A Word, Please: Understanding past participles is key to grammar

A lot of adults gave up on grammar long ago. They didn't learn as much as they would have liked in school. Now there's too much too learn.

Amid a sea of gibberish about sentence-ending prepositions, dangling participles and split infinitives, it's impossible to even know where to begin, right?

Not exactly.

Lifelong grammar learning is about priorities — getting the most out of the time you invest. And in my experience, no grammar lesson gives you a better bang for your buck than a crash course in past participles. Invest just a few minutes learning about past participles and you never again need wonder about things like:

"He has drank" versus "He has drunk."

"I have swam" versus "I have swum."

"We had got" versus "We had gotten."

"He had laid down" versus "He had lain down."

"She has dreamed" versus "She has dreamt."

If you don't know about past participles, it seems a lifetime isn't enough to learn the answers to countless grammar conundrums like these. But in fact, to tackle these issues with 100% confidence, you only need to know two things: what a past participle is and how to spot one in a dictionary.

Put simply, the past participle is the form of the verb that works with "have" to put something in the past. For example, "I walk" is present tense. "I walked" is simple past tense. But "I have walked" and "I had walked" combine a form of "have" with the past participle "walked" to convey time and duration.

The grammar terms (present perfect and past perfect) and the why don't matter. All you need to know is that the verb form that works with "have" and its cousins is the past participle.

Past participles can be regular or irregular. Regular past participles are identical to the simple past tense forms. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked. Last week, he worked hard. In recent weeks, he has worked hard. Yesterday she baked a cake. In the past, she has baked many cakes.

Notice how these simple past tenses and past participles are formed just by adding "ed" or "d" to the base.

Irregular past participles are any that don't follow that formula: thought, been, sung, taken, given, swum, brought. The list goes on. Some irregular verbs use the same form for the simple past tense as they do for the past participle. Yesterday he thought. In the past he has thought. But some don't. Yesterday he sang. In the past he has sung.

Irregular past participles cause more than their fair share of grammar confusion — but only if you don't know that all the answers are at your fingertips. Open a dictionary. Hard copies are good but online dictionaries work too.

Turn to any irregular verb, for example "eat," and chances are you'll see next to it in bold: "ate, eaten." That's how most dictionaries indicate irregular forms, usually in the order: simple past tense, then past participle.

Sometimes you'll see them written like this: "got, got or gotten." This means that the past tense is "got," but the past participle can be one of two forms. The "or" choice. (A tip: Dictionaries list the preferred form first).

If you see no such boldface type after the main verb, you know it's regular. And if you ever forget this method, it's usually explained right in the front of the book in a section titled something like, "How to use this dictionary."

That's it — the answer to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grammar dilemmas right at the tip of your fingers.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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