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Thursday September 8, 2005

Strong and weak


There is more to strong and weak verbs than meets the eye. The distinction is clear. Strong verbs take a vowel change in the past tense. Weak verbs need only a suffix, usually -ed. You have to learn the list of strong verbs, and the rest is easy. Straightforward enough? Not quite. 

People tend to be uncertain about the correct form. I have just seen a Sky TV caption: “The euro has sank against the dollar.” TV folk may well have failed their English exams, but perhaps, dread thought, they passed them. The verb goes sink, sank (past tense), sunk (past participle). Not everyone on Sky knows that. 

More often though, there’s a genuine choice. Take hang. Game or meat is hung. A human being is hanged. There are numerous contexts for hang (curtains, laundry, pictures) and only one for hanged.  

Then, swelled or swollen? A financial column refers to “foreign reserves, now swelled by oil exports”. You can have either. I go along with Burchfield, who reckons that swollen implies harmful or undesirable, while swelled is more neutral. (“The audience was swelled by the arrival of two coachloads of tourists.”) Context is everything here: a river swollen by heavy rainfall is dangerous. But swelled head is always bad.  

Spin, spun, spun is almost standard. But span used to be an equal choice for the past tense. It is now rarely seen – “a deviant minority form”, says M.E.U. – but I have noted it in the current press. Span can only be used of physical movement though – “he span the celestial globe gently”.  

If spin takes on its special modern sense through spin-doctor – a public relations expert employed by a politician or a firm to influence public opinion – then the past tense is always spun. My feeling is that there is something archaic, or slightly jarring about span which makes it unsuitable for contemporary use.  

Then there are oddities of the past tense. Learned has the alternative learnt (with the same vowel sound). For kneel, the past is kneeled or knelt. Dream has a standard weak past, dreamed (rhymes with creamed). But dreamt (rhymes with tempt) is also correct.  

I would have to go into deep therapy to find out which I prefer: I believe I use both forms indifferently. There is no real distinction, but Burchfield suggests that dreamt is more common in British English than American. 

Which brings us to the great divide. Strong and weak usage is not entirely common to both sides of the Atlantic. I was reminded of this by a recent report of the US Attorney General, that prisoners had “pled guilty”.  

Pled (past tense of plead) is standard American, but is used only in legal contexts. Outside the law courts, plead reverts to its normal weak past tense, pleaded, in American and British. “She pleaded to be allowed to go home early.” 

Dove, past tense of dive, is entirely American and is making no impression at all on non-American usage. It may be that a strong verb, if felt to be odd or outlandish, arouses a reaction against it. A weak verb, on the other hand, seems to fit in more easily. 

A case in point is snuck, past tense of sneak. This used to be dialect or colloquial American, and is now standard American. British English sticks to sneaked. I’d say that snuck has to non-American ears a definite ‘strong’ (in the general sense) sound. To be avoided.  

On the other hand, I was taken aback by reading in John Grisham (I’m a fan) “who slinked into my office”. (The Rainmaker, p. 183) Shouldn’t it be slunk? But my Webster says that both forms are acceptable. 

And there are subtleties in slay, slew, slain. This is a bold, colourful word from a rich poetic tradition, more American than British now but providing a good headline: ‘Serial killer slays seven youths.’  

However, I see that the weak form is now making headway. The Times had a Wimbledon headline, ‘The gigantic giant-killer who slayed the man we love to hate.’ (This was of Karlovic vs Hewitt.)  

As I type this, my computer warns me with red underlining that it disapproves of “slayed”. But the weak past tense is coming in. And there’s a slang sense of slay that is used of a comedian, to overcome with laughter. “He slayed the audience.” 

I can see no hidden rules in all this. There are simply oddities to be taken note of, and the occasional choice to be made. I think I detect a slight general tendency to favour the weak form – the strong is perhaps a touch too ‘strong’. It is best to consult the latest dictionary.

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