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Forming the Simple Past Tense of English Verbs: Spelling Changes and Pronunciation

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 4/5/2012

The following article explains the formation of the simple past tense of English verbs including spelling changes and pronunciation.

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    English Simple Past Tense

    The simple past tense is used in English to describe completed actions, to describe past habits and routines, to state past facts and truths, and to express past thoughts and feelings. For example, the simple past tense shut in the man shut the door describes a completed action, ate in she ate pizza every Friday describes a habit, was in housing was expensive states a fact, and thought in we thought the movie was boring expresses a thought.

    More specifically, the simple past tense refers to verbs in the simple aspect, past tense, indicative mood, and active voice. English verbs in the simple past tense are considered either regular or irregular. Regular verbs take the suffix -ed in the past tense while irregular verbs experience some sort of stem change:Simple Past Tense The following sections discuss the forms of both regular and irregular English verbs in the simple past tense as well as the pronunciation rules for regular English verbs.

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    Regular Past Tense Verbs

    To form the simple past tense of most English verbs, the morphological suffix -ed is added to the end of the base form. (Morphemes are the smallest linguistic units with semantic meaning. The morphological suffix -ed signals a verb is conjugated into the simple past tense when suffixed to the base form of a verb.) The base form of an English verb is the infinitive without the preposition to functioning as an infinitive marker. For example, the following chart identifies the infinitive and simple past forms of some common regular English verbs:

    • Infinitive – Simple Past
    • to answer – answered
    • to clean – cleaned
    • to demand – demanded
    • to learned – learned
    • to need – needed
    • to push – pushed
    • to want – wanted
    • to work – worked

    English verbs that take the morphological suffix -ed to form the simple past tense are referred to as regular verbs.

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    Regular Past Tense Verb Spelling Changes

    Some regular verbs experience some slight spelling changes in the simple past tense. For verbs that end with the letter e, only the morphological suffix -d is added to the end of the base form. For example:

    • Infinitive – Simple Past
    • to agree – agreed
    • to believe – believed
    • to die – died
    • to invite – invited
    • to live – lived
    • to notice – noticed
    • to save – saved
    • to whine – whined

    For verbs than end in a consonant followed by the letter y, the y changes to an i and is followed by the morphological suffix -ed. For example:

    • Infinitive – Simple Past
    • to apply – applied
    • to carry – carried
    • to copy – copied
    • to deny – denied
    • to party – partied
    • to rely – relied
    • to study – studied
    • to try – tried

    For verbs with one syllable that end in a single vowel sound followed by a single consonant (other than w or y), the final consonant is doubled and then the morphological suffix -ed is added to the end of the verb. For example:

    • Infinitive – Simple Past
    • to beg – begged
    • to drip – dripped
    • to nap – napped
    • to pet – petted
    • to rob – robbed
    • to shop – shopped
    • to stop – stopped
    • to tug – tugged

    For verbs with two syllables in which the second syllable is stressed, the final consonant is doubled and then the morphological suffix -ed is added to the end of the verb. For example:

    • Infinitive – Simple Past
    • to admit – admitted
    • to benefit – benefited
    • to commit – committed
    • to concur – concurred
    • to format – formatted
    • to occur – occurred
    • to prefer – preferred
    • to regret – regretted

    For verbs that end with the letter c, the letter k is added directly after the c and then the morphological suffix -ed is added to the end of the verb. For example:

    • Infinitive – Present Participle
    • to frolic – frolicked
    • to mimic - mimicked
    • to panic – panicked
    • to picnic – picnicked
    • to traffic – trafficked
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    Regular Past Tense Pronunciation

    Although the morphological suffix for the simple past tense -ed, the suffix is pronounced differently depending on the sound of the last syllable of the verb. If the last syllable of the verb sounds like:

    • t, tt, te [t]*
    • d, de [d],

    then the suffix is pronounced as a voiced ed [әd]. For example:

    • accepted [aksɛptәd]
    • collected [kolɛktәd]
    • expected [ɛkspɛktәd]
    • included [Inklʊdәd]
    • needed [nidәd]
    • pointed [pointәd]
    • stated [stetәd]
    • wanted [wantәd]

    If the last syllable of the verb is a voiceless sound, then the suffix is pronounced as an unvoiced t [t]. Voiceless sounds are produced by not vibrating the larynx, or voice box, in the throat. The voiceless, or unvoiced, sounds in English are:

    • p, pe [p]
    • k, ck, ke [k]
    • s, se, ce [s]
    • sh [š]
    • f, gh [f]
    • th [θ]
    • h [h]
    • y [j]

    For example:

    • asked [askt]
    • beeped [bipt]
    • developed [divɛləpt]
    • kissed [kIst]
    • laughed [laft]
    • replaced [riplest]
    • walked [wakt]
    • washed [wašt]

    If the last syllable of the verb is a voiced sound, then the suffix is pronounced as a voiced d [d]. Voiced sounds are produced by vibrating the larynx, or voice box, in the throat. The voiced sounds in English are:

    • m, me [m]
    • n, ne [n]
    • b, be [b]
    • g, ge [g]
    • v, ve [v]
    • z, ze [z]
    • ch [č]
    • w [w]
    • r, re [r]
    • l, ll, le [l]
    • j, dge [ĵ]
    • th [ð]
    • ng [ŋ]

    All vowels in English are also voiced sounds. For example:

    • compared [kumperd]
    • described [diskaibd]
    • followed [falowd]
    • involved [Invalvd]
    • named [nemd]
    • performed [pərformd]
    • revealed [riviəld]
    • watched [wačd]

    *The letters in brackets are the sounds written in the International Phonetic Alphabet preceded by some spellings of the sounds in written English.

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    Irregular Past Tense Verbs

    Unlike regular English verbs, irregular English verbs do not follow any real pattern in the simple past tense. Some irregular verbs have the same base and simple past tense forms. For example:

    • Base – Simple Past
    • bet – bet
    • cost – cost
    • cut – cut
    • fit – fit
    • let – let
    • rid – ride
    • shut – shut
    • wet – wet

    Other irregular verbs experience a vowel sound change from the base form to the simple past tense form. For example:

    • Base – Simple Past – Vowel Change
    • become – became – [ə] → [e]
    • break – broke – [e] → [o]
    • draw – drew – [a] → [u]
    • freeze – froze – [i] → [o]
    • meet – met – [i] → [ɛ]
    • sing – sang – [i] → [a]
    • throw – threw – [o] → [u]
    • write – wrote – [ai] → [o]

    Other irregular verbs experience a consonant sound change from the base form to the simple past tense form. For example:

    • Base – Simple Past – Consonant Change
    • build – built – [d] → [t]
    • dwell – dwelt – [l] → [lt]
    • have – had – [v] → [d]
    • keep – kept – [p] → [pt]
    • leave – left – [v] → [ft]
    • make – made – [k] → [d]
    • send – sent – [d] → [t]

    Other irregular verbs experience both vowel sound and consonant sound changes from the base form to the simple past tense form. For example:

    • Base – Simple Past – Vowel Change – Consonant Change
    • bring – brought – [i] → [ɔ] – [ŋ] → [t]
    • buy – bought – [ai] → [ɔ] – [Ø] → [t]
    • creep – crept – [i] → [ɛ] – [p] → [pt]
    • flee – fled – [i] → [ɛ] – [Ø] → [d]
    • hear – heard – [i] → [ə] – [r] → [rd]
    • leave – left – [i] → [ɛ] – [v] → [ft]
    • lose – lost – [u]→ [a] – [s] → [st]
    • sell – sold – [ɛ] → [o] – [l] → [ld]

    Other irregular verbs are simply irregular. For example:

    • Base – Simple Past
    • be – was/were
    • do – did
    • go – went

    In addition to the pronunciation changes of irregular verbs in the simple past tense, many irregular verbs also undergo some irregular spelling changes that must simply be memorized. For a printable download of the most common irregular English verbs, please see English Irregular Verbs: Simple Past Tense and Past Participles.


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