Past tense needn’t be tense

I’ve been getting questions off-blog lately about simple past verb forms, most of which can be addressed via speaking to UK versus US usage. This subject has been addressed often elsewhere, but not here. I will suggest up front that if you want more information, by all means employ your own brand of Google-fu and go get it. It’s all out there, waiting for you. Meanwhile, I’ve distilled one small part of the gist of this subject for today’s post.

In general, a verb form ending in -t is indicative of UK usage. Likewise, one ending in -ed is indicative of US usage. Witness these examples.

dreamt/dreamed

leant/leaned

spelt/spelled

smelt/smelled

learnt/learned

I cannot stress enough that I am speaking in generalities. There are undoubtedly exceptions to what I’ve just said. If you feel the need to post them as comments, knock yourself out. I’m not trying for an exhaustive list, I’m just showing folks the way this works. (I’ll beat some of you to the punch. The past tense of “to deal” is “dealt,” no matter which usage you’re employing. There is no such word as “dealed.”)

“But Karen, I’ve used dreamt all my life and there’s no one British in my family!” Y’know, I believe you. I’ll tell you this much: You probably grew up/live in an area of the US with strong linguistic ties to England, which means that usage in your area leans toward the UK versions of things. I grew up in an area with strong Germanic/Dutch ties, so we had sayings like “The bread is all” meaning “There’s no more bread.” Linguistics are fascinating. Do some reading on the subject if you’re so inclined. Google-fu is powerful stuff indeed.

“But Karen, what about lent?” Well, I’ll tell you. Lent as a verb is the past tense of lend. Lend/lent, loan/loaned, lean/leaned. Lend and loan are mostly interchangable; the latter has the connotation of financial dealings, which is why we lend a hand, but loan a fiver. We lend an ear, because if we loaned one it would involve surgery. We can lend a bike, or we can loan one. Last week, I lent someone a book and I loaned my daughter a few dollars.  It’s all good.

That tree leaned the other way before the big windstorm. If I lived in the UK, I’d say it leant the other way.

I’ll point you to the Daily Writing Tips blog (see it in our blogroll) for this kind of information. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary is good as well; when applicable, it notes differences in US/UK usage clearly. Remember that the preferred form appears first in the listing; coming second doesn’t mean a form is wrong, it merely means it is not the preferred form. (And that usually means that copy editors like me will change the less-preferred form to the more-preferred one, without a compelling reason not to. And by compelling, I mean stronger than “because I like it better.”)

Watch this space for an upcoming post about those pesky -ou- spellings (also UK usage), and perhaps even one about the correct past tense of “to plead.” You probably won’t like the answer. I don’t care. Ha.

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