A Word, Please: Hung up on verb conjugations

Is it sneaked or snuck? Would you say a suspect pled guilty or pleaded guilty? Was the picture hanged or hung?

Questions like these get people’s attention. Many folks are convinced they should know the answers, while others seem certain they do.

But a far more important question (and much more fun to pose to those know-it-all types) is: how can you know? Because amid the near universal certainty that we’re all “supposed” to know this stuff is an equally widespread confusion about where to turn for answers. Yet the answers are easily within reach.

This subject came up recently when one of the students in an online copy-editing class I teach wrote, “I have not found a comprehensive source for conjugated verbs. Some dictionaries have the various verb forms, but I can’t always form the full conjugations from that list.”

This student already has a lot of professional experience and is quite savvy in language and editing. So I figured that if she hasn’t been able to find a universal, comprehensive, all-knowing source of verb conjugations, it couldn’t hurt to revisit the topic here.

The answer, of course, is that the very dictionaries in which my student found only partial information are 100% comprehensive sources for knowing how to conjugate every English verb under the sun. But you have to know how to find that information first.

Turn, as my student did, to a verb like “ring,” and you’ll see next to it “rang, rung,” indicating the past tense and past participles, respectively. But turn to the verb “walk” and you won’t see “walked, walked” indicating its past tense and past participle. Hence her conclusion that the dictionary contains only partial help on verb forms.

But if you turn all the way to the front of the dictionary, to the introductory sections most of us flip right past, you’ll find everything you need to bridge the gap.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s “Explanatory Notes” section says that most inflected forms of words “are covered explicitly or by implication at the main entry for the base form. … When these inflected forms are created in a manner considered regular in English…the inflected form is not shown.”

In other words, the omission of “walked, walked” tells us every bit as much as the inclusion of “rang, rung.” It tells us that “walk” is a regular verb and follows the standard form of adding “ed” (or for verbs like breathe that end in “e,” adding just “d”). Similarly, under the entry for “vie,” you’ll see “vying,” telling you that this irregular verb has its own unique “ing” form.

Notice that the dictionary doesn’t tell us how to conjugate simple present tenses. That’s because almost every verb in English follows the same formula: just add “s” or “es” to the third-person singular and use the base form in all other cases. I walk. You walk. He walks. She walks. We walk. They walk.

The main exception is “be,” whose forms are included in that word entry. Modal auxiliaries like “can,” “may,” “might” and “shall” are also exceptions in that they stay the same for all users.

To choose between “sneaked” and “snuck,” “pled” and “pleaded,” and “hanged” and “hung,” you’ll need to know just one more thing. Whenever more than one form is acceptable, the dictionary lists its preferred form first.

Merriam-Webster’s prefers “pleaded,” but allows “pled” and prefers “sneaked,” but allows ”snuck.” In most cases, it prefers “hung” to “hanged,” but contains a special entry noting that the meaning “to suspend by the neck” more often uses “hanged” as its past tense.

Welcome to the head of the class.

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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