Saturday, November 20, 2010

past participles

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.

5 comments:

q-pheevr said...

There are infamous examples of verbs like lie/lay/laid vs. lay/laid/lain

You did that on purpose, didn't you? To see if anyone would notice?

linguistlessons said...

Indeed I did not. Do you perceive a mistake there? I've thought about it, and I'm reasonable sure that the paradigm I posted is what I learned in grammar school. However, it's probable that I'm mistaken, since when I think about actual usage I can't say *I have lain down the clothes. So perhaps it should be lie/lay/lain vs. lay/laid/laid? And that's one of (many) "correct" usage paradigms I found on a google search.

Which paradigm were you expecting?

mrtom said...

I'd expect following paradigms:
lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid.
Anyway, as Englih is a foreign language to me I can't imagine how one can use past tense form instead of past participle.

Jim said...

"Anyway, as Englih is a foreign language to me I can't imagine how one can use past tense form instead of past participle."

In regular verbs the past tense form is also the past participle form. That gets generalized to iregular verbs.

Furthermore, the irregular verbs really are irregular. You can generally but not reliably predict how an irregular verb's paradigm is going to look.

Beyond that, this is not just a system breaking down in modern times. This has always been the case in Germanic, as the modern languages show - all use this tripartite verb paradigm, and across the whole group languages disagree - they show different reflexes. in englsih specifically there has been dialect mixture and interference from Norse, and if you go with the theory that English descends form a Germanic langugae that pre-dated the Saxon conquests, then there's interference from continental West Germanic.

Swedish regualrizes this mess by truning the variations into gender agreement - the variations tend to be either -n -r -t/d in Germanic. In Swedish there are two genders,a dn -n and -t/d are the agreement markers. When a participle is used adjectivally it agerees with the noun. When it's used bare, it ends in -t.

R. Quincy said...

Well, see, the problem with this 'correct' Standard is that, if enough of the right people get it wrong, it becomes 'correct'. In most cases, the past tense and past participle are always the same. Some of them are even changed, like in the usage of selt and telt instead of sold and told, both of which are used as the past tense and past participle forms in Buckie, Scotland. Buckies, in this case, are obviously not the 'right people', but imagine what would happen if people in London began speaking like that? I shudder at the thought. We might also start using words like fae (from), dinnae (didn't) or na/e (shortened form of dinnae). Wouldn't that be so odd? Unfortunately, we probably would accept it easily enough, since most all languages changes and drifts sneak up on us subtly. Levelling would do much for the Buckies--at least in the way of standardising their English. They'd speak more like us Brits, then, and wouldn't be merely tolerated with odd looks. Ah, but how language does evolve! I can never decide whether to despise or accept it--for there is no love to be had there at all.