The BBC has went and ran “wrong” verb forms…

According to a recent BBC article, a company “was ran” by someone. It is, of course, now common place for government ministers, Council Chief Executives and Grammar School head boys to “have went”. Is this really a problem?

Well, what is happening here?

Almost all the languages of Europe through even to northern India derive from the same common ancestor, Indo-European. One of the first dialects of Indo-European to spring westwards was Germanic, which spawned languages such as English, German and Swedish. Even though the former became subsequently heavily influenced by French and Latin, its grammar and vocabulary remain fundamentally Germanic.

One of the linguistic features of Germanic languages (marking them out as a group from others) is the presence of “strong verbs”, those which mark their past preterite and past participle forms by changing the root vowel (thus sing-sang-sung; break-broke-broken – also German singan-sang-gesungen; brechen-brach-gebrochen). In fact, initially all verbs in Germanic languages were “strong”; it was only later that “weak” verbs developed, forming their past in what is now regarded as the “regular” way by adding a –or -t (e.g. like-liked-liked; learn-learnt/learned-learnt/learned; also note send-sent-sent).

These verbs were initially split into seven classes, depending (primarily at least) on the root vowel – for the record, linguists assign sing to Class 3 and break to Class 4.

Another Class 3 verb is run – this is confused because originally this was rin(nan), thus making it more obviously like sing. What has happened here is that the (standard) past participle form run (cf sung) has taken over also as the present form. Some users – including the author of the BBC story mentioned in the first paragraph – instinctively assume that any past form should be different from the present, and thus assume that if the present is run the past participle must be something else – say, ran.

Class 7 is a confusing class made up of verbs which initially reduplicated (no need to know how or why) – and one of these was usually spelled gan in Old English but has become, in modern English, goCommon verbs like this are often unstable, taking shortened forms quite often, and in fact go very early in the history of English (i.e. in the second half of the first millennium) developed a “suppletive” (i.e. from a completely different source) past preterite form eode – so “he eode” in Old English would now be “he went“. (This is in fact the origin of the end of the word follow, which was originally folgan with the past folleode but then essentially adopted a present form as if regular with the past form, thus follow-followed-followed.)

Over time, this “suppletive” form was replaced by another suppletive form from the verb “wend” – so that where “went” was originally the past preterite form of “wend” (e.g. send-sent), it has become since late Norman times the past preterite form of “go” (the past preterite of the now rare “wend” has been “regularised” to “wended“).

Nevertheless, throughout this time the past participle has remained “gone” or something similar to that – which also gives the adjectival form (e.g. “foregone conclusion”, “let bygones be bygones”). Similarly to the case with run, however, the tendency to want to use the same past preterite and past participle has begun to prevail, thus leading the near dominance now, even in formal careful speech, of “went” as the participle as well as the preterite.

This is in fact a perfectly normal tendency, evident throughout the history of English – after all, the example I gave above of break-broke-broken exhibits a similar regularisation (in Shakespeare’s time most educated speakers would have insisted on break-brake-broken and for that matter speak-spake-spoken). Some verbs have been regularised altogether – just a few generations before Shakespeare, the same strong verb class had help-halp-holpen but by his day it was help-helped-helped. Without the invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century, which greatly slowed down linguistic change because it made the written word so widely transferable (and thus effectively required “educated written standard” versions of English and other languages to be determined), we may be sure that this process of regularisation would have gone further – as it has in most non-standard dialects (likewise, I argue, in Ulster Scots).

So what is the answer to the question in the first paragraph? It is not really a problem. Language change is language change – like any sort of change, it is a fact of life and necessary to progress even though few like it at the time. Nevertheless, a careless use of language can often point to carelessness in other ways. Standard grammatical forms haven’t gone away, you know…

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8 thoughts on “The BBC has went and ran “wrong” verb forms…

  1. chris roche says:

    Mulroney says: Like the Pullie, the English language is evolving, but whereas the English language has grown into a thing of beauty, the Pullie, eyes a-bulging, teeth a-snarling, voice a-grunting is still swinging merrily from the dripping treetops in the dark and dismal rainforests of prehistory.

  2. factual says:

    Ian why do you allow sectarian posts like these from the poster above? They lower the tone of your blog.

  3. They are allowed automatically as his first one was approved as okay.

    I haven’t been troubled by them – the above is so obviously sectarian as to rebound on the author. But maybe I’m wrong?

  4. factual says:

    Fair enough.

    Your blog post is very interesting.

    When a Conservative Peer, and former Chairperson of the party, uses the expression “I was sat” I start to wonder whether it matters that I find it wrong.

  5. […] correspondent shared last week with us that not only do the BBC say “was ran by”, but a peer says “was […]

  6. […] It is a natural progression – in that it is common for the preterite and past participle forms to merge (as previously discussed). […]

  7. Lissa Petri says:

    Timely commentary ! I loved the details – Does anyone know where my company might locate a sample a form form to complete ?

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