English has dozens of irregular verbs that you have to learn by heart. However, there are some connections that you can use to your advantage when you study.
There are irregular verbs also in other languages, such as German
(DE), Spanish (ES) and others, which we’re not going to cover here.
What are irregular verbs?
Irregular verbs are verbs in English that do not have their regular form
for the past tense and past participle. This means that we can't add the ending -ed to create their irregular form, which would represent the past tense
form, just like regular verbs.
How do we recognize irregular verbs?
Unfortunately, we don't. Irregular verbs are no different in their basic form from regular verbs. So we have to learn them by heart.
There are a lot of irregular verbs in English - about 280. And this is doubly true if we add the prefix forms of the verbs. All in all, that's almost 500 verbs that we should know and memorize.
Fortunately, we only encounter about 200 irregular verbs in ordinary English conversation. The rest are used mainly in technical literature or in Old English.
Where is the irregular verb form most often found?
In most cases, the irregular verb form is found in the past tense (past simple) and past participle.
Interestingly, Old English verbs usually have an irregular form in both the past tense and the past participle. Newly formed words usually form both the past tense and the past participle regularly - so their shape does not change (cut/cut/cut
However, this is not the case with newly formed words composed of multiple verbs (housesit/housesite/housesitten
For the record:
In American English, regular verbs make up about 90% of all verbs. In contrast, in British English, regular verbs make up only 65% of all verbs. Therefore, in Europe we pay much more attention to learning irregular verbs than, for example, in America.
Use of irregular verbs in English
Each verb (either regular or irregular) has three basic forms:
- infinitive (the base form)
- the past form
- past participle
For regular verbs it is enough to add an ending to the end of the verb - ed. This is then the same for the past tense and the past participle. So in practice, a regular verb will be formed as follows:
- Live --> lived
- Work --> worked
In contrast, irregular verbs in English are formed differently - irregularly. It is therefore a good idea to learn them by heart.
Fortunately, we don't have to know them all. For a basic conversation with an English speaker, it is enough to learn about 80 of the most commonly used irregular verbs. For advanced speakers (from B1 to C2), it is a good idea to know all the irregular verbs.
When is which form of irregular verb used?
Irregular verbs have a total of 3 forms - infinitive, past tense and past participle. Each of these forms is used to express different situations and tenses.
The infinitive of irregular verbs is used to express the present simple tense
and for past and future tense questions. It is also found in negative past tense sentences. It can also be used in combination with the preposition "to".
The past tense form of the irregular verb (i.e. the 2nd form of the verb) is mainly used in the past simple.
The past participle form (or 3rd verb form) is used to express several tenses. These tenses include:
The past participle is used especially in more complex grammar. However, it is a very frequently used form of irregular verbs and therefore we should not neglect this 3rd form either. On the contrary, we should learn it as well as the others.
Irregular verbs with the regular form
Sometimes there are multiple forms of a particular English verb, all grammatically correct. That means that in fact irregular verbs might have both regular and irregular forms.
It pays off to know both forms. While it’s true you may actively use just the regular form, you still need to understand the irregular form when you hear or see it.
An example of such a verb is abide
You can use the regular forms: abide / abided / abided
But there are also irregular ones: abide / abode / abode
In these cases it is good to know both shapes. You can only actively use the regular form, but when someone speaks to you or you see the irregular form of a verb in a text, you need to understand it.
The division of irregular verbs - weak and strong verbs
Modern irregular verbs can be further divided into 2 subcategories - weak and strong verbs. This division does not say how strong a verb is. It is a division of irregular verbs according to their origin and historical age.
Some verbs have been moved between these 2 groups several times, so this is more of a tentative division.
Strong verbs are irregular verbs that retain the ending [en] in the past participle. These are verbs such as:
In some cases, the [en] ending has been dropped, leaving only the [e] ending:
In modern English, not many verbs follow this rule anymore.
Weak verbs include those that are derived from Germanic irregular weak verbs. These verbs have a [t] or [d] ending in the past participle.
How to learn irregular verbs?
There are a few proven tricks to get our brains to remember something. You can apply these mental tricks to any learning, not just cobbling together irregular verbs.
Learning at least 80 basic irregular verbs will be a breeze with these tricks.
Engage as many senses as possible when learning
For learning in general, you need to engage as many senses as possible. And this is true whether we're talking about sight, taste or smell. Thanks to these external sensations, the brain is better able to remember and then recall memories, events or even learning material, which can speed up the process of learning irregular verbs considerably.
Remember and recall the verbs you have just learned
To learn anything new, we need to recall the knowledge we have just acquired. If you just read the irregular verbs and hope they stick in your head, your learning time will increase several times.
- Read the irregular verbs and try to remember them.
- Then try to write them down from memory.
- Learn from the colour charts - the colours will help you remember the verbs better and your brain will match them to the verbs.
- Cover up a range of English irregular verbs and see if you can remember them. If not, read the verbs again, try to remember them and cover the English version of the verb again. Repeat this process until you have memorised the English translation of all the irregular verbs.
Listen to the pronunciation and speak
To remember irregular verbs, we need to incorporate another sense - hearing. Therefore, try to involve it with the following tips:
- Find a spoken text where the verbs occur and listen to how they are used in practice.
- And last but not least - speak - try to make sentences with irregular verbs and say them out loud.
Learn gradually and regularly
It is not humanly possible to learn everything at once. Choose, say, four verbs a day, and repeat them to yourself throughout the day. Start the next day by repeating the irregular verbs you already know. After repetition, add another number of new verbs.
Plan your learning and be regular.
- Choose three or four days and times of the week to learn the verbs. Don't worry, it will take you no more than 15 minutes a day.
The really important thing - perhaps the most important thing - in learning irregular verbs is to keep a regular routine.
I'm sure you will sometimes find yourself completely reluctant to learn. Overcome this negative emotion and force yourself to learn. You will feel better about yourself.
It is important to remember that if we spend just 15 minutes a day learning something new - in our case, learning irregular verbs - we will make big changes in a month.
Don't try to study all the time, day and night. Take breaks - your brain needs rest too. If you overdo the learning of verbs at the beginning, you may get frustrated with the whole process and all your efforts will be wasted.
It is optimal to set a specific time and day that you set aside for irregular verbs. Take a break at the weekend and then get back to learning on Monday.
Engage your imagination
Make up a picture or story for each verb. Thanks to the human imagination, we can easily remember even the most difficult verbs that just don't enter our heads.
In fact, the brain is much better at remembering stories and images that connect to something and make deeper meaning. That's why we need to adapt and get smarter about learning.
How to remember a verb using a story?
We can memorize a variety of irregular verbs using a story. One such verb is the verb "dig" or dig. How to make a story for it?
- For example, imagine you are digging in a mine with a pick and suddenly you hit a large diamond and on this impact the pick makes a loud clinking sound which sounds like "DIG". The pick breaks into a thousand pieces, but you have found a big diamond.
The more interesting and often silly the story you make up, the more likely your brain is to remember the verb.
How to remember the past tense and past participle of an irregular verb?
If you are unable to remember the past tense or past participle of an irregular verb, you can simply continue with the original story. The past form of the verb "dig"
is "dug". We can incorporate this form into the original story.
Imagine that it's been a while since you found the diamond (it's in the past), but the sound of the pick is still in your ears. The problem is that the sound isn't as clear as it was originally, and so the sound of it sounds a bit muffled [dug] to you.
Paint, sing, compose poems
Another way to memorize irregular verbs can be through singing, painting or poetic gut. If you're an artist at heart, you're sure to learn irregular verbs better just by engaging your artistic right cerebral hemisphere.
- Make up a song with all the irregular verbs or draw them.
Divide the irregular verbs into logical units
There are several divisions of irregular verbs. Below are two of them. But feel free to divide the verbs differently if that works for you. The important thing is that this division gives some logic to your brain and helps it remember them.