english past tense verbs: decoded
If we could argue that most areas of English make complete sense and have a certain set of rules to follow, then the past tense verbs are the one area where these rules don’t apply.
Let’s take a look at the unusual nature of some English verbs in the past tense and how you can best maneuver through it all to take your English to the next level.
A World of Irregularities
How we use English to talk about events in the past depends largely on when exactly those events took place. It’s what determines both the tense and the verb forms we use.
Hence, the biggest differences lie in the formation of each past tense in English. The ones we’re going to focus on the most today are past simple, past perfect, and present perfect along with their respective verb forms.
In short, there are only two verb forms that really matter here – the past simple and past participle.
However, these forms are greatly influenced by the fact that some verbs in English are labeled as regular, which follow a set of rules, and irregular, which are really just a world of their own.
Starting from the End
Typically, any regular English past simple verb form just adds an –ed or –d suffix to its base form, depending on the verb’s last letter.
If the verb ends with a consonant, it usually requires the –ed suffix in its past simple form, e.g. “work, worked”.
If the verb ends with a vowel, it usually requires the suffix –d, such as “fade, faded”, unless it ends with the letter “y”. Then, the “y” almost always changes into “i” and requires an –ed suffix, e.g. “cry, cried”.
Furthermore, the past participle form of regular verbs is exactly the same as the past simple. It’s literally the same thing.
Here’s an example of how you’d normally find these verbs listed in course books or other credible sources, in this exact same order – the infinitive, past simple, and past participle form:
work, worked, worked
fade, faded, faded
cry, cried, cried
Unlike irregular English verbs, this seems easy enough. The next part focuses on the more frequent struggles that English learners face when using past tense verbs.
The Same But… Different
We’re ready for the hard part – the irregular simple past verb forms. To paint the best picture possible of what an irregular past verb form actually is, think of a clock (or watch) that has a very fancy design to it. It serves its purpose very well; it’s just different. That’s exactly what irregular English verbs are.
When compared to regular English verbs, irregular verbs take on a completely different form in the past tense. The –ed and –d suffixes simply don’t apply here anymore. It’s like each irregular verb in English exists on its own and must be memorized separate of any rules.
The following examples are what I consider the most frequent irregular verbs in English used by learners everywhere:
go, went, gone
say, said, said
find, found, found
see, saw, seen
come, came, come
In my experience, course books include a one-page table of the most frequently used irregular English verbs and their infinitive, past simple, and past participle forms at the very back of the book, as shown above. In this way, students have everything they need all in one place.
In fact, the easiest way to differentiate regular and irregular verbs for most learners is by treating every single verb that isn’t in that table as a regular verb and using the usual –ed and –d suffixes with them. Interestingly enough, I’d say this method works at least 95 percent of the time.
Let’s look at some other great ways for overcoming the challenges that come with the usage of irregular English past tense verbs.
The Best Ways to Learn English Past Tense Verbs
Navigating through all the different past tense verb forms in English can be tough, especially if you’re not certain if a particular verb is regular or irregular.
This usually results in unintended errors in speaking and writing, which can get exhausting for any language learner if not dealt with in due time.
To avoid dragging such errors with you over time, here are a few proven techniques that will help you seamlessly use English past tense verbs now and forever.
Be a Well-Rounded Learner
They say good things come in threes! By memorizing all three forms of any new verb you learn, you can avoid having trouble guessing their past simple or past participle forms in the future.
For example, when you learn the verb “give” for the first time, don’t just try to learn its meaning in your native language but memorize it as “give, gave, given” right from the start.
Do this with any irregular English verb and you’ll be perfectly fine in any situation.
Organize New Verbs
Once you memorize a new verb with all three of its forms, take your learning process a step further by grouping verbs that have similar past tense forms. A perfect example of this might be:
take, took, taken
shake, shook, shaken
break, broke, broken
speak, spoken, spoken
Verbs that are similar in the past tense usually rhyme with one another and it’s what makes them quicker for you to remember.
Moreover, some English verbs don’t change at all in their past simple and past participle forms. This makes the memorization process even easier. A few great examples of such verbs are:
cut, cut, cut
put, put, put
cost, cost, cost
Improve Your Everyday Speech
Try to monitor your English usage on a day-to-day basis as much possible. To do your best where it most counts, create a list of the ten verbs you use most frequently, write their three past tense forms down, and memorize that list until you master every verb.
Chances are verbs you use the most are probably the ones you make the most mistakes with. This will give you the chance to go through each day error-free when it comes to using English verbs in the past.
If we exclude prefixed verb forms, there are only around 200 irregular verbs in the entire English language, so the list is really not that long. Once you master the ten most frequent ones, you can monitor yourself some more and create another list to expand your English knowledge – ten verbs at a time.
The Next Step: Practice
So, there you have it. Apart from knowing which past tense requires which verb form, mastering the English past tense verbs is literally a walk in the park. There’s only a handful of irregular verbs that demand your full attention and effort. Other than that, you’re good to go.
If you’re eager to apply what you learned today to your language learning journey, LingQ’s 90-Day Language Challenge is just a few clicks away. Download the LingQ mobile app for iOS or Android right now. Practice past tense verbs to perfection and make sure your next conversation in English is one to remember.
Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.
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