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Words with Sneaky Past Tense Forms


When forming the past tense, words are split into regular and irregular verbs. In the case of regular verbs, the past tense is formed by adding ‘ed’ to the end of a verb (or just the letter ‘d’ if the verb ends in the letter ‘e’). Irregular verbs, on the other hand, do not follow the normal rules. This week, we’re taking a look at five words with confusing past tense forms.

Is it ‘spelt’ or ‘spelled’?

We couldn’t resist starting with this one! ‘Spell’ is one of a few verbs that has both a regular past tense form and an irregular one. The past tense and past participle of this word can be either ‘spelled’ or ‘spelt’.

For example:

  • I spelled three words incorrectly in my test.
  • I spelt three words incorrectly in my test.
  • I had spelled three words incorrectly in my test.
  • I had spelt three words incorrectly in my test.

In American English, ‘spelled’ is the favoured past tense form and ‘spelt’ is considered incorrect, while in British in English ‘spelt’ is more popular (though ‘spelled’ is also acceptable’). Here at Spellzone, we tend to use the latter – hopefully we haven’t alienated our American students! Don’t forget that the Spellzone course covers both British and American spellings.

Other verbs with regular and irregular formations include burn – burned/burnt, smell – smelled/smelt, and dream – dreamed/dreamt.

Is it ‘sneaked’ or ‘snuck’?

When the verb ‘sneak’ first started cropping up in English in the sixteenth century its past tense and past participle form was ‘sneaked’.

For example:

  • She sneaked past the guards.
  • She had sneaked past the guards.

Around three hundred years later, however, the irregular past tense form ‘snuck’ began appearing in American English.

For example:

  • She snuck past the guards.
  • She had snuck past the guards.

Today there is much debate over whether or it is acceptable to use the past tense form ‘snuck’, with many people insisting that only ‘sneaked’ is correct. At Spellzone, we believe that English spelling rules should evolve depending on popular usage and that as long as you are consistent throughout a piece of writing, both past tense forms are fine to use. What is interesting, though, is that while most irregular verbs have fallen out of use in favour of their regular versions, the verb ‘sneak’ has gone the other way and, especially in America, ‘snuck’ is perhaps more widely used than ‘sneaked’.

Usage of the verb ‘creep’, which has a similar meaning to ‘sneak’, is beginning to move in the opposite direction. The past tense and past participle form of this word is ‘crept’, but due to the common phrase ‘creep out’, the use of ‘creeped’ is becoming more widespread.

For example:

  • She crept past the guards.
  • She had crept past the guards.
  • The horror film creeped us out.
  • The horror film had creeped them out.

While ‘crept’ is the correct past tense form, it is acceptable to make exceptions in specific contexts such as with the above example.

Is it ‘shrunk’ or ‘shrank’?

Possibly due to the mistake in the title of the film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, people often get confused when forming the past tense of the verb ‘shrink’. This irregular verb has different simple past tense and past participle forms.

For example:

  • He accidentally shrank his jeans in the wash.
  • He had accidentally shrunk his jeans in the wash.

This means that the film should actually be called Honey, I Shrank the Kids, but doesn’t that sound odd? We so often hear the incorrect past tense form of this verb that when we hear the correct version it ‘sounds wrong’ because we are not expecting it.

Have a good week!


10 Oct 2017
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