Sing, sang, sung

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According to the UK Daily Mirror's report on Whitney Houston's funeral:

The funeral service included a eulogy by Kevin Costner, who starred with Whitney in her hit film The Bodyguard, and a performance by Alicia Keys, who sung with tears in her eyes.

What the linguist notices here is that the system of around 200 irregular verbs in English is so complex and hard to memorize that native-speaking professional journalists and editors are unable to pick the right preterite form for extremely common verbs. Alicia Keys, of course, sang with tears in her eyes.

The inflectional forms for non-auxiliary English verbs never have more than five separate shapes. With take, for example, you get all five distinct: the plain present take, the 3rd person singular present takes, the preterite or simple past tense took, the past participle taken, and the gerund-participle taking.

But the plain present is always the same as the plain form found in infinitivals (the unshaded and unlabeled column in the table below); and the 3rd person singular present is always the plain form with a suffix spelled -(e)-s on the end; and the gerund-participle is always the plain form with the -ing suffix added. So those are easy, and we can leave them out of the picture. It's the contrasts between the PLAIN PRESENT, the PRETERITE and PAST PARTICIPLE that cause the trouble. The multiple conflicting patterns trip up almost every speaker once in a while. Cast your eye down the relevant columns — it's chaos. The array of forms seems deliberately designed to confuse:

   PLAIN PRES   PRETERITE   PAST PART.   
hit hit hit hit  
sit sit sat sat  
right right righted righted  
light light lit lit  
fight fight fought fought  
lie lie lay lain  
lay lay laid laid  
get get got gotten (got in British English)
let let let let  
make make made made  
take take took taken  
bring bring brought brought (brung in some non-standard dialects)
ping ping pinged pinged  
sing sing sang sung  

Don't ask "How come so many ignorant journalists so often get this stuff wrong?" Ask instead: "How come so many of us so often get a lot of this stuff right?"


Update: This topic is of course related to the strange case of the past participle of stride. On that topic, Gunnar Harboe has just pointed out something very interesting to me. The obituary for Whitney in The Economist begins thus:

THE year was 1985, the scene Whitney Houston’s second sellout concert in Carnegie Hall in New York. There were almost 3,000 in the audience, and from somewhere among them, as she launched into "I am Changing", a voice rang out: "Sing it, Whitney honey! Sing us the truth!"

But what was the truth? Apparently it blazed before them, a huge, pure, beautiful voice from an impeccably poised young woman who had strode out in an evening gown, radiating self-confidence.

The Economist uses "had strode", not "had stridden"! Now I'm even more confused than I was before about that verb. Here and there (as David Denison also reminds me) it isn't just that people occasionally get it wrong, it's that it isn't entirely clear what's right.

[I have chosen to keep comments closen. Sorry, I mean I have chosed... oh, the hell with it.]

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