At first, trying to explain the formation of the past tense in English may seem simple – you just add –-ed, don’t you? So that walk becomes walked and help becomes helped, right? Correct! ... for ‘regular’ verbs. Unfortunately, there are also many ‘irregular’ verbs like eat (ate) and stand (stood) that do not easily fit into this pattern. In a logical world, we would expect language to regularize over time and this is true of some verbs – helped was hulpon in Old English. However, some regular past tense forms have actually become irregular – for example, mean > meant.
Lieselotte Anderwald investigated this phenomenon in British and American English. These two varieties have developed their own national features and peculiarities over time and Anderwald was curious to see if this had happened with irregular past tense forms. She concentrated on three verbs which have been recorded in both regular and irregular forms. These are throve vs. thrived, dove vs. dived and plead vs. pled. She searched a digital database or ‘corpus’ of 400 million American English words called Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) to find occurrences of these irregular past tense forms from as far back as 1810. She also searched the British National Corpus (BNC), containing over 100 million words from British English so that she could compare her findings. Then, she consulted her own Collection of Nineteenth-Century Grammars (CNG), containing 258 British and North American Grammar Books published during the 19th century, to see if linguists were recommending a particular usage of these verb forms.
Although throve was the main past tense form used during the nineteeth century, it declined rapidly in use from 1910 onwards and seems to have regularized so that American users now only use thrived. However, British English still uses throve at times. American English appears to be leading British English by several decades in this regularization process. In a completely opposite way, the irregular form dove is becoming more irregular in American English. In fact, dove is used as much as dived in modern American usage today (50% of the time), unlike in British English where it is used just 1% of the time. The irregular form pled also seems to be a new form which has emerged during the twentieth century in American English, although in both varieties it is used very infrequently and mainly in legal contexts.
With this data in mind, Anderwald consulted the CNG. In the case of thrived vs. throve the American nineteenth century grammars permitted a lot of variation in usage and started to endorse thrived from the middle of the century, whereas the British Grammars appeared to strongly favour the use of throve. It is hard to know whether these American Grammars were just describing what they observed happening to this verb form or whether their recommendations were in some way influential in the change actually taking place. Dove was rarely acknowledged as an irregular verb in any of the grammars consulted and dived was the only form accepted. This is interesting considering how widely used it now is in American English and its lack of acknowledgment in grammars does not seem to have influenced the emergence of this irregular form. Pled was only mentioned in twelve grammar books, ten of them from America and just two from Britain. There was a rise in its inclusion in verb tables in grammars of the 1860s, so that children would have learnt plead-pled-pled by heart. Looking at her data from COHA, Anderwald noticed that there was a small rise in usage of pled in the 1870s which may have been caused by the generation of 1860 using it in their adult writing: a very small example of prescriptive influence maybe? If this is so, it is probably because plead was (and is) so infrequent that users needed to consult a grammar book, whereas a more frequently used word is much better entrenched in the memory and therefore perhaps less influenced by grammarians.
The differences Anderwald found between these changing irregular forms shows how two varieties of the same language can grow, develop and change in different ways. This is what makes language an integral part of a national character and grammarians may only minimally affect this. Language will develop in its own way and won’t be restrained by rules…in fact sometimes it will even break them – obviously what throve throve to do!
Anderwald, Lieselotte (2013) Natural language change or prescriptive influence? Throve, dove, pled, drug and snuck in 19th-century American English. English World-Wide 34:2 (2013), 146–176.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle