or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

That Sinking Feeling

In today's Broadsheet from Salon.com:

But in riffing on some recent criticism on how we festishize celebrity babies, Smith momentarily sunk her teeth into speculation about Jennifer Aniston's purported pregnancy, all of which has been based on a supposed "bump" in her taut belly.

I wish I knew how this happened, because it bugs the hell out of me. When did the past participle of some irregular verbs become the preterite?

First things first, I suppose, for those not in the know. The preterite is otherwise known as the simple past tense: the past participle is the verb form used (among other things) with "have" to indicate the past perfect. "Talk, talked, [have] talked" are the present, preterite and past participle of a regular verb; the irregular verbs must simply be learned so that we can get things like "to run" (run, ran, run) or "fight" (fight, fought, fought) correct. All very straightforward. Most people instinctively grasp, or least learn from experience, that there are three forms, even if two of them usually look the same, and that in English they can be irregular.

But for some reason which escapes me entirely, the preterite of most irregular verbs ending in "-ink" has replaced the past participle. Remember the movie "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids"? The perfect case in point: "shrank" is the past tense of the irregular verb "shrink", and "shrunk" is the past participle, correctly used only when we have a helper verb such as "have". I shrink: I shrank: I have shrunk. Pretty clear-cut, one would think, and yet it's misused all the time, as in the quoted sentence above, which should have used "sank", not "sunk".

I concede that some of the "-ink" verbs are very very irregular. A small set--"drink", shrink", "sink", and "stink"--is conjugated with the vowel's changing to "-a-" in the preterite and "-u-" in the past participle. Another, "slink", perversely uses "-u-" in both past forms. Yet another, "think", goes entirely off the rails with "thought" as both past forms, in line with another batch of irregular verbs such as "buy" ("bought") and "teach ("taught"). (All the rest--"wink", "link", and so on--are regular, taking "-ed" in both past forms.)

But there are only four verbs that run "-ink"/"-a-"/"-u", and I wouldn't have thought it so difficult to get them right. It shouldn't bother me, I suppose: "You sunk my battleship!" is so common now as to be beneath notice, and could probably be defended as correct, but it still sticks in my craw. Even if I'm the last holdout on Earth, you'll never hear me say it.


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