Feature

RIP Past Participles

C. Edward Good

©2018. Published in Landslide, Vol. 10, No. 3, Janusry/February 2018, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Just last night at a poker game: “I should have drank this beer earlier.”

Just last night from the Washington Nationals' broadcast booth: "He could have went to second base."

And from the lyrics of "Out the Door" by Stick Figure: "I could have saw it coming from far and away."

The past participle is dying a slow death. Why? Because many people have forgotten—or never learned—the “principal parts” of verbs. Unfortunately, most people did not have my middle school English teacher—Miss Hamrick. For she drilled the principal parts into our numb little skulls way back in the 1950s.

I can remember Miss Hamrick's chant to this day:

drink, drank, drunk go, went, gone, see, saw, seen

As teenagers in Greensboro, North Carolina—thanks to Miss Hamrick—we just knew how to form tenses correctly. We would thus say: "I should have drunk this beer," "He could have gone to second base," and "I could have seen it coming."

So What Are the Principal Parts of Verbs?

Remember verb conjugation? Sounds a bit kinky, I know, but writers and talkers have to conjugate verbs to show the various tenses.

Today, I walk (present tense).

Yesterday, I walked (past tense).

Tomorrow, I will walk (future tense).

Right now as a completed fact: I have walked (present-perfect tense).

According to some grammarians, verbs have three principal parts (go, went, gone). Others point out that verbs have five: I go, she goes, she went, she has gone, she is going. From the five principal parts of a verb, we can conjugate a verb in all possible tenses.

So let’s name the five principal parts for the verb walk:

  1. Infinitive or first-person present tense: to walk, I walk.
  2. Past tense: I walked, she walked, we walked.
  3. Past participle: I have walked, she has walked, they have walked.
  4. Present tense, third-person singular: she walks, he walks.
  5. Present participle: she is walking, we are walking, they are walking.

For the verb walk, we can form all possible tenses with the (1) infinitive or first-person present tense (walk), (2) past tense (walked), (3) past participle (walked), (4) third-person singular present tense (walks), and (5) present participle (walking).

Notice that the past tense and the past participle of walk are the same word: walked. Most verbs in the English language form their past tense and their past participle simply by adding the suffix – ed. We call these "regular verbs," because they all follow the same rule for forming both their past tense and their past participle: just add – ed. Other regular verbs, we should note, might use different endings, but they’re still "regular" because they follow the same rule for forming their past tense and their past participle, e.g., feel, felt, felt; build, built, built.

Irregular Verbs

But then come the troublemakers: An irregular verb does not follow a set of rules for forming its past tense and its past participle. These verbs, alas, require the most dreaded of all academic tasks: memorization.

Hence Miss Hamrick’s chant: drink, drank, drunk; go, went, gone; see, saw, seen. We had to memorize the first-person present tense or infinitive (go), the past tense (went), and the past participle (gone). In no other way, for irregular verbs, could we possibly determine the correct form of the perfect tenses, that is, through the use of the correct past participle. Instead, we had to memorize that sucker.

Notice that irregular verbs use one word for the past tense (went) and a completely different word for the past participle (gone). Please note, however, that some irregular verbs use the same word for all three main principal parts: cast, cast, cast; burst, burst, burst; hit, hit, hit. Thus, today I hit the ball; yesterday I hit the ball; and, as a completed fact, I have hit the ball.

Time Out: What Are Past Participles?

Three constructions in the English language require past participles: (1) the perfect tenses, (2) the passive voice, and (3) past-participial adjectives.

Perfect Tenses

Suppose I say: "I worked at the firm for 24 years." To my listener, that means I no longer work at the firm. But suppose I still work at the firm. I want to show a situation that started in the past but continues in the present. I thus turn to the present-perfect tense and say: "I have worked at the firm for 24 years." Now my listener knows that I still work at the firm.

We form the perfect tenses by using the helping verb have and then adding the past participle of the verb. I simply conjugate have to form the perfect tenses:

Present perfect: I have worked, you have worked, she has worked, etc.

Past perfect: I had worked, you had worked, she had worked, etc.

Future perfect: I will have worked, you will have worked, she will have worked, etc.

Passive Voice

The past participle also enables us to form the passive voice. We simply take some form of the verb to be and, again, add the past participle. Thus we can write in the present tense: "This case is decided by a trial court." Or in the past tense: "This case was decided by a trial court." Or in the future tense: "This case will be decided by a trial court."

Past-Participial Adjectives

The past participle of a verb can serve as an adjective. Thus we can refer to "the torn pocket," "The Lost Colony," or perhaps "the conjugated verb."

Flubs

Grammatical disasters most often occur with the perfect tenses: "He could have went to second base," and on and on and on. The speaker—or writer—uses the past tense of an irregular verb (went) to form a perfect tense: could have went. He should, of course, have used the past participle and said: "He could have gone to second base."

Parents, Listen to Your Four-Year-Olds

Small children treat all verbs as regular verbs. To form the past tense, they just add – ed. (Smart little tikes!) So we hear: "I builded it." "I seed the movie." "I drinked the juice box." As gentle parents, we simply respond, "Oh, you built it?" "You saw the movie?" "You drank the juice box?" In an incredibly short period of time, they catch on. We should, of course, do the same when the child mistakenly uses the past tense—not the correct past participle—to form a perfect tense: "I have drank the milk." "Oh, you have drunk the milk?"

It’s Time to Chant

The irregular verbs cause all the trouble. Way too many people use the past tense (went)—not the correct past participle (gone)—to form perfect tenses (with the helping verb have). They thus say, "He could have went." Not the correct, "He could have gone."

There is no trick you can use to come up with the correct past participle. Most educated people just know them. They identify the past participle by completing this sentence: I have [insert correct verb form here]. But if they haven’t memorized the past participles of irregular verbs, they might just insert the past tense (have went), not the past participle (have gone).

In the English language, we have around 200 irregular verbs. Below are some causing the most trouble. Remember, use the past tense for statements showing something that happened in the past. Use the past participle to form the perfect tenses (with have) or the passive voice (with to be). I have included some regular verbs (sneak and dive) that have developed some acceptable irregular forms (snuck and dove). Review the list below. In fact, memorize it.

Irregular Verbs: The Three Main Principal Parts

See printed publication for chart

Do We Preserve Our Language or Not?

Does anyone care? If your listener knows what you mean when you say, "He could have went to second base," then why should you worry about the niceties of past participles?

Well, your professional colleagues care. Your prospective employer in a job interview cares. Clients care. Many TV watchers care. Culture cares.

And your children should care; after all, if you say, "I could have went," so will they.

C. Edward Good provides on-site training programs in effective legal writing for corporations, government agencies, professional associations, and law firms.