How to irritate a linguist, Part 5: English irregular past-tense verb practice

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.

You’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.


Conditional probability is the likelihood of some event given some other event.  For example: the probability of the word barf being said is, in the absence of any other information, equal to the frequency of the word barf being said divided by the frequency of any word whatsoever being said.  For example: I went to the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools to search them with, and searched a collection of 15.7 billion words of English scraped from the Web in 2015 and found that the word barf occurred 0.12 times per million words.  In other words: in the absence of any other information about what’s being said, you can expect that you will run into the word barf once every 8 million words or so.

If dogs are being talked about, the situation changes.  If you look only in the vicinity of the word dog, then the frequency of barf is 2.41 times per million words.  In other words, when dogs are under discussion, you will run into the word barf every 415,000 words or so.   So: the probability of the word barf is 0.12, and the conditional probability of the word “barf” given that you have seen the word “dog” is 2.41.

An aside: it isn’t necessarily the case that having seen some word tells you anything about the probability of seeing another word.  For example, the probability of the word barf and the probability of the word barf given that you have seen the word the are probably equal.  When the probability of some event (say, seeing some word) and the probability of that event given some other event (say, having seen some other word) are equal, we say that they are conditionally independent.  When the probability of some event is not the same as the probability of that event given some other event, we say that they are conditionally dependent.  


So, you’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.  You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake, for the following reason: when you just stand there silently, you let the other person establish the grounds of the conversation.  (Note that I’m assuming a party in the United States, where we find silence uncomfortable, and thus there will, indeed, be a conversation.)

Someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …is equal to the frequency of wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …being said, divided by the frequency of anything whatsoever being said.  In other words: vanishingly small.  However, the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given that you have just been introduced to someone as a linguist is not vanishingly small–it is much, much larger than vanishingly small.

Just to be sure that we’re all paying attention here:

  1. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is not equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word dog has been said.  These two words are:
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent
  2. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word the has been said.  These two words are:
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent
  3. The probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? is much higher if they have just been told that you are a linguist than the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given no additional information.  Those two events are
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent

Answers: (1) conditionally dependent, (2) conditionally independent, (3) conditionally dependent.


What’s so irritating about this?  The answers to that question are probably as numerous as the number of linguists in the world (which is to say: not enormous, but not zero, either), but here are my top 5 explanations:

  1. Your question is looking for a specific answer–yes, they sure are weird–but I do not, in fact, think that English irregular past-tense verbs are weird, so I feel pressured into lying, so fuck you.
  2. Talking about what’s interesting about English irregular past-tense verbs (I said interesting, not weird) would require me finding a napkin and a pen with which to draw on it, and no one seems to carry pens anymore, so I would have to wander around the party like a bumbling idiot, breaking up innumerable conversations while I looked for one, plus I have facial hair, so I really need my napkin.
  3. A reasonable linguist would suspect that if they engage with you on this question, then they’re going to find themselves in an annoying conversation with you about linguistic complexity, and that would really ruin their evening, which given that I was just sipping a dark beer and minding my own business seems pretty unfair.

English is the language of my profession, and I know an enormous number of non-native speakers who can read and write it close to perfectly.  But: drink a couple of beers at the Association for Computational Linguistics convention meet-and-greet, get into an animated conversation about the inability of Big Data to demonstrate causality, and anyone will start to trip over irregular forms.  If you’re speaking English, that’s probably mostly going to involve irregular past-tense verbs.  But: practice makes perfect better, so: let’s practice!

Today we’ll look at irregular past-tense verbs that follow a specific pattern.  In this pattern, a verb with the vowel [i] (International Phonetic Alphabet) in the present tense has the vowel [ε] in the past tense.  Examples:

  • feed/fed
  • lead/led
  • meet/met
  • read/read
  • lead/led

Notice that I’m grouping these verbs by pronunciation, not by spelling–our goal here is to help you develop spoken habits.  (Mécanisation–thanks, Phil d’Ange!)  The astute reader (OK, a linguist) might also have noticed that those verbs all end with one of the two English “alveolar oral stop consonants:” that is, with a or a d.  Other verbs that have the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern may add a or a d:

  • feel/felt
  • creep/crept
  • keep/kept
  • kneel/knelt
  • leave/left
  • mean/meant
  • leap/leapt (leaped is also possible)
  • cleave/cleft (cleaved and clove are also possible)
  • flee/fled
  • sleep/slept
  • sweep/swept
  • weep/wept
  • deal/dealt
  • dream/dreamt (dreamed is also possible)
  • plead/pled (pleaded is also possible, and I think common these days, at least in the US)

OK: practice time!  Here are some sentences that include past-tense verbs of the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern.  Read them out loud, replacing the present-tense verb in parentheses with the past-tense form.  (In some of these examples, it’s actually a past participle that happens to have the same form as the past tense.)

All examples are from the New York Times story Trump and Putin have met five times.  What was said is a mysteryby Peter Baker, published January 15th, 2019.  I have edited some of them for clarity, e.g. by replacing they with Trump and Putin. 

The first time that Trump and Putin (meet) was in Germany.

Each of the five times President Trump has (meet) with Mr. Putin since taking office, he has fueled suspicions about their relationship.

The unusually secretive way he has handled these meetings has (leave) many in his own administration guessing what happened and piqued the interest of investigators.

At the height of the campaign, his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had (meet) at Trump Tower with Russians on the promise of obtaining dirt on Mrs. Clinton from the Russian government.

Their most famous meeting came on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, where they talked for more than two hours accompanied only by interpreters.  The Kremlin later reported that the leaders reached important agreements, but American government officials were (leave) in the dark.  American intelligence agencies were (leave) to glean details about the meeting from surveillance of Russians who talked about it afterward.

The picture at the top of this post is an MRI of the vowel [i] being pronounced.  Source: I don’t remember, but if you care, I’ll look it up.  Enjoying the How to irritate a linguist series?  Here are the previous episodes.

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