Core Grammar #10: Participles

Mysterious Verb Things

One of the reasons English is so confusing is that many forms look identical but have different functions. We're about to get into one of those areas. (Please don't blame me for this—I didn't invent it.)

A word about irregular forms

Verbs come in two flavors: regular and irregular. (So do a lot of other grammatical features.) Regular verbs predictably follow the rules about the way they form past tense, third person singular, and so forth, while irregular verbs are—well—irregular. There is no way to predict that the present tense of go will form the past tense went. Typically the little words that we use all the time (see, do, be) are the most irregular, and the less frequent ones (open, adjust, insert) are the most regular. Most languages work this way. Fortunately, this means that you can easily figure out the really unfamiliar words because they always fit the pattern; it's your daily friends that cause trouble.

Principle parts of the English verb

English verbs have five principal parts from which other forms are derived using verb auxiliaries: base, simple past/present, past participle, present participle and the infinitive (the “name” of the verb). Some handbooks also include the third person singular in the present tense as a principle part, as it is the only verb form that kept its inflectional ending in modern English.

Grammatical term Regular Verb Irregular Verb Irregular Verb Irregular Verb
Infinitive to watch to see to do to be
Base Form (Dictionary) watch see do be
Present Simple third person singular watches sees does is
Past Simple watched saw did was
Past Participle watched seen done been
Present Participle watching seeing doing being

Why this is interesting and important

Past Participle and Past Tense Trade Places in Some Spoken English

Some varieties of casual, conversational English use the past participle for simple past and (less commonly) the simple past for a participle. The forms are the same for regular verbs, so there is no way to see whether this trade is happening, but the trade is very apparent in the irregular verbs.

(By the way, the asterisk before a sentence is a standard linguistic way of saying "this is not acceptable usage.")

Standard UsageColloquial ("Down Home") Usage
He saw the cow.*He seen the cow.
She did her homework.*She done her homework.
They went home.*They gone home.

Standard UsageColloquial ("Down Home") Usage
He had seen the cow.*He had saw the cow.
She has done her homework.*She has did her homework.
They have gone home.*They have went home.

The issue is grammar, not strength

I asked several students about the "Down Home" usage above, and they told me that the difference between the left column above and the right column is that the left column is weak and effeminate, while the right column is strong and masculine. They make a similar point about this pair:

Standard UsageColloquial ("Down Home") Usage
He and I were there.*Me and him was there.

Nobody wants to be seen as weak and effeminate, so many speakers make a point of pushing all their writing and speaking to the right column (the more "muscular" one). I have even heard parents "correcting" their children who speak standard grammar: "No honey, don't say he and I were there. Say me and him was there."

The real point is not muscle or gender role; it's grammar and audience. The right column ("Down Home" usage) is a very strong status marker. An educated audience sees this usage as extremely ignorant and low-class. It is not in the same category as misspelling freind or forgetting to close a quotation. People in positions of power (business owners, for example) see this sort of speaking and writing as a mark of (at least) being unschooled and probably of stupidity.

Time for a little humility

Some of my students put up a lot of resistance to this kind of grammar lesson: "My English is just as good as yours." Perhaps it is, if the issue is moving facts, but the problem is that the way you speak and write communicates a lot more than bare facts; writing and speaking are a powerful way to communicate what sort of person you are.

The issue is not class warfare or an attempt to turn people into wimpy, emasculated slaves. The point is to give you tools to move up the vertical register and (in the discussion below) give you tools to say complex thoughts more powerfully.

Perfect Verb Tense

English actually has twelve verb tenses. This handout from St. Cloud State University discusses them in detail. You will notice that most of the tenses use a form of the verb "be" or "have" plus a participle. The perfect tenses (the term perfect comes from a Latin word for "completion") are simply missing from some forms of spoken English, but they are a powerful way of discussing action that is finished. Here is a little scene to show what I mean:

  1. George gets out of bed at 7:00.
  2. From 7:15 to 7:30, he eats breakfast.
  3. George arrives at work at 8:00.

The boss asks George at 8:30 whether he had breakfast. Here are some possible answers:

English even has an incredibly powerful tool in the future perfect tense:

One of my students wrote, "When I was born, I had lived in Chicago." The grammar is just fine, but it says that he spent some time living in Chicago before he was born, and that he moved before his birth. I asked him about that had. His answer was that the word made the sentence fancy and academic, and that his essay was a bit short anyhow.

Nope.

The had is a tense marker in that sentence and pushes it to past perfect—which is foolish in this context. Do not throw in words you don't understand just to look good. You will probably embarrass yourself.

Help from the computer:

Microsoft Word is good at catching the error when you confuse a past participle with a simple past, and it will often suggest several alternatives. It is helpless, though, at catching the error when you have typed something that is grammatically correct but logically impossible (such as the sentence by the guy who lived in Chicago before he was born).

More information:


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 11/2/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.