Incredible Shrinking Verb Forms

A reminder of how far beyond the Zeitgeist I have grown: my ear remains offended by a movie title: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

“Honey, I Shrank the Kids” would sound right, as would “Honey, I’ve Shrunk the Kids.”  Maybe the second was what was meant, a careless elision eliminating the contraction of “have”.

The movie was made in 1987, and reincarnated as a TV program in 1997.  I’m still offended. I hear endless similar locutions: “He sung three new songs”; “I stunk”; even, once, “He’d swam with the sharks.”

All this with a group of irregular verbs whose past tense is—or used to be—formed by changing the vowel in the present tense—usually a short “i” as in “drink”—to an “a” (drank). To form the past participle the vowel changed again, to “u”, as in “drunk”. Used with “have” and “had”, the past participle forms the present perfect and pluperfect—“I’ve swum with the sharks, he’d swum with the sharks.” (“Swim, swam, swum”.)

According to Wikipedia, these verb forms go back a long way, and are actually fairly regular. They come to us directly from Old English—sturdy, one-syllable verbs that do yeoman service in daily use. No wonder that in linguistics they’re called “strong verbs”.

Old English adapted them from old Germanic forms, which in turn got them from Proto-Indo-European (the theoretical mother tongue). In fact, their full name is “Germanic strong verbs”—English, German and Dutch all being Germanic languages.

There are 6 classes of strong verbs; the “drink, drank, drunk” forms belong to class 3. What defines them actually isn’t the short “i” in the present tense but an “n” or “r” at the end, usually followed by another consonant: “sink”, “stink”, “spring”. But “run” and “swim” are included, too.

Quite a few of these strong verbs, though, don’t bother with the “a” in the past tense. They go directly to the “u”, so that the past tense and past participle are identical: “cling, clung, clung”, “swing, swung, swung”, “win, won, won”.This is a lot easier to remember, and what seems to be happening is that the vowel change to “a” in the past tense is gradually disappearing in favor of “u”.

Look up “shrink”, “sing”, “sink”, “spring”, or “stink” on dictionary.com, and you’ll find that both of its main sources—Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1), based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006; and The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2006—recognize alternate forms of the past tense. E.g., Random House gives “sang or, often, sung”, “sank or, often, sunk”, “shrank or, often, shrunk”. American Heritage doesn’t bother with “often,” giving simply “sprang or sprung”, “stank or stunk”.

An exception is “drink”: Random House gives “drank or (Nonstandard) drunk” for the past tense, “drunk or, often, drank” for the past participle (the outcome here is clearly in doubt). American Heritage sticks to “drank, drunk”. They both stick to “swim, swam, swum” and “run, ran, run”. (Interesting that these verbs end with a single consonant.)

“Ring” also remains in the form I’m used to, but it turns out that “ring” is a ringer, having possibly sneaked in from the Norse (which doesn’t bother me, since I’m half Norwegian).

So I’ve got to get with the program, I guess. “I stunk” sounds OK to me, but I suspect that “Honey, I shrunk the kids” will always sound wrong, as will being told that the soprano sung beautifully. Luckily, most of the critics I read stick to the old forms—but clearly their days are numbered.

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