From time to time, while thumbing through one of my usage guides, my eye will stop on the phrase “so inflected.” This phrase always comes after a list of forms of the same verb, such as “drink, drank, drunk.” And it always reminds me of the famous Yul Brynner line, “So let it be written, so let it be done.” That, in turn, reminds me that I’m a geek, which causes me to quickly turn the page.
That’s why it took me so long to realize that packed into the neat little term “so inflected” is some really helpful information for anyone who ever stopped to wonder: Is it “I have hung the Christmas stockings” or “I have hanged them”? Is it “I have drank all the egg nog” or “I have drunk all the egg nog”?
In grammar-speak, “inflect” is often used interchangeably with “conjugate.” Technically, “inflect” isn’t just a grammar term. In its broader sense, it means, according to “Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” to “turn, bend or curve” or to “vary or change the tone or pitch” of one’s voice. But in the grammar world, it usually refers to the ways a verb’s form changes according to its use, for example, “Today I drink,” “Yesterday I drank,” “In the past I have drunk.”
It’s also crucial to understanding how to read a dictionary. For example, open up any dictionary to “go” and you’ll see in bold type, immediately after the entry word, something like “went, gone, going.” These are the inflections of “go.”
But open the dictionary to “walk” and there are no alternate forms in bold type. What’s the difference? “Walk” is a regular verb, which means that its inflections follow a standard formula: “Today I walk. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked.” “Go” is an irregular verb, which means its inflections do not follow any set pattern: “Today I go. Yesterday I went. In the past I have gone.” Most dictionaries don’t bother to lay out the inflections of regular verbs. They assume you know the formula. But because irregulars have no such formula, the dictionary makers take on the job of giving you, in addition to the simple present tense form, these other forms: the past tense, the past participle and the present participle.
Don’t let the jargon scare you. These are concepts every native English speaker understands intuitively. The first one is the simple present tense: “Today I go.” The second is the simple past tense: “Yesterday I went.” The third blank calls for a past participle: “In the past I have gone.”
That, by the way, is the easiest way to understand what a past participle is. It’s the one that goes with “have.” That’s not its only job, but this will help you identify it every time. Don’t worry about the present participle. Its use is almost always self-evident to any native speaker: “I am going. I am walking. I am thinking.” That one’s a no-brainer.
It’s those other forms that tend to trip people up.
So just ask yourself which form you’re looking for: “Yesterday I drank,” which is the simple past tense and always the first inflection listed in the dictionary, or the one that goes with “have,” the past participle, which is always the second inflection listed in the dictionary: “In the past I have drunk.”
Armed with that basic knowledge and a dictionary, you never again need to worry about choices such as “drank” vs. “drunk,” “dreamed” vs. “dreamt,” “hang vs. hung,” “lay” vs. “lain” and on and on.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You’re Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.