The Grammarphobia Blog

Where have all the participles gone?

Q: Have you noticed that many people no longer use participles with perfect tenses? I’ve  heard things like “We’ve already ate” and “He’d went by then.” What do you make of this? Is it as inevitable as the change in the meaning of “momentarily?”

A: We too have noticed this failure to use a participle with the present perfect and past perfect tenses. It’s nothing new, though. We recently came across a discussion of it in a textbook published in 1918.

The problem involves the perfect tenses of irregular verbs (like “eat,” “go,” “give,” “break,” “take,” “write,” etc.).

The present perfect ends up as “have ate” (instead of “have eaten”), “have went” (instead of “have gone”), and so on. The error is the same in the past perfect: “had gave” (instead of “had given”), “had broke” (instead of “had broken”), etc.

What the speaker does is substitute a simple past tense form (like “took” or “wrote”) for the participle (“taken,” “written”). This is widely considered nonstandard English.

The textbook we mentioned, Vocational English: A Textbook for Commercial and Technical Schools, illustrates this “confusion of past tense and past participle” with the following anecdote:

“There is a story of a small boy who, as a punishment for having written I have went, was told by his teacher to remain after school and write / have gone fifty times. When the teacher returned to her room after ten minutes’ absence, she found the phrase written the required fifty times, followed by the note:

Dear Teacher: I have wrote I have gone fifty times and I have went home.”

We’re pretty certain this use of the simple past for the participle won’t become standard English in our lifetimes, or even our children’s lifetimes. It’s just too big a grammatical shift. The change in meaning of “momentarily” is a mere alteration in usage.

On a related issue, we ran a blog item a few days ago on the tendency for people (mostly callow youths) to say things like “If I’d have known” as the opening clause of a sentence that calls for “If I had known.”

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