Last week we talked about how to look up past participles in your dictionary. Here’s a condensed lesson: For any irregular verb, the past tense and past participle are listed right after the entry word, in that order.
But knowing where to look for answers is just half the battle. You also have to know when to look for answers. Certain words require extra vigilance. You need to be on the lookout for them because they can trip you up when you’re not paying attention.
With that in mind, here are seven verbs whose past participles require extra care.
Drink. People seem leery of using this verb in the present perfect or past perfect tenses. I hear people going out of their way to avoid saying, “By noon I had drunk four cups of coffee.” I suspect that’s because they’re not confident this is correct. It is. Here, according to Merriam-Webster’s, are the proper forms of “drink.” Present tense form: Today he drinks. Simple past tense form: Yesterday he drank. Past participle: In the past he has drunk. Also acceptable: In the past he has drank.
Hang. As we saw with “drink,” when a past tense sounds strange, people tend to avoid it. But when people avoid it, that makes its correct usage sound even stranger. “Hang” has the same problem. People bend over backward to avoid saying “I hanged the picture on the wall” or “I hung the picture on the wall.” Complicating matters: the “hang” that means to hang a picture on a wall is a little different from the “hang” that means to execute someone. No matter your meaning, “hanged” and “hung” are both correct for the past tense and past participle. But if you mean execution, you might want to note Merriam’s extra words of advice. For its past tense, “hanged” is the standard choice.
Spit. First, let’s separate the form that means to skewer something. That past tense is “spitted” and the past participle is, too. But don’t use “spitted” to mean “ejected something from the mouth.” For that, you have two options. “Spit” and “spat” are both correct as the simple past tense and as the past participle, too. You can say, “Yesterday he spit on the sidewalk” or “Yesterday he spat on the sidewalk.” But if you want my two cents, I think “spat” sounds more educated.
Lie. First you have to separate the meaning of “to tell a fib” from the meaning of “to recline.” To tell a fib takes the simple “lied” for both the past tense and past participle. The “lie” that means to recline, however, is trickier. The simple past tense is “lay”: Yesterday he lay on the bed. The past participle is “lain”: In the past, he has lain on the bed.
Lay. In meaning, the difference between “lay” and “lie” is that “lay” takes a direct object and “lie” does not. That is, “lay” is transitive and “lie” is intransitive. But you don’t need to know that to get lay’s past tense forms right. They’re simple. “Laid” is both the past tense and past participle. Yesterday he laid the book on the table. In the past he has laid the book on the table. But it’s unfortunate that the past tense of the intransitive verb “lie” happens to be the present tense of the transitive verb “lay.”
Slay. When you’re talking about killing someone, the past tense is “slew” and the past participle is “slain.” If you’re talking about a comedian knocking ’em dead, you can say “slayed.”
Break. I was certain that Merriam’s would say that both “broken” and “broke” are acceptable as past participles. I was wrong. The past participle is “broken.” Yesterday he broke his pencil. In the past, he has broken many pencils. The only exception is for the definition that means to tame a horse. You can say, “The cowboy has broke many broncos.”
– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTNC@aol.com.