think” is easy: Today I think. Yesterday I thought. In the past I have thought.

Notice that the simple past tense and the past participle are identical. Irregular verbs do that sometimes. But you’re just as likely to see the past tense and past participle take different forms, like: Today I begin. Yesterday I began. In the past I have begun.

Interestingly, the most irregular verb in the language, “be,” is also a no-brainer: Today I am. Yesterday I was. In the past I have been.

But then there are those other irregular verbs, the ones whose past forms and especially past participles leave us stumped or bickering with each other. I have drunk from the fountain? He has swum the English Channel? She has hung a picture on the wall? We have dreamed of early retirement?

Impossible to know, right? All you can do is take your best guess or maybe ask a smart friend which form is right, right? Actually, no. The answers are readily available to everyone who knows where to look for them. They’re right in any dictionary, where you’ll see that “drunk,” “swum,” “hung” and “dreamed” are all correct as I used them above.

Just open a physical or online dictionary and go to the entry for any verb, for example, “begin.” Right after the entry word, you’ll see something like “began, begun, beginning.” This is Merriam-Webster’s way of telling you the past tense and past participle.

They use that order: Past tense first, followed by past participle, followed by the progressive participle, which is the “ing” form (and which is usually pretty obvious, so we’ll ignore those).

Sometimes you’ll see just one option. For example, after “think” comes just “thought.” That means that “thought” is both the past tense and the past participle. Other times you’ll see extra options. For example, after “beat” comes “beat” (the simple past tense is identical to the present tense in this case), followed by “beaten or beat,” meaning both “I have beaten the eggs” and “I have beat” the eggs are correct.

In the case of “slink,” which means “to go or move stealthily or furtively,” the entry word is followed by “slunk, also slinked.” This indicates that both the simple past tense and the past participle can take either form. “Yesterday I slunk” and “Yesterday I slinked” are both correct. So are “In the past I have slunk” and “In the past I have slinked.”

Now that you know where to find answers, you never need to guess which form to use. And you can always check before correcting a professional journalist in a public forum.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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