Recently reader Therese Myers asked about choosing the correct past tense of a verb. Is it lighted or lit? Dived or dove? Strived or strove?
Light, dive, and strive have both regular (–ed) and irregular past tense forms. How did that happen? And how do you know which variant to use?
How Did We Get the Variants?
The short answer is because people are inconsistent and in these cases both variants have been widely used. The longer answer differs by the word we’re discussing.
Dive and strive are known as weak verbs. That is, the vowel sound stays the same in all forms, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. As a result we get dive, dived, dived and strive, strived, strived. In contrast, strong verbs change their vowel sound in past and past participle forms: swim, swam, swum. (This distinction has worn away over time, and we now usually talk about regular and irregular verb forms.)
The past participle dove first appeared in the 19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (DEU). The usage has been generally accepted as an equal variant of dived and is governed mostly by geography. DEU notes that dove is popular in some parts of Canada and the United States, including the northern United States and California.
Strive is more complicated. For the past tense, we can use strived or strove, and for the past participle tense, we can choose striven or strived. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the strong conjugation (strove, striven) is older and more frequent, which is consistent with a word that derives from French, as strive does (estriver).
Both dive and strive in their weak conjugation are believed to be modeled on drive.
Light has a different story. From the beginning, both lit and lighted have been “acceptable and standard,” as DEU puts it, and its evidence shows fairly equal usage of both. Lit started to receive a bad reputation in the 18th century as being uneducated, but the reputation doesn’t seem to have stuck, as lit has continued to be used and accepted.
Which Variant Do You to Choose?
Light, dive, and strive are part of a group of verbs that have both regular (–ed) and irregular forms. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English lists many of them, including:
|From Copyediting Blog Posts|
As our examples demonstrate, each of these verbs might have its own story why it has variant forms. Many are equal variants, though there are preferences. Longman notes that these preferences are influenced by several factors:
- Register (e.g., formal vs. informal)
- Dialect (e.g., Canadian English, Southern American English)
- Grammatical function (past tense vs. past participle)
- Individual verb
The only way to know for sure is to look up the verb in a dictionary. Be sure to check the one assigned to your project. While American English dictionaries mostly agree, there can be slight differences, and other regional Englishes can have different preferences. Here’s a breakout for the words Myers asked about:
|From Copyediting Blog Posts|
Finally, in cases of equal variants (usually denoted by or), unless directed otherwise, you should be able to use either variant. Let the author’s preference stand or choose the form that fits the rhythm of the sentence better.
Do you have a question on language usage? Email it to me, and I’ll answer it!