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  1. #1
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default What is an irregular verb, really?

    I read with interest the recent discussion about the most irregular verb in the language. Since my thoughts on this topic should probably be kept as far from beginning and intermediate students of English as possible, I'm starting this new thread. I hope "Linguistics" is the appropriate heading for it.

    English has weak verbs and strong verbs, and several classes in each category.

    Weak, so-called "regular": ask -- asked -- asked
    Weak, so-called "irregular": spell -- spelt -- spelt (or "regular" <spelled> as well)

    Strong, all irregular:
    straight umlaut in the root vowel: sing -- sang -- sung
    umlaut apparently vanished: let -- let -- let
    with present-stem -n- inserted: stand -- stood -- stood
    with additional weak endings added: bring -- brought -- brought

    And so on. My examples are off the top of my head, but the point is that weak verbs strictly add suffixes to form the principal parts, whereas strong verbs modify the root in the three ancient Indo-European grades and may feature the present-tense -n- insert. Both features are extremely ancient, since they are not particular to the Germanic group.

    Learners of English both native and foreign are always taught that an irregular verb is one that does not form its parts by the simple addition of "-ed". But surely at root that is a convenient lie: in fact both weak and strong verbs are ancient, natural, and with sufficient linguistic analysis thoroughly regular.

    And if so, then the only truly irregular verbs in the language are:

    * "to be", "to have", because their inflexion in the simple present does not follow the standard rule of "-(e)s appended only in the third person singular";

    * the various modal verbs such as "shall", "will", "can", and so on, which are defective in not forming present or past participles, and therefore do not exhibit the full range of tenses.

    What do you think? Are strong verbs really irregular?

    And if they are not, does it make sense to explain them as they are sooner rather than later?
    Last edited by abaka; 16-May-2011 at 02:47. Reason: bad typo

  2. #2
    curates-egg is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    The point about the words 'regular' and 'irregular' is that the regular verbs follow a regular pattern. Unless students are told that a verb is not regular then they know the patterns for the overwhelming majority of existing verbs and for all new verbs::

    verb - verbs/verbing/(have) verbed
    verbe - verbes/verb(e)ing/ (have) verbed
    bie - bies/bying/(have) bied
    verby - verbies/verbying/(have) verbied
    verch - verches/verching/(have) verched
    veb - vebs/vebbing/(have) vebbed
    verber - verbers/verbering/(have verbered)
    verber - verbers/verberring/(have) vererred
    etc

    Verbs such as spell that have two forms are conveniently presented as having a regular and an irregular form.

    Verbs that do not follow regular patterns are conveniently referred to as 'irregular'. If students meet an unknown irregular verb krake, they have no idea whether it follows the pattern of awake, make or take - or something different.

    The idea of strong and weak verbs is not helpful in modern English. Your 'strong verbs' may be ancient and natural, but they are certainly not regular.

  3. #3
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    I mentioned some linguistic reasons for not calling so many verbs irregular, but you have have emphasized teaching.

    I think the distinction regular/irregular may not be as helpful as teachers traditionally seem to think.

    The list of exceptions to the rule has hundreds of entries. What does that say about the validity of the rule?

    Students of languages with ideographic/morphemic writing systems must learn the characters one by one. Systematic approaches to learning Chinese characters exist, but seldom match the order in which the learner encounters the characters. Therefore the patterns made up by the strokes must be learned one by one. Teachers describe the considerable regularity, but never dwell on the irregularities.

    I suggest, tentatively, that to distinguish English regular verbs from so-called irregular verbs just adds a linguistically dubious and pedagogically harmful label. Linguistically dubious because it assumes an idealized regularity that just doesn't exist in the language. Pedagogically harmful because in any case the only way to fluency is ultimately repetition that becomes automatic.

    Let's teach the verbs that don't add -ed one by one. That's what everyone does always anyway. But don't let us pretend they are irregular. They simply are.
    Last edited by abaka; 16-May-2011 at 18:04. Reason: typo

  4. #4
    Raymott's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    Quote Originally Posted by abaka View Post
    I think the distinction regular/irregular may not be as helpful as teachers traditionally seem to think.
    Perhaps. Who can tell what teachers as a whole traditionally seem to think?
    This is a useful distinction because regular verbs - the majority - are formed regularly - and a student need merely know this to be able to conjugate it. This is the only usefulness that I think teachers are concerned with.
    If the non-regular verbs (to avoid the offensive term 'irregular') fit into a lot of different categories, then it's the categorisation of non-regular verbs that you are interested in - not their distinction from the regular verbs.

  5. #5
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    ^I say "teachers seem to think" because practically every testbook and grammar manual makes that distinction.

    I've seen students I've tutored rattling irregular verbs off in a list, sing-song. It almost always seems to start "be was been have had had do did done go went gone come came come....". Perfectly done, a testament to patience I've never had!

    But then these students pester the tutor with the question their teacher has already refused to answer: why "sing sang sung and bring brought brought"?

    And far worse, even though they know "go went gone" perfectly well, they'll say "I have went" and "I goed" (through very rarely "I gone" and almost never "I seen"). Not because they don't know the difference between the simple past and present perfect -- that's actually fairly straightforward to get across with some patience -- but because the "I've gone" hasn't sunk in. Despite the perfect recitation that includes "go went gone" and really must have taken considerable effort to absorb.

    That wasted effort learning lists of irregular verbs is the reason I question the need for the category and the list for students to consult.

    I brought up the proper linguistic explanation in my first post -- strong verbs versus weak -- because ultimately how else can you explain "sing sang sung, bring brought brought"? Even if students don't know the details of the e/o/zero grades and the present n-infix, and can't use it to predict "sing sang sung" but "bring not brung", they still appreciate the fact there's a deep reason to it -- and, I venture to say, I've seen it help them internalize the verbs and their parts.

  6. #6
    Raymott's Avatar
    Raymott is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    Quote Originally Posted by abaka View Post
    ^I say "teachers seem to think" because practically every testbook and grammar manual makes that distinction.

    I've seen students I've tutored rattling irregular verbs off in a list, sing-song. It almost always seems to start "be was been have had had do did done go went gone come came come....". Perfectly done, a testament to patience I've never had!

    But then these students pester the tutor with the question their teacher has already refused to answer: why "sing sang sung and bring brought brought"?

    And far worse, even though they know "go went gone" perfectly well, they'll say "I have went" and "I goed" (through very rarely "I gone" and almost never "I seen"). Not because they don't know the difference between the simple past and present perfect -- that's actually fairly straightforward to get across with some patience -- but because the "I've gone" hasn't sunk in. Despite the perfect recitation that includes "go went gone" and really must have taken considerable effort to absorb.

    That wasted effort learning lists of irregular verbs is the reason I question the need for the category and the list for students to consult.

    I brought up the proper linguistic explanation in my first post -- strong verbs versus weak -- because ultimately how else can you explain "sing sang sung, bring brought brought"? Even if students don't know the details of the e/o/zero grades and the present n-infix, and can't use it to predict "sing sang sung" but "bring not brung", they still appreciate the fact there's a deep reason to it -- and, I venture to say, I've seen it help them internalize the verbs and their parts.
    Yes, this post is about the irregular verbs.
    My post was about distinquishing regular verbs, which are taught as regular verbs because they are easy to learn, from non-regular verbs, which is apparently the concern of your post, and which doesn't interest me in this thread.
    That is, my understanding was that your problem was with the regular/irregular distinction, but apparently it's with the treatment of irregular verbs, about which I don't have an opinion at the moment.
    Sorry about that.
    Last edited by Raymott; 17-May-2011 at 00:52.

  7. #7
    konungursvia's Avatar
    konungursvia is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    I think of irregular verbs as the very common, very ancient ones. They are so common that they survive unchanged, whereas uncommon words tend to be re-invented as regular verbs (e.g. dived, from dove). They have longevity because their irregularity is no problem for native speakers. So they are vestiges of very ancient forms.

  8. #8
    curates-egg is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    Quote Originally Posted by abaka View Post
    The list of exceptions to the rule has hundreds of entries. What does that say about the validity of the rule?
    There are not lists of exceptions with hundreds of entries. In my post #2, I summarised most of the important rules. (I admit that my summary was not clear for a learner - I was simply attempting to show concisely how regular the rules are)

    ... to distinguish English regular verbs from so-called irregular verbs just adds a linguistically dubious and pedagogically harmful label. Linguistically dubious because it assumes an idealized regularity that just doesn't exist in the language.
    In your opinion. To most of us in the field of English Language Teaching, there appears to be a wonderful regularity in the forms of what most of us call 'regular verbs'. 'Irregular' is no more linguistically dubious than 'strong'. Both words are simply labels chosen by people who study the language; 'irregular' has the advantage of being pretty transparent.

    Pedagogically harmful because in any case the only way to fluency is ultimately repetition that becomes automatic.
    If that be the case, the amount of repetition necessary to learn the forms of the regular verbs is minimal - precisely because of the regularity.

    Let's teach the verbs that don't add -ed one by one. That's what everyone does always anyway. But don't let us pretend they are irregular. They simply are.
    We are not pretending that they are irregular. They are verbs that do not follow a regular pattern. A useful shorthand way of saying this is 'irregular verbs'. I agree with konungursvia - they are common and ancient. There is nothing 'wrong' or 'weird' about them; they are a natural part of the language - but they are irregular.
    curates-egg

  9. #9
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    Curates-egg, perhaps I expressed myself unclearly. These address each of your four replies in turn:

    1. By the "list of exceptions" I mean the 250 or so verbs that don't obey the rules in your earlier post, namely the so-called irregular verbs.

    2. As I said, a set of rules with hundreds of exceptions has too many excpetions to be called a good set of rules.

    3. I am talking not about the regular verbs but the so-called irregular verbs, which do require repetition and effort. But not the kind of sing-song repetition that an artificial class of "irregular verbs" and a tabulation of them encourages.

    4. See my point 2.

    Please keep in mind, I am not attacking any language teacher or particular method, but rather questioning the utility of the nearly universal classification, for practical pedagogical reasons I've already laid out.

  10. #10
    curates-egg is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: What is an irregular verb, really?

    Quote Originally Posted by abaka View Post
    1. By the "list of exceptions" I mean the 250 or so verbs that don't obey the rules in your earlier post, namely the so-called irregular verbs.
    That is precisely why they are generally known as 'irregular verbs'. And, although you can find 620 (rather than 250) irregular verbs in the usingenglish list, probably only about 120-150 would satisfy the requirements of all but advanced learners.

    2. As I said, a set of rules with hundreds of exceptions has too many excpetions to be called a good set of rules.
    There are probably well over 20,000 verbs in English, with new ones appearing every day. It seems to me that a set of rules that covers all but 120-150 common irregular verbs ( and possibly 500 others, such as 'soothsay' and 'hew', ), is pretty useful.


    3. I am talking not about the regular verbs but the so-called irregular verbs, which do require repetition and effort. But not the kind of sing-song repetition that an artificial class of "irregular verbs" and a tabulation of them encourages.
    Most teachers and learners that I have met deal with irregular verbs as they encounter them, but tables are useful for quick reference. Some learners who are forced to go through old-fashioned types of examinations may well use the tables and sing-song repetition to help them with learning, but that is the fault of the schools and the methods.
    You insist on calling irregular verbs an 'artificial class'. The FACT is that well over 95% verbs in English are regular. For practical, pedagogical reasons (to use your phrase), most teachers and learners find it useful to have a name for that small number of verbs that are not regular.

    Raymott made useful points in post #4.
    curates-egg

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