The Grammarphobia Blog

Remembrance of things past

Q: I used to see a lot more verbs with irregular past tenses (“lit,” “leapt,” “woke,” etc.).  But now I usually see regular endings (“lighted,” “leaped,” “waked,” etc.). Is this something new or am I just imagining it?

A: You’re just imagining it. There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he has defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

Some verbs have two possible endings for the past tense and past participle: either “-d” or “-t.” For example, “light” can use either “lighted” or “lit,” and “leap” can use either “leaped” or “leapt.” There’s no irregularity in using one or the other.

This is the case with many other verbs as well. Both forms, “-ed” and “-t,” are standard English and have been part of the language since the Middle Ages.

Here’s how Pat wrote about verbs like these in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“He spilled the milk, or he spilt it? He burned the toast, or he burnt it? Actually, they’re all correct.

“Most English verbs form the past tense the familiar way, by adding d or ed at the end (for example, sneeze becomes sneezed). But some past forms end in t, including bent (except in the phrase on bended knee), crept, dealt, felt, kept, left, lost, meant, slept, spent, swept, and wept.

“Still other verbs, like spill and burn, are in between and can form the past tense with either ed or t. In some cases, ed is more common in the United States, and in other cases t, but they’re both correct, so the choice is yours. In these examples, the spellings I use are given first and the others, many of which are popular in Britain, follow in parentheses: bereaved (bereft), burned (burnt), dreamed (dreamt), dwelt (dwelled ), knelt (kneeled), leaped (leapt), learned (learnt), smelled (smelt), spelled (spelt), spilled (spilt), spoiled (spoilt).”

As for “wake,” we’ve written about it on our blog as well as in our book Origins of the Specious. Here’s an excerpt from Origins about “waked” versus “woken”:

“Both are correct. Since the early 1600s, ‘woken’ has been a bona fide past participle (a verb form that among other things is used with the verb ‘have’ to make compound tenses).

“We’ve always had lots of ways to talk about getting up in the morning, perhaps too many. ‘Wake,’ ‘waken,’ ‘awake,’ and ‘awaken’ are an intimidating bunch. The problem is an embarrassment of riches: There are so many correct ways to use them. Here are the acceptable present, past, and present perfect tenses, according to modern dictionaries.

“• I wake / I woke or I waked / I have woken, I have waked, or I have woke.

“• I waken / I wakened / I have wakened.

“• I awake / I awoke or I awaked / I have awoken, I have awaked, or I have awoke.

“• I awaken / I awakened / I have awakened.”

With so many ways to talk about waking up, you’ll probably be right no matter which one you choose.

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