The formation of the preterite and the past participle


- The variation in preterite and past participle forms of verbs such as burn, dream, leap and spell is
one of the most cited morphological differences between American English and British English
- Although there is variation in both varieties, -ed is more American and -t is more British as
seen in the cases of:
1. David Ginola once dreamed of displaying his skills…
2. Whoever dreamt up the idea of five-day Test cricker
3. AT&T’s stock price leaped $6.125, or 11 percent
4. And sugar leapt 41 percent

In the following the term regular will be used for verb forms ending in -ed and irregular for verbs
ending in -t.
- Pinker and Prince list ‘regular’ features of irregulars:
1. Similarity between the morphological base and the (irregular) marked form; most of the stem is
preserved in the inflected form. Suppletion like go/went is rare
2. Similarity within the set of base forms undergoing a subregular process (e.g. keep, creep, deal,
feel, kneel, mean, dream)
3. Semiproductivity, irregularity can to some degree be extended to new forms by analogy.

The irregular preterite and past participle forms of the verbs investigated have a high degree of
similarity with the base form, and some of the members have fairly recently been attracted to the
irregular paradigm
- The fact there is a whole group of similar verbs is a crucial factor in the diachronic development
of these verbs, as will be argued below
- Consider the variation with these verbs and a range of potential factors affecting the choice
between the variants region (AmE vs. BrE), medium (written vs. spoken), ongoing changes (e.g.
convergent or divergent developments in the varieties), differences between individual verbs and
differences between preterite and past participle forms.

Material and method
- This study concerns the eleven verbs: burn, dream, dwell, kneel, lean, leap, learn, smell, spell,
spill and spoil in written and spoken AmE and BrE.
- It has been reported that there is no clear correlation between spelling and pronunciation.
- Jespersen: notes that people who write, learned and spelled tend to pronounce these as t-forms.
-t is recorded as being pronounced /t/ and -ed as either /t/ or /d/ for dwell and learn in both BrE
and AmE, while this applies only to BrE for dream and learn. Consistency between spelling
and pronunciation seems to be the rule for burn, kneel, smell, spell, spill and spoil.
- Peters: the difference between the 2 morphological variants is felt to be ‘nonsignificant’ by
native speakers partly because she finds cases of variation between -ed and -t within a few
lines. Some variation can be found in individual texts in three of the four main corpora used.

- A large number of studies suggest that there is a preference for -ed forms in AmE, while both
forms generally appear to co-exist in BrE.


Zwicky: maintains that dreamt is stylistically marked with respect to the neutral form dreamed.Quirk showed preferences for this both in BrE and in AmE. frequent patterns are thought to be of crucial importance in analogical change. Frequency is also connected to markedness: . Thus. leap and weep. Pinker and Prince: conclude that there is ‘abundant evidence’ for the frequency-sensitive nature of irregular morphology since forms with lower frequency are more often overregularised by children and used incorrectly by adults. Influence of frequency on linguistic structure and language change has been discussed. leave and sleep. .Hooper and Krug: suggest that sound change first affects high frequency items. which take regular -ed forms ‘at least marginally’ and the high-frequency verbs keep. . To what extent -ed is connected with durative aspect and -t with punctual aspect in written BrE.forms are in the process of being lost. .Kövecses: there is generally a stronger tendency towards regularity in AmE than in other varieties. continuous. . Assumes that t. The fact that the class of irregular verbs is semi-productive and is occasionally extended by analogy. . though -ed forms are also frequent’ . as in (12) to (14) (9) It burned for 3 days (10) … who leaped up and down and howled back (11) I learned to act by trial (12) I burnt someone’s leg (13) Duncan and Rob leapt ashore to operate the gates (14) Foreign press learnt about it 2 . It has been argues that frequency greatly influences change: . while analogical change tends to affect low frequency items first.Hopper and Traugott: the analogical spread of one allomorph at the expense of others is aided by the sheet textual frequency of the successful allomorph. since dreamt is associated with formal and poetic speech. . or permanent as in (9) to (11). . .This change towards the singular started before AmE could affect BrE seems that there can be parallel developments without the varieties affecting each other .Quirk and Crystal: -ed is more frequent in preterite verb forms when there is an implication of duration and that -t forms tend to be associated with the punctual events. Several studies have indicated that AmE is ahead of BrE in many recent grammatical changes. . more likely to disappear from the language. if an action is imperfective. so that in this respect BrE. is approaching AmE usage. the -ed ending is more likely than when the activity can be interpreted as ‘punctual’. Low-frequency verbs are the first to regularise. Results and Analysis Aspect .Levin: reports an increase in singular agreement with collective nouns over the centuries in BrE.Hooper: exemplifies analogical levelling with the fairly infrequent verbs creep. and.Johansson: suggests that t-forms are ‘almost completely lacking’ in AmE while in BrE they are ‘the preferred choice. where -ed forms are ‘clearly out of the question’ . therefore. . Analogy affects morphological change: particularly.Hundt: finds that AmE is leading the way in the revival of the mandative subjunctive. . .

Crystal: the aspectual distinction is only a tendency-> hard to draw a semantic distinction in many cases. when or while. . . . . Quirk: discovered no aspectual difference with smell. He argues that the aspectual distinction between -t and -ed is extrapolated from the past participle. where -t had become more firmly established than in the preterite. A factor related to the aspectual patterns which was found influentially in written BrE in the case of burn was (in)transitivity—> Burned was significantly more common as an intransitive than as a transitive verb. Aspect is thus not only influential in the preservation of variability between -ed and -t forms in general. Speakers of English consider -t forms to be more natural even though speakers hardly use irregulars at all. . The fact that an aspectual difference is maintained in the morphemes in BrE means that there is a functional motivation for retaining the variation between -ed and -t forms. . Peters: found no support for an aspectual distinction in her investigation . Quirk connects aspectual patterns to change and to the variation between the preterite and the past participle. It may be the case that the distinction cannot be detected in all verbs. . . . AmE vs. Langacker: proposes that most grammatical morphemes are meaningful . .. Learn proved to be mainly punctual with the meaning ‘to find out something by hearing it’ . whereas AmE has almost exclusively adopted singular verb agreement. and this brings about a greater proportion of burned because of the iconic connection between longer -ed form and longer events. Burned and leaped are phonetically longer than their irregular counterparts burnt and leapt. Intransitivity indicates that the event is semantically unbounded. . and the longer forms would therefore tend to be associated with durative events. .The -ed form is generalised in AmE as the only alternative for most verbs. Bolinger and Rohdenburg: argue that iconicity may account for the different distributions of -ed and -t forms. but also an important factor in the variation between the preterite and the past participle.In BrE the aspectual distinction may be a crucial conserving factor counteracting analogical levelling. AmE has largely lost the possibility of overtly maintaining an aspectual difference with these verbs.BrE maintains some variation in agreement because there is a semantic difference between the alternatives. Variation in preterite formation in verbs is a parallel to the variation of agreement with collective nouns. It can thus be argued that there is a synchronic explanation for the continued co-existence of the 2 forms . they can both survive. Durative burn typically occurred with adverbials specifying the length of time or sin subordinate clauses introduced by as. . .Kroch: argues that the reason for maintaining morphological doublets is that they can differentiate 2 separate meanings with 2 separate forms .Irregular -t forms are indeed more common in the past participle than in the preterite for most verbs in the BrE material. Typical instances of punctual burn were transitives with a focus on the completion of the activity. in comparison with burnt. . The 2 variants have specialised meanings. BrE 3 . In contrast to BrE. Leap was deemed to be punctual unless there was some indication of repetition or extension in time .

Trudgill and Hannah: suggest that -t forms are more common in formal and poetic language.Levin: argues that plural verbs are stylistically ambiguous with singular collective nouns. . Researchers: noted a connection between -t forms and formal styles .Quirk: indicated a greater preference for irregular forms in the past participle than the preterite for many verbs in both BrE and AmE .In AmE more irregulars in speech than in writing for burn.Since AmE is leading the way in many recent grammatical changes. . writing .. it might be expected tha tthere will be more -ed forms also in BrE in the future when the irregular forms are levelled. The results: confirm that irregular -t forms are generally more frequent in BrE than in AmE. .Lass: AmE is keeping the old regular verb forms while BrE has the newer -t forms. dream (preterite only).Speech contains more of the ‘conservative’ plural verbs than newspaper text does. while knelt ‘appears to be late (nineteenth century)’. . spoilt dates from the 17th century. smell (preterite only).It may be the case that t-forms are similar in this respect. according to the OED.Plural verb agreement was found to be fairly common in BrE speech.Taylor emphasises that changes are not necessarily towards more regularity. spill and spoil (past participle only). .There was no indication of differences in AmE or in BrE speech. . . spell. 4 .Complicating factor: some irregular forms were created relatively recently. She finds that many verbs which had been variable had been so for four centuries or more. learn.It is a reasonable assumption that -ed forms are more frequent in speech than in writing because the expected historical trend is towards more regularity . In AmE -t forms are very rare.Transcribers often render /t/ pronunciations as -t spellings in those caes where it is possible to transcribe them as -ed .Spoken material: same significant tendency for burn. . they are both typical of formal writing and of spontaneous speech. Speech vs. .Having determined that aspect is a crucial factor. spell and spill . while being highly variable in newspapers in BrE.It has been suggested that -t forms are more frequent in the past participle than in the preterite . Irregulars were indeed often more frequent in speech than in writing in both the AmE and BrE material. while remaining the preferred choice in some genres of highly conservative writing . learn.Trudgill and Hannah: the verbs ‘have become regularised’ in AmE. The distribution between the preterite and the participle form: . . spill and spoil (past participle only). For BrE verbs remain irregular . spell. How do we know that -t forms are more frequent in speech than in writing? While at the same time they are claimed to be more frequent in formal language? . it is now worth mentioning the differences between varieties: . . Preterite and past participle forms . smell (preterite only).BrE: more irregulars for burn. For instance.Bybee and Slobin: postulate ‘the imminent loss’ of -t forms in AmE . dream (preterite only). where the relatively few tokens produced roughly equal proportions in the preterite and the past participle.Newspapers: -t forms are significantly more common in Ind (newspapers) than in NYT (NY Times) for both the preterite and the past participle for all verbs except the 2 rarest ones.

Biber: AmE newspapers use regular forms for these verbs. but the variations found within Biber written BrE material and Ind are very similar. .(17) Enviromental groups leapt on the announcement .OED maintains that smell is now more frequent than smelled in BrE. kneel. . 5 . Variable verbs exemplify the way in which lexical diffusion in morphosyntactic change . past participle forms are more irregular than preterite forms.Some linguists assumed that the verbs are regularising in BrE. except for knelt and leapt which receive no label . smell. lean and sleep the -ed forms are given as <esp AmE> while the -t forms are >esp BrE>. .For dream. It can be hypothesised that passives influence variation in the past participle. and that passives are a significant feature supporting -t forms in the past participle. dwell.The variation between the preterite and the past participle therefore seems well established at least in BrE newspaper language. Some verbs indicates an awareness of differences both between the variants and between AmE and BrE.Tottie.These cannot be said to be specifically AmE. I’ve basically learned from somebody else. . .Biber provides considerable support for the differences between individual verbs in BrE. . but kneeled as an alternate is neither local nor nonstandard’ . . -Ed and -t forms are given without regional label for burn.There were noticeable correlations between the varieties in that dwell and kneel are the most irregular in both varieties.The preference for irregulars is even greater in speech than in writing. .Kneel: irregular at least in the preterite. . leap produced the highest percentage of irregulars and spill the lowest: . AmE: dwell and kneel to the strong trend towards regularity in written AmE: . spill and spoil . spill and spoil are mainly regular. whereas knelt is dominant among all types of speakers. and since this variation correlates with meaningful variation. the -ed/-t difference is unlikely to disappear. Trudgill and Hanah: dwelled and kneeled as more typical of Ame than of BrE—> there seems to be a degree of uncertainty as regards the status of some verbs.It turned out that irregular forms were more frequent in passives as in (15) than in past participle actives as in (16) (15) They wanted the lessons to be learnt and digested (16) Everything I’ve learned in this game. Frequency is considered to be one of the key issues in lexical diffusion. learn. Individual verbs and frequency effects . CONCLUSION: at least in written BrE. . BrE: the low-frequency dwell and kneel. .The variation can instead be argued to deeply entrentched in the BrE verb system.Bryant: spell. . . BrE produces a considerable amount of variation between groups of verbs. some verbs preferring -ed and some others preferring -t and even some verbs preferring both.In writing: differences are more pronounced in the preterite than in the past participle.(18) He spilled a Di Canio free kick straight… . . . spell.Jespersen: claims that kneeled and smelled are used only rarely.Dwell: seems variable both in the preterite and past participle .the 2 verbs behaved very differently from the others. while dwelled is nto even mentioned. . .

Fixedness and adjectival uses 6 .There is a tendency for irregular forms to be more frequent in Present Day English . these 2 verbs have shown even stronger preferences for irregular forms in AmE in earlier periods and will regularise very rapidly once they have started changing. In addition.BrE: material does not indicate any direct influence from frequency. Verbs have high token frequencies and type frequencies. . but there is some evidence that the correlation between frequency and morphology is less straightforward than has previously been suspected. . CONCLUSION: there has been a very clear drift towards regularisation in AmE. AmE is not ahead of BrE and leading the way towards regularisation . 2 types of frequency that need to be taken into account: token frequency and type frequency. there is a large number of similar variable (e. The longer form is used for the longer event. leave and sleep probably also have an effect on the variable verbs by supporting the irregular paradigm. . .g keep. with only the 2 verbs with the lowest token frequencies. they are free to acquire a greater degree of independence and the forms can consequently come to be specialised with different meanings. in that the high-frequency forms kept and left.Low-frequency irregulars are usually assumed to be the first to be levelled. regular -ed forms are more common with these than with leap.Possibly.BrE: other factors are strong enough to maintain the variation . . but that dwell and kneel tend to be the most irregular (or least regular) ones in both BrE and AmE.There may not be not only analogical pressure from all the thousands of regular verb types for the irregulars. If both the regular and irregular forms are stored in the lexicon. leave and sleep) strengthening each other’s inflectional paradigm. .Frequency is not a major influence on the distribution of the regular and irregular forms of these verbs. This would account for the lack of correlation between frequency and regularisation.AmE: analogical levelling has progressed very far. as expected. dwell and kneel lagging behind. show no sign of regularising. No regularisation in progress in BrE. can thus account for some of the more prominent exceptions to frequency and irregularity. There is a specialisation of verb meaning. . The diachronic conclusions: .There are considerable differences between the varieties for most verbs. 2. but there is no solid evidence that frequency is crucial.However: there is no linear connection between frequency and irregularity here. Burn and learn are much more likely to denote durative action than leap. . .Type frequency: should be noted that marginally variable verbs such as creep and weep and non-variable verbs such as keep. Leap is mainly punctual and therefore correlates to a very large extent with -t endings for the preterite in BrE. High token frequencies and type frequencies are required for the preservation of an inflectional pattern. It can therefore be argued that frequency dependence only directly affects an extended group of verbs on a much more general level.Two main reasons for the lack of analogical levelling in BrE: 1. and. . . . but also opposing pressure from the fairly small group of similar irregular verbs towards irregularisation .g creep and weep) and non-variable verbs (e.AmE: no evidence for the influence of frequency. which are more common than any of the verbs in the present study. since irregular form slept is less frequent in BrE than variable learned/learnt.

is that the variation will remain for the foreseeable future. All the fixed phrases in the present material involve -t forms and not -ed forms.THIS STUDY has explored one important morphological difference between AmE and BrE . Conclusion . while some phrases allow little or no variation. the ‘conservative’ -t form is more frequent with adjectives in (semi-)fixed expressions. and also contributed to linguistic theory by illustrating how different factors interact to determine morphological variation. Collocations involve adjectival uses: some of these phrases allow variation.T. 7 .At least in AmE. . . . The correlation between frequency and variable verb morphology therefore needs further refinement . There is a whole paradigm of similar verbs of different token frequencies which acts to preserve this inflectional pattern. Adjectives also occurred in some variable idioms: spilt milk is more likely to be irregular . . but much less so in AmE . . Generally irregular -t forms appear to be at least as frequent among premodifying adjectives as among verbs. There is a great deal of support for the idea that there a propensity to use irregular -t forms more often in adjectival function. in the past participle.Regarding grammatical differences: there is variation in both varieties. burnt offering.forms are also common as adjectives in more freely produced phrases: .(19) The bad start stuck in his mind the way burned rice sticks… . in the passive and in adjectival uses. This detailed study of large corpora has discovered new patterns of variation and change in AmE and BrE. such as burn sienna. Cases where -ed forms exclude -t forms are at best very rare. the shorter irregular form being more common with punctual action. . This is in all likelihood affected by the storage of these collocations and idioms as units.(20) I loved the hot.Regarding BrE: where irregulars are deeply entrenched.The variation between regular and irregular forms in BrE is maintained because the different forms have different functions. heady reek of burnt rubber… . burn toast. .. burnt almonds. where most irregulars have been levelled. There is a latent meaning component in the 2 morphological variants which motivates the maintenance of variation. The variation has been maintained by language-internal factors counteracting analogical levelling.