English Language and Linguistics

Research Article

Norm vs variation in British English irregular verbs: the case of past tense sang vs sung


a1 English Department, University of Kiel, Olshausenstr. 40, 24098 Kiel, Germany anderwald@anglistik.uni-kiel.de


In this article I discuss the persistence of non-standard past tense forms in traditional and modern dialect data in the face of strong prescriptive norms against such non-standard forms. Past tense forms like she drunk or they sung are still encountered frequently, although prescriptive grammars have militated against such usage for over a century, as a detailed investigation of nineteenth-century grammar books can show. I will argue that an increasing insistence especially by British nineteenth-century grammarians on distinct paradigm forms like drink – drank – drunk is based on a (mistaken) Latin ideal and that it has not carried much weight with the ‘average’ speaker for functional reasons: non-standard forms in <u> can be functionally motivated and are more ‘natural’ past tense forms in the sense of Wurzel (1984).

(Received March 25 2010)

(Revised November 09 2010)

(Online publication February 07 2011)