or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Going, Going, Gone

This sentence from Salon.com's Video Dog video-clip collection reminded me of something I had written a couple of days ago:

On Tuesday's, "The View," Star Jones sprung the news on a startled audience that she was leaving the show after nine years.

I had been jawing on about preterites and such and complaining about how everyone seems to say "My sweater shrunk" rather than the correct "shrank", and I completely forgot about another little clutch of irregular verbs: some non-progressive verbs ending in "-ing". "Spring" is the perfect example ("sprang" is the preterite, but everyone seems to use the past participle "sprung" instead, as in the sentence above), and "ring" and "sing" are formed in the same way. Only "sing" seems to have a strong grip on its preterite: you might hear "I rung up the sale" (it seems to me about fifty-fifty with the correct "rang"), but hardly ever "I sung him a song".

Like "slink" among the "-ink" verbs, however, most non-progressive "-ing" verbs do take only "-u-" for both the preterite and past participle: "cling", "fling", "sting", "sling", "swing", and "wring". Some of them used to take "-a-" in the preterite: "stang" and "swang" are occasionally heard, but mostly obsolete. And like "think", "bring" turns into "brought" for both past-tense forms.

It's easy for a native speaker to forget just how irregular English verbs can be until he starts poking around in their guts.


While I'm at it, what exactly does "preterite" mean, anyway? It's (so so obviously) from Latin: "pre-", meaning "before", and the verb "ire", "to go". (The future tense of the wildly irregular verb "to go" in French seems to bear traces of its ancestor: the verb stem is "ir-", and the third-person singular is "ira".) The preterite, therefore, is the verb form that has gone before the present tense; the simple past.


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