Language Bleg

Having been living and working in the US almost all year, I have virtually recovered from mixing up British and American spellings. The only thing I sometimes still stumble over is a language quirk which I have fruitlessly searched for information about on Language Log. Hence this bleg.

There are a number of English verbs which are sometimes ended in the past tense with a t instead of ed: Dreamed/Dreamt, Burned/Burnt, Leaped/Leapt, Creeped/Crept, Learned/Learnt.

However, at least some of these are considered misspellings on this side of the pond, whereas other are not. Is there any rule on this, and, does anyone know where this variant in some past tense English verbs comes from in the first place? I wonder also if English ever used the words sweeped, weeped and sleeped before the current norms of swept, wept and slept.

Any information appreciated.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

25 thoughts on “Language Bleg”

  1. Where both forms exist, the -t form is a participial past (the color burnt umber, a poem learnt off by heart) v. the -ed form, a preterite past (The fire burned through the night. He learned the oboe in six weeks) is the only ‘rule’ I’ve ever seen, and it seems pretty porous.

  2. Via Steven Pinker (a good psychlinguist, if patchy outside his field): note that the default preterite and past participle is formed in English with ~ed. New verbs like to google, to tweet, have regular past tenses: googled, tweeted. Twit is only used as a joke. Present small children with a new nonsense verb, like James Thurber´s zoxil, and they will form a regular past tense zoxilled. (The doubled letter spelling is also regular.)

    There are a few verbs like cleave that have become so rare that they are no longer learned in childhood in the standard finite package of irregular verbs. So the past tense has reverted from cleft to cleaved. All the pressure is on the side of the American standardisation. I guess that learnt and burnt are on the way out in BrE – the way to check is not by introspection but by statistical analysis of a large textual corpus. Slept holds out even in AmE; it´s a word learnt/learned very young indeed.

  3. The early-nineteenth century radical journalist William Cobbett wrote an English grammar that is still read. He abominated all versions of “t” for past participles and refused to use them, thinking them lazy affectations, sort of upper class slang. He lived in the US for a time after the Revolution, and his views may have had an influence here, or perhaps the influence, class-based, ran the other way.

  4. Notice, also, that in three of your examples, Dreamed/Dreamt, Leaped/Leapt and Creeped/Crept, the vowel sounds in the base word also change. From a long ‘e’ to an ‘ae’ sound. Interesting.

    Also, as I typed this my spell checked (standard Firefox issue) declared Dreamt, Leapt and Creeped as being misspelled. No consistency there.

  5. Fowler has an article on this subject in Modern English Usage (under -T & -ED), but as usual he concerns himself very little with American usage. He says, in part: “…there are so many similar verbs in which the -t form is now the only one ( creep, deal, feel, keep, leave, mean, sleep, sweep, weep, &c.) that the adoption of dreamt &c. in print need expose no-one to the charge of eccentricity.”

    There is also the issue of pure past/past participle and the adjectival use of the participial form, where the latter may sometimes be irregular even if the former is not or is sometimes not, as clean-shaven, molten gold, new-mown hay (these are all what you would call “strong” forms). On the other hand, you have the (“weak”) burnt offerings. On yet a third hand (and it’s lucky there are more than one of us), even the English speaker who would use “learnt” as a verb would refer to “the learned gentleman”, where “learned” has two syllables.

  6. Well, now I understand the Britishisms I’d noticed in your posts!

    I can only speculate, and with no learned basis. I think I can remember having seen dreamt and burnt occasionally on this side, at least haven’t consciously noticed them often as conspicuously out of place. Learnt, on the other hand, has always seemed wrong, where crept seems normal.

    My guess at it would be that the “pt” combination sounds an awful lot like a regular past (the vowel shifts that DGM points to aren’t completely uncommon, eg sleep/slept). But the “nt” or “mt” combination really can’t be forced into sounding regular; the difference between t and d is too pronounced in these cases (pun intended), too obvious. Some instances of these survive in AE, as Davis says, in collocations where they’re unlikely to change.

    My two cents–

    1. Altoid: Well, now I understand the Britishisms I’d noticed in your posts!

      It’s worse being an American living in the UK who also frequently has to deal with German and French people. 🙂 Though, honestly, keeping American and British English apart is the hardest part of it (two nations divided by a common language and all that). Especially if you have to work on a grant proposal in British English and an ACM paper in American English simultaneously. Of course, the most embarrassing aspect of this kind of language confusion is when you produce something that’s neither proper American nor British English (like, “the United States are” [1]) because your sense of grammar has become blunted from exposure to mutually contradictory rules.

      [1] I am, sadly, not even 100% certain whether that might not be correct British English after all, even though the BBC seems to consistently use “is” instead of “are”. Time to plead the 13th?

  7. This is from Joseph M. Williams, Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History. He explains things better than I could.

    At one time, English verbs were, with some exceptions, clearly split between those with the regular dental preterit ending: name, named, named, and those irregular verbs with ablaut, or vowel changes: sing, sang, sung. But in late ME a number of once regular verbs joined the irregular group. . . . This created two different vowels in present and past tense verb forms. Thus from once regular verbs we now have the following irregular verbs, verbs whose irregularities are quite different in origin from the Indo-European ablaut verbs: feel-felt, slide-slid, bleed-bled, speed-sped, meet-met, feed-fed, mean-meant, leave-left, hide-hid.

    If Williams is right, a word like leave was once conjugated like leave/leaved/leaved and then became leave/left/left. Apparently dream follows the same pattern: it was first dream/dreamed/dreamed, and then became dream/dreamt/dreamt. If so, then dreamed is the older form, which contradicts the view some have that dreamt is older because it’s irregular and British.

    In the same poem, Blake uses the forms build and builded:

    <blockquoteAnd did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
    and later:

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

    1. Sorry, I messed up the William Blake blockquote.

      This is from Joseph M. Williams, Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History. He explains things better than I could.

      At one time, English verbs were, with some exceptions, clearly split between those with the regular dental preterit ending: name, named, named, and those irregular verbs with ablaut, or vowel changes: sing, sang, sung. But in late ME a number of once regular verbs joined the irregular group. . . . This created two different vowels in present and past tense verb forms. Thus from once regular verbs we now have the following irregular verbs, verbs whose irregularities are quite different in origin from the Indo-European ablaut verbs: feel-felt, slide-slid, bleed-bled, speed-sped, meet-met, feed-fed, mean-meant, leave-left, hide-hid.

      If Williams is right, a word like leave was once conjugated like leave/leaved/leaved and then became leave/left/left. Apparently dream follows the same pattern: it was first dream/dreamed/dreamed, and then became dream/dreamt/dreamt. If so, then dreamed is the older form, which contradicts the view some have that dreamt is older because it’s irregular and British.

      In the same poem, William Blake uses the forms build and builded:

      And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

      and later:

      I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

    1. It occurs to me that the past (not passed, when used as an adjective) tense of lead is led, and “leaded” (unlike pleaded) is not an option. And that “read” in the past tense is “read” not “red,” although pronounced as such, and never “readed.”

  8. “Creeped” is a word? In American English?

    I hear current usage of what some linguists think are “archaic” forms in my communities all the time. For example, “holp” for helped, and “ourn” for “the one that is ours” recently.

    1. Well, I’m all creeped out!

      “Holp” or “holpen” I remember seeing in some 17C writing but suspect it may be regional as well as mostly out of use now. Apparently a lot of old forms are preserved in Appalachia, like the old English songs collected by ethnologists, because the area was first settled by English and Scots-Irish migrants in the 18C and had been isolated until well into the 20C. Or so I’ve read, anyway.

      1. I guess I think that an area along I-95 in the mid-Atlantic seaboard is neither Appalachian nor particularly isolated, and as for regional, I guess every place is regional but it all depends on where one is being ethnocentric from!

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