Where, oh where, have our strong verbs gone?

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From Laura Morland:

Plane plunge

A United Airlines 777 leaving Hawaii made a scary plunge toward the ocean shortly after takeoff, flight tracking data shows. The incident occurred in December when the plane dived toward the ocean for 21 seconds a little over a minute after takeoff. Neither United nor the FAA indicated anyone was injured on the flight. Still, passengers on board were startled after the plane lost more than half its altitude and came within 775 feet of sea level, according to data from FlightRadar24. "There were a number of screams on the plane," a passenger told CNN. "Everybody knew that something was out of the ordinary, or at least that this was not normal." United said it conducted an investigation with the FAA and the pilots union "that ultimately resulted in the pilots receiving additional training," adding the investigation is ongoing.

[Source: CNN's daily newsletter, "Five Things"]

If you look into this, you might be surprised at what you find.


By the time most native speakers of English are adults, they've got irregular verb inflections down. Give/gave/given, bring/brought/brought, take/took/taken, dive…hmm.

Some would say dive/dived/dived, and some would say dive/dove/dived. Who's right? Both of them.

Dive is a regular verb whose past tense, since about 1300, has been dived. But in the 1800s, it suddenly gained an irregular past tense—dove. How did that happen, and why, for the love of all verbs, would you complicate something that heretofore has been so simple?

Drive is to Drove as Dive is to Dove

Blame drive. English speakers like their language to make sense, so they create order out of what looks like chaos. With verbs, we do that by sorting them into groups based on their infinitive form. If the past tense and past participle of stink are stank and stunk, respectively, then any verb ending in –ink should, to our minds, follow the same pattern. And some do: drink/drank/drunk and sink/sank/sunk. We apply this to drive and dive as well. The past tense of drive is drove, and so, we reason that dive's should be dove.

But what we want and what we have are two different things. Most of our irregular verb inflections aren't based on the Modern English infinitive form, but the infinitive form of the etymon. Drink, sink, and stink all happen to come from the same group of Old English verbs, which is why they share inflections in Modern English. Wink and think look related to drink, sink, and stink, but they aren't: we can tell by the forms they've carried with them into Modern English: wink/winked/winked and think/thought/thought.

So if dove is a modern invention, you shouldn't use it, right? Some people will tell you that—that the correct past tense of dive is dived. But a survey of the evidence for dive shows that dove is actually twice as common as dived is nowadays in American English, whereas dived is more common in British English. If you're speaking American English, be aware that some people hold to the idea that dived is the only proper past tense of dive, but also know that you may get some funny looks if you use dived in the States.

The learned post "Think, Thank, Thunk" on Matthew Clark's "The Art of Reading Slowly:  A Blog About Language and Literature" (5/15/22) is worth a look.


Selected readings



  1. martin schwartz said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 10:30 pm

    This being Shrove Tuesday, I add the archaic shrive: shrove
    to the discussion, and sort of off-subject, grumble over the current
    media clichés "deep dive" and "dive deep" in ref. to ostensible closer examinations of a current topic. Pity that in lieu of "dove into"
    one can't have pigeoned into something, especially aerially.
    Even more off-subject, Laura (hi!) Morland and others may enjoy
    thinking about "self-destruct" (vs. e.g. *"self-destroy") which I just saw in a notice, not that it's at all new.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Phillip Helbig said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 1:36 am

    “Some would say dive/dived/dived, and some would say dive/dove/dived. Who's right? Both of them.”

    What about dive/dove/diven?

  3. Laurence W said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 2:00 am

    There may be a more practical reason why "wink" has kept its regular form, at least in British English.

  4. Terry Hunt said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 3:21 am

    If 'wink' and 'think' were related to the other group, its pattern might still have been dropped from them in favour of regularity, to avoid confusion with existing 'wank' and' thank', for obvious reasons.

  5. JMGN said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 5:19 am

    Garner's MEU (5th ed.) states

    Since 1986, the frequency of "he dove into" in AmE has surpassed that of "he dived into" (not true of BrE). So it is time to declare dive > dove > dived standard AmE alongside the older forms.

  6. Rob Grayson said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 5:24 am

    @Martin Schwartz: Shrove Tuesday is next Tuesday, February 21.

  7. James Wimberley said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 6:44 am

    You really don't want to die unshriven. "Unshrived" does not convey the horrible eschatological risk.

  8. Robot Therapist said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 7:13 am

    Nor do you want to get short shrift.

  9. Robert said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 9:21 am

    And let's not forget thrive/throve/thriven

  10. Ex Tex said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 9:59 am

    "English speakers like their language to make sense"

    Is that intentionally ironic, or just hilariously wrong?

  11. Robert Coren said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 10:02 am

    I am apparently in a shrinking minority in still using dwelt/i> and knelt.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 10:03 am

    dwelt and knelt. But you knew that. (WordPress should really allow us to edit our comments.)

  13. George said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 11:00 am

    Funnily enough, while 'dove' sounds fine to my ears (I may even have used it on occasion, I simply don't know), 'nosedove' would be weird.

  14. Rodger C said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    I still like throve.

  15. Coby said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 11:30 am

    I think that durst was one the past form of dare when it functions as a modal verb ("I durst not do it") but not as a normal verb ("I dared to go"), just as the past of modal will is would but non-modal is willed ("he willed it into being"). I wonder if modal need ever had its own past.

  16. Coby said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 11:31 am

    "Once" not "one".

  17. Coby said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 3:09 pm

    I'm surprised that no one (including me, until now) mentioned snuck.

  18. CuConnacht said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 4:28 pm

    Well, look what the cat drug in.

  19. Dara Connolly said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 5:28 pm

    A recent letter to the Irish Times complained about a journalist's use of "pled" as the past tense of "plead", implying that this was a solecism. I was surprised, because for me the natural past tense is "pled". The article was corrected online to say "pleaded", which sounds a little awkward to me but is in line with the overall trend towards regularisation (with "dove" running counter to that trend).

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 5:41 pm

    I would say that dove is not used at all in British English nowadays (except for the bird). I still use many forms ending in -t, although not always exclusively, but I think this is more common in the UK.

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 5:48 pm

    @Dara Connolly
    Dictionaries give pled as a US or Scottish form, pleaded as the British, but nothing about Ireland.- I suspect influences from both England and Scotland mingled.

  22. Bloix said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 7:31 pm

    Thirteen years ago Mark Liberman set off a peever's delight of a comment thread when he posted a data-heavy analysis of sneak-sneaked-snuck.

  23. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 10:13 pm

    On the dove / dived problem, we shouldn't forget the research of more than half a century ago by Elmer Bagby Atwood, Survey of Verb Forms in the Eastern United States (1953), luckily available for download at:


    There on p. 9 and fig. 6 the geographical distributions of these forms are discussed.

    Actually the reference to the above I owe to the first edition (1996) of Larry Trask's Historical Linguistics , p. 172. This fine book (although inevitably containing some errors due to dealing with a wide range of languages of which the author could not have had the first-hand knowledge) has been posthumously "revised" and enlarged twice (2007, 2015), but Atwood's map of dove/dived is dropped there. These new editions do not correct Trask's errors and introduce quite a few new ones by the editor. My personal judgment having used the second edition (the third ed. came out after my retirement) in the classroom is that the increase of pages contributed more to the confusion in presentation.

    Anyway, Trask ibid. also discusses the form catch / caught pointing out that this verb was originally a weak verb, but unlike dive the strong past form became dominant (Atwood, p. 8 and fig. 4 show only a few traces of catched). He argues that teach / taught served as a model for the new past/pp form caught. But the argument in my opinion hardly holds water as the meaning is totally different and only the final afflicates are in common.

    More plausible would be the explanation of OED (2nd ed. CD-ROM version):

    [ME. cache-n, cacche-n, a. ONF. cachier (3rd sing. pr. cache), = central OF. chacier, later chassier, mod.F. chasser (Picard cacher) = Pr. cassar, Sp. cazar (OSp. cabzar), Pg. caçar, It. cacciare:—late L. *captiāre, f. capt-us ‘taken captive’, which took in Romanic the place of L. captāre ‘to strive to seize, seek to catch, lie in wait for’, and in late use = venāri ‘to hunt, chase’, which is the sense in all the Romanic langs. This sense was also original in Eng.; and continued in Scotch to 16th c. (see sense 1); but for this the central OF. chacier, chace was adopted in form chace-n by 1300, and catch was gradually confined to its present sense, which is unknown to French and the other langs., but is that of OE. læcc(e)an, ME. lacchen, lachen. With the latter, cachen seems to have been very early treated as synonymous, and at length entirely took its place. Hence, app. the pa. tense cahte, cauhte, cauȝte, caught, like lahte, lauhte, lauȝte, laught, which was used along with the regular cacched, catchte, catched, and during the present century has superseded it in literary use (though catched, cotched is still widely prevalent in dial. or vulgar speech).]

  24. Viseguy said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 12:08 am

    By coincidence (I assume), The New Yorker online just came out with an interview with the NY Times puzzle guru Will Shortz. It starts out with Shortz saying: "I have what I believe is the world’s only copy of the first crossword puzzle in private hands. It’s the Fun section of the New York World from December 21, 1913."

    Q: "What is it like?"

    A: "It’s in the shape of a hollow diamond. The first word across was “fun,” that was filled in for you. It had the word “dove” twice, one of them clued as the bird and one as the past tense of 'dive,' …."

  25. David Morris said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 7:24 am

    Partly by accident, partly by choice, I have found myself using regular forms more often than irregular verbs (eg dreamed rather then dreamt) when talking to students, second language speaker colleagues and my (second language speaker) wife and her friends.

  26. Josh R. said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 7:52 pm

    It's been proven that English has come up with all sorts of one-off forms of weak verbs that look like they should be strong verbs. I'll be hanged if sometimes it doesn't also go the other way!

  27. Josh R. said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 7:57 pm

    Also, I began my personal study of Old English in the desire to find out why we say "good, better, best," and "bad, worse, worst". No luck there. It looks like you'd have to go back to Proto-Germanic, or maybe even earlier, and the reason seems lost to the depths of time.

    But I *did* learn why we say teach-taught, think-thought, and bring-brought. So I have that going for me.

  28. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 19, 2023 @ 7:57 am

    When (some days ago) I first encountered this thread, the first question that I asked myself was "What is a strong verb ?". I had a vague feeling that I had encountered the term when I was at school, but whatever wisdom was inculcated at that time appeared to have vanished with the passing of the years. But of course, as I read on, I realised that a "strong" verb is what I would normally refer to as an "irregular" verb, and Google seemingly confirmed that hypothesis. But not entirely. I was extremely dismayed to find Google citing "study.com", "kidsmartapp.co.uk" and several other domains, all of which defined a "strong verb" as "a specific, descriptive verb used in writing [which] helps to make your writing more concise", "a descriptive verb that provides a better description of the action being performed", or similar. So it would seem that we have two totally different meanings for "strong verb" — (1) an irregular verb, and (2) a specific descriptive verb. I regard this as singularly unfortunate.

  29. Philip Anderson said,

    February 19, 2023 @ 11:33 am

    @Philip Taylor
    I first met strong verbs and weak verbs while learning Old English: strong verbs changed their vowel for the pretérito, whereas weak verbs added -ed. But the strong verbs were not irregular, since they fell into regular series: (sing/sang/sung have the same vowel pattern as sink, drink & stink).

    And not all irregular verbs started as strong verb; some were weak, like *thinked which was modified phonetically to thought. Dreamt, knelt etc were weak forms, even though they now have newer regular forms.

    Although the really irregular verbs IMO are those with multiple roots, like go and be.

  30. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 20, 2023 @ 1:31 am

    @Philip Taylor:

    There's at least one further sense (which I'd regard as the "proper" one): that subset of irregular verbs that form their past and participle by ablaut (vowel change) rather than by adding -ed or -t. So a verb like "think" is irregular but not strong.

  31. Robert Coren said,

    February 20, 2023 @ 11:05 am

    I believe I first encountered the term "strong verb" when study8ing German.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 21, 2023 @ 2:35 pm

    I likewise think I first came across "strong verb" to describe what my English teachers called (in English) "irregular verb(s)" when studying German in my youth. That German grammarians call "regular" verbs "weak" was, I thought, an entertaining contrast with the alleged high value German culture placed on Ordnung.

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