In the war of words, the past tense is under siege

It's everywhere one looks (and listens). "I sunk the boat." "I shrunk the sweater." "I sung the song."

What's a stickler for correct English to do?

The assault upon the past tense is one of several battles being waged on the linguistic war front. The "lay/lie" conflict has claimed many casualties, and even journalists have fallen before its terrible swift sword. I recently read, in a well-respected newspaper, that the subject of some disturbance was so affected that she "had to go and lay down." I don't picture a victim seeking respite; rather, I envision a hen depositing an egg, surely the image the reporter did not intend to convey.

Other conflagrations include the "further/farther" standoff, the "that/which" skirmish (hopeless, hopeless), and "between you and I," rapidly falling to the marauding enemy.

But the past tense! If all else be lost, this is where one can, and must, draw the line. If not, then all those elementary school grammar drills, all those hours of repetitious toil, will have been for naught. It was Mrs. Gooth, my third-grade teacher - round as an apple and just as sweet - who introduced us to the formalities of English tenses. Did this not give her life meaning? Is it not her legacy?

There she stands in my memory, with green ruler in hand, conducting us 8-year-olds as she would a choir. "For regular verbs," she pronounced in her hoity-toity voice, "the past is formed by adding -ed to the stem. However," she cautioned, "there are many, many verbs that do not follow this pattern."

By my count, there are precisely 187. These so-called irregular verbs must be learned separately, so that "I swim" is not constructed as "I swimmed" (except in my 6-year-old's lexicon), but rather as "I swam." And "I sink" is not "I sinked" but rather "I sank."

I sank. Sank, sank, sank. If I had my druthers I would charter a plane and drop this single word all over the country until, sunk (aha!) knee-deep in the leaflets, there would be a collective cry of surrender from the masses as I flew (not "flied") happily home smiling a sweet smile of success.

A verb has three principal parts: the base form, the simple past, and the past participle. Thus, "I stink, I stank, I have stunk." Why, then, do Americans insist upon rewriting this fixed grammar and reducing the forms to two - I stink and I stunk?

Perhaps this degradation has something to do with the American sense of economy, with "downsizing" being one of the cultural themes du jour. All literate people are acquainted with the base form of "sing." I sing a song. But when it comes to the simple past, folks are increasingly ... well, I wanted to say that they are increasingly stymied, but this isn't quite right. It's more as if they are unaware of the simple past, but instead make a beeline for the past participle ("I have sung"), give it a haircut, and then promote it to simple past as "I sung." This is a complicated maneuver. Wouldn't it be easier to simply retain "I sang" on its home turf, rather than go to the trouble of evicting it?

Apologists for the language will claim that English is a living entity, that it changes over time, and that the engine of that change is the vernacular of ordinary citizens. This is true, but only to a point. I would remind these "anything goers" that, before its rules were written down, English changed so rapidly that it was indecipherable from one generation to the next. Such was the case with the "Peterborough Chronicle," a yearly account of Anglo-Saxon life the writing of which was suspended between 1131 and 1154. Within this span of only 23 years, Old English had given way to Middle English and folks could no longer comprehend the chronicle's earliest pages. I can think of no more compelling illustration of the need for fixed rules of grammar and exposition.

Ladies and gentlemen! The state of the language lies in the balance. Think of propriety, think of consistency, think of the generations to come. If these do not move you to action, think of Mrs. Gooth and her plaintive song of woe: "Sink, sank, sunk; shrink, shrank, shrunk; sing, sang, sung; stink, stank, stunk; ring, rang, rung." This is the battle trench, the beachhead, the hardened bunker. If we don't achieve victory here, then what will be our fate when it comes to more complicated forms of the past tense: drive/drove; forbid/forbade; slay/slew; and (gulp) forsake/forsook?

The enemy already has its answer, flourishing on the tongues of our children: bring, brang, brung.

Whatever shall we do?

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