Quick: What’s the Past Tense of “Pet”?

On regular and irregular verbs


I posed this question on my Facebook wall not long ago in response to my husband’s insistence that I was “saying it wrong.” Answers split evenly between pet and petted; confidence levels ran the gamut. Some friends mentioned that the more they thought about their response, the less certain they felt. A few eventually wanted to change their minds.

Irregular verbs are the scourge of adult English learners. This is understandable. But when it comes time to conjugate, even native speakers of Standard American English can be flummoxed. Given our immense vocabularies—we’ve memorized many tens of thousands of arbitrary associations between sound sequences and concepts in the world—it is genuinely striking that a couple hundred irregulars can so ensnarl us. Irregular verbs are neither Johnny-come-latelies to the English language nor particularly obscure. To the contrary, the ranks of the irregulars include the 10 most common verbs around. And unlike variants of the pop vs. soda ilk, irregular verbs generally have a single “correct” past (or participle) form: we just can’t agree on what that form is—even, on rare occasions, with ourselves.

Not all irregulars are equally problematic. No native speaker over the age of six has ever goed to the store or beed a bad friend. No, the most cantankerous verbs seem to be those that sound a great deal like other verbs, some of which are regular and some of which are not. This makes sense. Words in memory are interconnected along many dimensions, including sound. That’s why, when we hear a word, any sound-alike words become more accessible in memory. It’s also why, when we say a word that has lots of these sound-alikes, we’re unconsciously likelier to hyperarticulate to avoid any confusion.

And so it is that pet begets jet, net, and vet—as well as bet, let, and set. It also, God help us, begets whet and wet. But while we’ve jetted and netted and vetted and whetted, we’ve also bet, let, set, and wet. The problem becomes apparent: irregular verbs aren’t conjugated every which way. More often than not, they seem regularly irregular—the question is not whether to apply a morphological rule to a given verb, but rather to which cluster of similar verbs, each with its own set of morphological rules, a given verb belongs.

And then, just when we think we have it all figured out, we remember get.

“This chaos is a legacy of the Indo-Europeans, the remarkable prehistoric tribe whose language took over most of Europe and southwest Asia,” psychologist Steven Pinker explains. “Their language formed tenses using rules that regularly replaced one vowel with another. But as pronunciation habits changed in their descendant tribes, the rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils.” According to historical linguist Ann Taylor, these fossils’ numbers are on the decline, though their descent has not been gradual. Irregular verbs took a beating in the 14th century—in the aftermath, Taylor argues, of a 10th-century Scandinavian invasion of England: as large numbers of foreign learners attempted to master the language, dialects that lacked the rarest irregulars took hold and spread. Barring another invasion, the bulk of the current crop of irregulars might be here to stay.

How many of us would spontaneously produce both Yesterday I pet the cat and Yesterday I petted the cat? (Brits, feel free to replace cat with something X-rated.) Most of our dialects may well include a single go-to past-tense form for each verb—even for those few, like snuck (sneaked), wed (wedded), and dove (dived), for which dictionaries permit multiple variants. That so many of us question ourselves, when faced with a question on Facebook, is a reminder that our intuitions about words and grammar are always somewhat in flux, shaped by nothing so much as other people’s intuitions about words and grammar.

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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