T/ED Talk

Hello there! I’m back to resurrect this blog with a question from a reader (hi Jenn!): What’s the deal with verbs that have more than one version of their past tense? She offered up the following examples as a starting point: pleaded/pled; hanged/hung; dived/dove; and learned/learnt. That last one is actually the most useful in terms of examples, so we’ll come back to it later. First, let’s deal with the others.

The reasons come down to this: someone, somewhere, started using the alternate form, and its usage spread, and since dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive (meaning their purpose is to document how a language develops and is used, not make unbreakable rules for how should be used), it ended up in the dictionary and now people think it’s normal. (This, by the way, is how the “alternate use” of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” got into dictionaries recently. I’m still mad about it, but that battle has been lost.)

That’s how the use of “dove” as the past tense of “dive” came about, as near as I can tell. It’s still less-common than “dived” but is gaining ground, mainly in North America. Both are considered acceptable, though I think “dived” is preferable as it won’t be confused with the bird people like to release at weddings.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says “pled” is the alternate version of the past tense for “plead”  and is mainly used in the United States. In general, it is used much less frequently than the more traditional “pleaded.” But it’s shorter, so I bet in 50 years people will all be saying “pled.”

“Hanged” versus “hung” is actually the clearest of this bunch, because the words have different meanings: Only people can be hanged, specifically if they were killed using a noose. Objects, however, are always hung (on a wall or suspended from above in some other fashion), and people who were not murdered using a length of rope can be said to have “hung from a ledge” or “really hung in there.”

Right, let’s talk about happier things now. In the slightly goofy title of this post, I alluded to the letters T and ED. Those are the alternate endings for the past tenses of a whole bunch of verbs whose infinitives end in consonants. Some examples include the above-mentioned learned/learnt, as well as creeped/crept, dreamed/dreamt, burned/burnt, spilled/spilt, and so on.

Unfortunately, there’s no big mystery here: Both are technically correct, but as with other spelling differences (such as –or versus –our), the –t endings are preferred in British usage, while in North America, we generally use the –ed endings. Not very exciting, but there you have it.

However, the –ed endings can also be used to indicate an action in the past whose duration is important to note (I dreamed about cake all night long; she always spilled her drinks) and the –t endings when an action is clearly one-time or complete (I dreamt about cake last night; he spilt his glass of juice).

So there you have it. Two versions of the past tense of a bunch of verbs; not a lot of good reasons why. Sounds about right for the weird hybrid zombie language known as English, doesn’t it?

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