97. Verb Form Confusions


There are good reasons why some irregular verbs in English are harder to remember than others



Like most languages, English has a wide variety of verb “forms” to express such meanings as “number”, “person”, “tense”, “voice” and “mood”. Some of these forms are made just by changing (or even not changing) the spelling and/or pronunciation of the verb (e.g. see/sees/saw), but most involve the addition of one or more new words (“auxiliary verbs”), either with or without a change in the original verb (e.g. will see/has been seen).

Most of these variations follow predictable rules, so that knowing how to change one verb in order to express a particular meaning gives the ability to change most other verbs in the same way. However – again as in most other languages – some verbs break these rules, varying their forms in quite unexpected and sometimes surprising ways, and are said as a result to be “irregular”. Since there is no consistency in the way they break the rules, the unexpected forms usually have to be memorised individually.

Actually, memorising irregular verb forms is not as burdensome in English as it is in many other languages, the reason probably being the English preference for auxiliary verbs – which are less prone to irregularities – over pronunciation changes. Hence elementary learners of English soon find that the irregularities come down to two per verb: the simple past tense and the “past” participle (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). Memorisation thus focuses on lists like this:

Within such lists, some verb forms seem to be much harder to remember than others, regardless of the learner’s first language. Some are even a problem for mother tongue English speakers. The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the most common problems of this kind, and to suggest some reasons why they might occur.



 1. LOSE versus CHOOSE

One of the most frequent verb form errors is to spell lose with an extra “o” (*loose). The error is rarely overcome by explanations that loose is an adjective opposite in meaning to tight and rhyming with goose (with the “s” pronounced /s/ and not /z/).

The difficulty for learners, I think, is that once again English is being less logical than they are (for other errors with this kind of cause, see 10. Words that Aren’t Used as Expected 1,  31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1 and 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words). The illogicality is that –ose is not the normal English way of spelling  the /u:z/ sound– elsewhere it represents the different vowel of hose and rose (see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings). A more normal spelling of /u:z/ is in the verb choose, also irregular. Spelling lose the same way as choose must therefore be very tempting. This feeling will surely be reinforced by the observation that the past simple form of CHOOSE (chose with a single “o”) rhymes with rose and not with lose.

Even learners who are not influenced by CHOOSE into spelling lose wrongly might still fall into error, spelling choose with one “o” rather than lose with two. Some might even use the similarly-spelt noun choice in place of the past simple form. The noun related to LOSE (loss) can cause similar problems in relation to the past tense form lost.


2. LIE versus LAY

A glance at the table above will show that the past simple form of LIE (lay) is the same as the base form of the different verb LAY. The two verbs are also similar in that LIE has a y like LAY when it ends in -ing (lying). In addition, the meanings are close: LIE means “be in (or assume) a horizontal position”, while LAY means “put … into a lying position”. Grammatically speaking, LIE is “intransitive” – complete without additional words (see 113. Verbs that Cannot be Passive) – while LAY needs an object (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Yet another complication, though perhaps not such a cause of confusion, is the existence of a third similarly-spelt verb, LIE meaning “speak falsely”, which has a regular past tense form (lied).

A major confusion that results from all of this is the use of LAY when LIE is needed, for example:

(a) *The wheat was laying on the ground.

(b) *Children laid close to their parents.

The underlined words here should, of course, be lying and lay.


3. RISE versus RAISE

Meaning is again a source of confusion here. RISE means “go up” and does not have an object, while similar-looking RAISE means “cause … to go up”.  There are some other, less common pairs of the same kind: FALL (= “go down”) versus FELL (= “cause [a tree] to fall), and START (= “make a jerky move of surprise”) versus STARTLE (= “cause … to start”). FELL is similar to LAY in being spelt the same as the past tense of the verb it resembles.

The kind of causative verb meaning illustrated here is actually quite widespread in English – it is just unusual in being associated with two different but look-alike verbs. Slightly more common is the involvement of two not-so-similar verbs, e.g.:

LAUGH (= “make a sound of amusement”) versus AMUSE (= “cause … to laugh”)

DIE (= “stop living”) versus KILL (= “cause … to die”)

FUNCTION (= “act as intended”) versus OPERATE (= “cause … to function”)

STAY/REMAIN (= “continue in the same place”) versus KEEP (cause … to stay/remain).

Very often, both meanings exist in a single verb. For example, INCREASE means either “grow” or “cause … to grow”, BEGIN means either “go into operation” or “put … into operation” and OPEN means either “become accessible” or “make accessible” (for more examples, see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive).


4. LEAD versus READ

The common error of spelling the past tense of LEAD lead instead of led is probably another confusion of similar-looking verbs. The verb READ has a past form spelt read but rhyming with led. A further complication is the existence of the noun lead (= dark grey metal) pronounced the same as led.



A common spelling error is *writting with a double “tt”. The obvious cause is the double “tt” needed in written. The reason for the two different spellings is two different vowel sounds before them: long /aɪ/ before “t” and short /ɪ/ before “tt”. It is, of course, confusing that the vowel spelling is the same in each case. Single consonants like “t” are a normal requirement between a long vowel and -ing. Other examples are in hoping, curing and training.



Some form errors occur with verbs that do not behave exactly like other verbs they resemble (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1 for more on this kind of error). One verb of this kind is SING. Its past tense form is sang, but is often incorrectly spelt sung instead. The reason may be that some verbs do have “u” instead of “a” in their past tense form. Consider this:

Verb Table2

The probable reason for the error is fairly clear from even this small sample: verbs ending in -ng tend to have “u” in their past tense, but SING is an exception (BRING is another, of course, its other forms both being brought). A similar sort of problem occurs with the past tense of FREEZE. One might expect it to be regular like those of SQUEEZE and SNEEZE, but in fact it is the irregular froze.

It is as well to note in passing that HANG does not always change to hung. Its other forms will be hanged instead when the meaning is “suspend (someone) by a rope around the neck”.

A trend of a different kind involves the verb PRACTISE. Spelling it as shown with -SE is British English; American English spells it with -CE – the same spelling and pronunciation as those of the related noun. The different British spellings are like ADVISE (verb) and ADVICE (noun). The trend-breaker is thus the American spelling.

However, it is users of British English who have the most problems. The single American spelling of both verb and noun are obviously easier to remember, while the British ones are not just more complicated but also prone to American English influences. The spellings of ADVISE/ADVICE might be a useful guideline for British English users wanting to get the “right” spelling.


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