Saturday, November 20, 2010
Many verbs in English have three basic forms: a present tense form, which consists of the bare stem (plus -s in 3rd person singular), a past tense form (usually -ed), and a past participle form (often irregular, but quite a few end with -en). Notice I say "many" and not even "most", much less "all". There are infamous examples of verbs like lie/lay/laid vs. lay/laid/lain, which have three distinct forms but overlap in two of them, or teach/taught/taught, which has an irregular past tense and identical past participial form. The participial form appears in perfect constructions such as "I had just gotten to work when the boss walked in" or passives like "The wine was drunk in less than an hour". However, since many such participles are rarely if ever used, some people are uncomfortable using some of them, or simply unaware that a separate form exists. (Test yourself: I have swum, or I have swam? Swum is the historical past participle.) While I am somewhat of a past participle enthusiast, I rarely really notice the substitution of the simple past with verbs like "swim" and "drink". The ones that do strike me as odd are those that I perceive as common, which is why constructions like "was began" catch my ear. "Begin" is significantly more common than "swim", as evidence by the 106,952 hits for "began" in COCA versus the 2,069 for "swam". Likewise, "begun" gets 19,007 hits while "swum" only gets 186. And note that the "begin" to "swim" ratio is twice as high in the participial form than in the past. I think it's for this reason that constructions like "was began" strike me as odder than mere "had swam". COCA gets 26 hits for "had began" versus 4,865 for "had begun", and 3 for "had swam" versus 59 for "had swum". In other words, the past-for-participle substitution rate for "swim" is an order of magnitude higher than for "begin" (.5% for "begin", 5% for "swim"). At this point in the evening I'm not about to embark on a frequency analysis journey, but my guess would be you'd find similar patterns for many other verbs: past-for-participle substitution rates rise as raw usage frequency decreases.