Ever see a toddler proudly show off her empty bowl? She might say, “I eated it all!” As a new learner of English, she is making a common, understandable and forgivable mistake:
The usual rule for creating a past tense in English is to add “-ed” or “-d” to the verb stem. (Linguists call this a “dental suffix” because the “d” sound is made with the tongue against the teeth; “-t” is another dental suffix that forms past tenses.) (Examples: flow/flowed/flowed; burn/burnt/burnt)
On the other hand, many verbs do not create the past tense by adding something; rather, they change a vowel sound in the verb stem itself (and sometimes a consonant with it). (Example: hang/hung/hung; stand/stood/stood) Sometimes, they make no changes at all (e.g., “put/put/put“).
We use the term “weak verbs” to describe verbs that form their past tense (and their past participle) by adding to the stem. (Think of it this way: they are so weak that they need the help of one or more outside letters to form their past tense.)
We use the term “strong verbs” to describe verbs that form their past tense by changing internally. (They do not need any outside help.) Past participles can vary: some add “-n” or “-en” to the past tense (as in “break/broke/broken“); some just use the past tense without change (as in “wind/wound/wound“); others pick up the original stem vowel again (as in “slay/slew/slain“); and still others go off in their own direction with a new vowel sound (as in “fly/flew/flown” and “ring/rang/rung“).
Germanic languages, of which English is one, often use strong verbs; that is, they form the simple past by making a change in the vowel of the stem. All our strong verbs in English come originally from Germanic roots, rather than from our Norman French ancestor.
Note: Not every authority uses the same definition for “weak” and “strong.” Consider the verb “bring.” The past tense is “brought,” which has a stem vowel change and the addition of a letter (in this case, “-t”). Under the definitions above, “bring” could be a strong verb; however, many consider it a weak verb because it needs the help of the final “-t.” Others use the term “mixed verb” because it has elements of each category. Whatever you decide to do, it will be all right; these categories are merely descriptive, and whether you put them in one group or another will have no consequences for speaking correct English. The fundamental point is that strong verbs tend to be trickier (that is, less predictable) than weak verbs.
Here is a selection of common strong verbs. Certainly you will be able to think of many others:
|Stem||Simple Past||Past Participle|
|Bear (give birth)||Bore||Born|
|Bind||Bound||Bound (or Bounden)|
Some teachers call these “irregular verbs,” meaning that only weak verbs that form the past tense with “-ed” and form the past participle in the same way are “regular verbs.” For them, all the other verbs are “irregular” because they fail to follow this rule (which is what “irregular” means, technically). It is probably better to hold onto the “strong verb” category, as these verbs are (in the main) regular in other respects, once the changes for the simple past and the past participle have been acknowledged. This leaves the “irregular” category for truly maverick verbs, like “be/was/been” and “go/went/gone.”
Here is a smattering of weak verbs. Most verbs in English are weak, so it is not hard to think of them.
|Stem||Simple Past||Past Participle|
Tip: Every once in a while you will hear someone counsel you to use “strong verbs,” meaning that you should select precise, communicative verbs, rather than weak, vague, boring, wordy and overused verbs. Surely, that is good advice. But it is not what “strong verb” means. We are also counseled from time-to-time not to use “strong language,” and that is also good advice. But “strong language” also has nothing to do with “strong verbs.”