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Irregular Verbs

Written by tutor Don M.

What makes a verb regular or irregular? What are some of the characteristics of an irregular verb?

First, to explain regular verbs. Those are verbs that, when conjugated (that is, they are changed to reflect the correct tense, person, mood, number, etc.), use the same root with a different ending. It then follows that an “irregular verb” changes—sometimes radically—depending on how it is conjugated. For better or worse, most verbs in English are irregular, so don’t think “regular” means the same as “normal” in the grammatical sense.

Here are a couple of simple examples: to talk, and to drive. First we will change the subject, then we will change the tense. You know that “tense” means “when” something happens. In brief, first person is me talking/writing about me (I, we). Second person is me talking/writing to you (you), and third person is me talking/writing about someone else (either a proper noun, or he, she, they).

“I talk a lot.” This is first person, present tense. “You talk a lot.” That is second person. But third person changes a bit. “John talks a lot.” Notice we added a simple suffix, “s”. The same for “he” or “she”. But if the subject is plural (the word “number” above means singular or plural), then we go back to the infinitive: “They talk a lot.”

Now for tense change to the simple past: “I talked to John; You talked to John; He/They talked to John.” Notice that, regardless of the person the subject was in, the root did not change, but a suffix was added to show the tense. In this case, it is not the subject that changed the verb, but the tense. Other conjugations usually follow: “He is talking; They will have talked together; Will you be talking long?” And so on. The root stayed the same, while the suffix changed primarily according to tense. “Talk” is a regular verb.

Now for an irregular verb. “I drive to work.” In the simple past, the verb is conjugated differently: “I drove a long distance.” The conjugations of this verb stay the same regardless of the subject change. Other conjugations are also different: “We will be driving together; Have you driven this car?” Sometimes the vowel within the root changes, sometimes the suffix will change.

Unfortunately, while the pronunciation of the root stays the same with regular verbs, the pronunciation of the vowels often changes from a “long” sound to a “short” sound in irregular verbs. “Drive” has a long sound on the “i”, but a short sound in “driven”. Therefore, when you recognize that a verb is irregular, be aware that the sound may often change in speaking, as the root changed in writing. By the way, “to write” is also irregular (write, wrote, writing, written).

One example of a highly irregular verb is the most common: “to be”. This is very often used in English (for example, “is” is the singular, present tense conjugation of “to be”), and can be very frustrating to learn. Start with this verb! Here we go: “I am a teacher. John is a student. Mary will be an actress. Fred has been talking. The boys were playing. You thought English was easy?” (Yes, that last one is also a conjugation of “to be”!)

How can you know what is regular and what is irregular? Unfortunately, in English it is mostly a matter of memorization, based on repeated usage. For the most part, however, if you learn both the infinitive (the basic form of the verb) and the simple past, you will be able to tell if other conjugations follow the basic regular pattern, or will also be irregular. If the simple past has the same root as the infinitive, it’s regular!

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