Subject / Verb Agreement Errors
Irregular Verbs and Conjugation Errors
Compound Verbs and Parallelism Errors
Hyphenated Verbs and Conjugation Oddities
Errors of verbs and verbals are among the most common mistakes of grammar that can cause otherwise smart college essays to fail.
When verb case does not agree with the subject of its clause, this is considered an error of grammar. Subject/Verb Agreement Errors (marked "s/v agr" on your assignments) occur most often for the following reasons:
Distance between the subject and the verb: a string of modifying phrases that include other nouns or pronouns comes between the subject and verb, and this makes the writer lose track of the real subject of the clause.
Questions or clauses in which the verb comes before the subject: inverted word order put an object noun in front of the verb, making the writer think it is the subject.
The number (singular or plural) of an indefinite pronoun used as the subject of a clause is confused with the number of some other noun.
A writer loses sight of the conjunction used to join two or more subject nouns (or pronouns); this occurs most often with "(n)either . . . (n)or . . . ."
Do any of the following sentences use verbs correctly?
Yes! Two of them are correct: Marsha's memory of "tulips that lay at the base" and the very last sentence (but it uses "lyin'" with an entirely different meaning from the others). Otherwise, the rest are wrong—ridiculously wrong! Lay/lie are the most confused verbs in the English language, not only because they are very similar in meaning, but because they are conjugated irregularly and some of their conjugated forms resemble one another.
"Conjugation" is a word used to describe how verbs are inflected, or pronounced, according to the subject's gender, number, mood, or person. In the vast majority of cases, verbs in English have very dependable rules for conjugation. Take the base verb "shop," for instance. Its conjugation is regular and steady: the base verb form doesn't change from one conjugated form to the next, including its verbal forms:
In all of these, the base verb form "shop" is dependable, even if spelling rules require the addition of another "p" in words like "shopped" and "shopping." Furthermore, the past tense ending is formed by the simple addition of -ed (or, in the case of verbs that already end in -e, then the simple addition of -d). Most verbs are like this: "wash" becomes "washed"; "bake" becomes "baked"; and so on.
However, we can describe the most common word in the English language, "be," as far from regular and dependable. Like many others, its base form changes according to tense (past, present, future), person (I, you, they) and number (singular or plural):
"Is" and "were" are radically different words, even though they're the same verbs. This is what we mean by "irregular verb forms." Loads of commonly used verbs in the English language are irregular. Some irregular verbs share common conjugations because they derive from the same language roots, but, in the majority of cases, rules don't really apply. You probably know "take" is an irregular verb because "took" as a past tense form does not use the expected -ed ending. Why, then, doesn't "make" become "mook"? If "ring" becomes "rang" and "rung," why doesn't "bring" become "brang" and "brung," instead of "brought"? If "swim" becomes "swam" and "swum," why doesn't "trim" become "tram" and "trum"?
The reasons are complicated. For some verbs, it's a linguistic matter. For others, it's about the derivation of the verb. For others still, its about the historical transformation certain sounds in the language have undergone. All of these are of little concern to the writer trying to avoid the common mistakes of irregular verbs. You just have to memorize and practice conjugating irregular verbs in order to master them. Let's continue with "lie" and "lay," the two most confusing verbs in the English language:
lie, v. intransitive
be in a horizontal posture; be situated ("In every dark heart lies a seed of goodness.")
present tense: lie; lies
past tense: lay
present participle (progressive tense): lying ("There's a strange cat lying on the back of our couch.")
past participle (perfect tense): lain ("The laziest among them had lain on the couch all day long.")
lay, v. transitive
put into a horizontal posture; situate a person or thing ("He gently lays the infant into her crib.")
present tense: lay; lays
past tense: laid
present participle (progressive tense): laying ("Max and I are laying carpet in the hall this week.")
past participle (perfect tense): laid ("Penelope had laid bushel baskets over the roses, which protected them from the frost.")
Because both of these verbs are irregular, you have to commit to memory their different conjugations. If you want to avoid confusion, however, between the two verbs, remember that "lie" is intransitive (it doesn't take an object), while "lay" is transitive (it always takes an object).
Other common irregular verbs:
choose, chose, had chosen
dig, dug, had dug
forego, forewent, foregone
get, got, had gotten
have, has, had had
plead, pleaded (or pled), had pleaded (had pled)
read, read, had read
rise, rose, had risen
seek, sought, had sought
Confusing irregular verbs:
bet, bet, had bet (but not "betted")
bleed, bled, had bled (not "bleeded")
buy, bought, had bought (but not "boughten")
cast, cast, had cast (but not "casted")
cost, cost, had cost (but not "costed")
cut, cut, had cut (but not "cutted")
fit, fit, had fit (when an intransitive verb or linking verb): "Yesterday, the pants had fit snugly.")
fit, fitted, had fitted (when transitive: "Today, the tailor fitted the pants to him correctly.")
flee, fled, had fled (not "fleed")
forbid, forbade, had forbidden (not "forbad" or "had forbid")
go, went, had gone (not "had went")
grind, ground, had ground (not "had grind" or "grinded")
hang, hanged, had hanged (when a form of execution)
hang, hung, had hung (when not a form of execution)
hurt, hurt, had hurt (not "hurted" or "had hurted")
mistake, mistook, had mistaken (not "had mistook" or "mistooken")
put, put, had put (never "putted," which is something done in the sport of golf)
quit, quit, had quit (but not "quitted")
set, set, had set (but not "setted")
shake, shook, shaken (but not "shooken" nor "shook" as a past participle, as in "He was shook up by the incident.")
shear, sheared, had sheared / shear, shore, had shorn (either of these past and participles forms is correct)
sit, sat, had sat (but not "set")
spit, spit/spat, had spit/spat (but not "spitted")
swell, swelled, had swollen (but not "swoll")
think, thought, had thought (not "thunk")
tread, trod, had trodden (not "trodded")
wind, wound, had wound (but not "winded," which means "out of breath" and is pronounced with a short "i")
Regular verbs mistaken for irregular verbs:
drag, dragged, had dragged (not "drug" or "drugged")
dread, dreaded, had dreaded (not "dred" or "drud")
prove, proved, had proved ("had proven" is permitted, but "proven" is used more commonly to mean "verified")
raise, raised, had raised (not "rose")
relay, relayed, had relayed (not "relaid" or "relain")
When two or more verbs are used together in the same clause (or two or more verbals are used together in the same structure), they should share the same conjugation in order to be parallel to one another. However, sometimes irregular verbs are mixed with regular ones, and this can confuse some writers. Take, for example, the following sentence:
The sentence above may sound correct, but it actually contains a conjugation error: "got" should be "gotten" because "had sought" is written in the past perfect verb tense, and "gotten" must be in the same tense in order for the verbs to be parallel: "had sought" and "had gotten" (not "had got"). Here's another:
"Have fret" is the present perfect of "fret" but "have strutted" is the present perfect tense of "strut" (not "have strut").
In most cases, however, the problem occurs as an un-parallel mixture of simple past tense with past perfect tense:
Because "had run" is the past perfect tense, "swum" (not "swam" is the parallel verb form: had run, had swum, and had bicycled.)
As with the other examples, "had sacrificed" is a past perfect/past participle form of the regular verb "sacrifice," so "had undergone" should be parallel to it instead of "had underwent."
In most cases, hyphenated verbs are no different from Phrasal Verbs. They're conjugated just as they would be if they were not hyphenated.
Some hyphenated verbs, however, confuse us more than others and make us doubt the rules. A phrasal verb such as "knock-around" is simple enough: its past perfect form is "had knocked around."
What about the verb "mouse-over," however? Should the past tense be "moused-over" or "mouse-overed"? What about the cowboy vernacular, "giddyup," which means "go ahead," or "move along"? Should the past participle form be "giddiedup" or "giddyupped"? Should the past particle of "wash-and-wear" be "washed-and-worn" or "wash-and-worn?
As a rule, you'll never go wrong by breaking down the phrasal verb into its base verb form and a prepositionor adverb, as two (or more) separate words, then correctly conjugating the base verb form: "moused over"; "knocked around"; even "giddied up" and "washed and worn."