The Friday Fillip: Strong Verbs

Verbs like “heave” or “shove,” “endure” or “conquer”?

Nope. More like “be” and “do” and “let.”

I chanced on the word “gat” recently. Not the gun slang, though; rather, a past tense of “get.” It came in a passage from the King James version of Ecclesiastes (the “there is no new thing under the sun” book; a short, well-written, skeptical blast worth reading in full):

2:8 I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.

Of course, the cunning translators of the King James version of the Bible deliberately chose language that was even then archaic-sounding, in order to give the version the authority that sometimes comes from the past. So “gat” is long gone in favour of “got.” Even so, it caught my eye and surprised me a little. Though it perhaps ought not to have, given the famous litany of Biblical “begats,”.

This got me thinking about the way in which some verbs form their past tenses in unpredictable ways, instead of by simply adding -ed to the end of the present tense, as we do with “regular” or “weak” verbs. This is one of the things that makes English both an easy and a hard language — easy because the vast majority of verbs are of the regular kind; and hard because there’s no real way to predict how the past will look when it comes to “irregular” or “strong” verbs.
[got – got – got or gotten / think – thought – thought / make – made – made]

(English is easy as well because nouns lack gender, instead of having two like French or three like German, though pronouns are an exception. And, too, unlike those in many other languages, nouns in English aren’t inflected depending on their function in a sentence: a horse is a horse, whether you “ride the horse”, “the horse rides you,” you go “to, with, by or from the horse” or call out “Oh, horse!” Again, pronouns are different here, causing no small amount of trouble: people have a hard time saying such things as “between him and her” or “to him and me” — but that’s another story.)
[have – had – had / say – said – said]

There are lists of strong verbs in English, numbering somewhere in the low hundreds, depending on how you decide what counts as a word. (See, for example, this list.) But I’ll bet if you asked English speakers how many irregular verbs there are, they’d almost always come up blank: they’re just something you know; you didn’t have to learn a list of them, as you might if you were learning a foreign language.
[bet – bet – bet / come – came – come / know – knew – known]

To make matters more difficult, some strong verbs are growing weaker over time and there’s uncertainty about which is the “proper” or desirable form. For example, I learned to say “dived” rather than “dove,” because “dove” was old fashioned and on the way out. But you still hear it about half the time, it seems to me. And then there’s confusion at times about which form a strong verb should take. I’ll say — and regard as correct — swim – swam – swum; but you’ll hear a lot of swim – swum – swum. Similarly, I learned sink – sank – sunk and drink – drank – drunk; but others learned sink – sunk – sunk and drink – drunk – drunk.
[make – made – made / grow – grew – grown / hear – heard – heard / say – said – said / hear – heard – heard]

And sometimes a form of a relatively rare strong verb is simply unclear even to those who study such things. A while back there was a fascinating discussion over on Language Log about whether there is a past participle of the verb “stride” (in principle there has to be), and if so, what it is exactly as determined by usage. Is it stride – strode – strode or stride – strode – stridden?

Then there are the treacherous “lay” and “lie,” the diabolical cousins among strong verbs. I’m a recovering prescriptivist and I have more bite marks on my tongue from these verbs heard in the wild that from anything except for the Great I-Me-(and Myself) Confusion. There will likely be some hidden regularity to the mistakes in usage that will, eventually, reform the way everyone handles these words, but at the moment it seems to me as though confusion reigns and when most people come up hard against the past forms of either of these verbs they boggle like a frightened horse and land on a form at random. (Oh, horse!) Actually the trouble starts in the present tense, and I blame Bob Dylan (“Lay, Lady, Lay”) and Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally”) — which is about as much use as blaming Dickens for screwing up with “Our Mutual Friend.” In case you’re uncertain about the LIE of the land here, I refer you to this site, which might help, though my tongue and I despair. Strongly.
[lay – laid – laid / lie – lay – lain]


  1. Well said! Well said! Please, PLEASE, write an article about how never, ever, will it be correct to say “him and I” or “her and I”. I beg it of you. And in aforementioned article, please also explain that it is OKAY to say “me and him” and “me and her”. Everyone knows it incorrect to say “She sent the gift to I,” so why would anyone think it acceptable to say “She sent the gift to him and I”. Nor would anyone say “him sent her the gift”, so why is it so common to hear “Him and I sent her the gift.” He and I go together, him and I do not. She and I go together, her and I do not. She and I sent the gift to him and her.

  2. Good luck with that, Daniel. I have (and send to people from time to time, trying to make the point gently) a New Yorker cartoon of the man confessing in a bar, “it’s hard to be a ‘between you and me’ person in a ‘between you and I’ world.”

    Clearly generations of teachers correcting ‘Him and me went to the movies’ have led to all the over-correction. But one still hears that version too, more often perhaps with a name, e.g. ‘Mary and me are going to the mall’.

    Less than an hour before my father died (at 98), a nurse was turning him over in his bed and said ‘Just lay like this, Wilf’. He grimaced. The nurse asked if he was in pain. My sister, who was there, knew that it was the ‘lay’ that caused his pain, not the rolling over.

    I am surprised at how many people use ‘sunk’ as a past tense. They would not use ‘sung’ that way. But I guess there’s a trend to simplification at work.