Words with Two Past-Tense Forms That Creeped (or Crept) into English

Sometimes you know a word has two forms, but you 're not sure which one is appropriate to use in the situation at hand. This happens a lot with verbs, where past-tense forms can compete for acceptance and supremacy with language users. Here are 15 verbs whose past tense can be confusing, along with some tidbits about their history and related linguistic phenomena.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. cleave
    separate or cut with a tool, such as a sharp instrument
    South Sudan became the world’s newest country in 2011 when it cleaved off from larger Sudan after a referendum.
    —Time (Apr 24, 2014)
    Cleaved or Cleft ? We may have a bias towards thinking that the regular form, in this case cleaved, came after the unusual form, as a way of "normalizing" the verb paradigm. Here the opposite is true. Cleaved dates from the 14th century and cleft came later.
  2. creep
    move slowly
    They had high valuations that the market was going to find it hard to support once doubts crept in.
    —New York Times (May 5, 2014)
    Creeped or Crept? Crept is the past tense, but creeped is popping up because of its presence in the phrasal verb creep out the past tense of which is indeed creeped out. Exceptions like this can often be accepted in certain contexts- the past tense of fly is flew but a baseball player who hit a fly ball that was caught a few innings ago flied out. With time, these specific instances can slowly reach the mainstream.
  3. dwell
    inhabit or live in
    The writer was an imperial figure, an artist who dwelt on Mount Olympus.
    —New York Times (Mar 23, 2014)
    Dwelt or Dwelled? Unlike several entries on the list, in the case of dwelt the unusual form predates the one ending in -ed. Dwelled is popular in the United States, while dwelt is dominant in Britain.
  4. hoist
    raise or haul up with or as if with mechanical help
    On the last day, the friends all hoisted their "bras and knickers" up the school flagpole.
    —BBC (May 2, 2014)
    Hoist or Hoisted? Hoist as a past tense form is what linguists would call a zero-derived form--nothing changes on the surface , but on some level it has to be different from present tense hoist --it has to be marked as "past." There was a verb hoise used primarily in nautical context and it is thought that its past tense, hoist, was mistaken for a root.
  5. knit
    make by needlework with interlacing yarn
    The yeast's cellular machinery viewed the chunks as strand breaks in the DNA, so it knit the new, synthetic code in with the old.
    -Scientific American (Mar 27, 2014)
    Knit or Knitted? Like plead (see below), these two forms are both accepted nowadays and are in a virtual statistical dead heat in terms of usage. Knitted is more popular in its adjectival use. In other words, people more often say " a knitted hat" than a "knit hat".
  6. plead
    appeal or request earnestly
    He pleaded guilty, this time to a higher degree of felony possession.
    —New York Times (May 4, 2014)
    Pleaded or Pled ?The grammar guides geared towards lawyers were once insistent that pleaded was the correct form, but the persistence of pled has caused the usually adamant attorneys to accept both. There may be more going on here, because " he pled guilty " sounds much better than " he pleaded guilty" but with a "with" complement the opposite holds "She pled with the judge" sounds awful to these ears, while pleaded sounds fine there.
  7. shrink
    wither, as with a loss of moisture
    The economy nearly shrank in the first quarter, then bounced back quickly, to judge by the April jobs report.
    —New York Times (May 4, 2014)
    Shrunk or Shrank ? A grammar maven's least favorite movie? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The movie title gets the past tenses confused- shrunk is past participle and shrank is simple past. Technically, it should be Honey, I Shrank the Kids.
  8. grind
    reduce to small pieces or particles by pounding or abrading
    Wisconsin bumped and grinded its way into the Final Four.
    —New York Times (Mar 29, 2014)
    Ground or Grinded ? Like creeped above, grinded is gaining acceptance over the traditional past tense ground because of the other uses of grinded. Grinded has become a hard nosed sports term- it is often said of football players, particularly running backs, that " they grinded it out today"
  9. dream
    experience while sleeping
    I don't suffer stress but I have dreamed about forgetting the box on a train.
    —BBC (Apr 29, 2014)
    Dreamed or Dreamt? Dreamt is more popular in Britain, but both of these forms can function as the past tense. Some sources claim that dreamt is correct for "had a dream while asleep" while dreamed concerns only "hopes and aspirations while awake", but there is no solid evidence for this.
  10. kneel
    rest one's weight on one's knees
    Only Mason knelt at the perimeter with his head down.
    —New York Times (Apr 19, 2014)
    Kneeled or Knelt ? Like cleave the form that might seem older, in this case knelt is actually much more recent, dating from the 19th century.
    was formed on analogy with the past tense of a few other verbs, like felt and dealt.
  11. stink
    smell badly and offensively
    It then turned out that the plug was defective, and the cell stank abominably for hours afterwards.
    Stunk or Stank? Stank is the past tense, while stunk is the past participle. This can be a tricky pattern to get a hold on, but it's worth it to try, because there are several verbs that work like this, including drink (drunk/drank), sink (sunk/sank) and shrink (shrunk/shrank). (See above.)
  12. burn
    destroy by fire
    All of the homes had been burned, their roofs of thatch and walls of reeds consumed by the fire.
    —Copper Sun
    burnt or burned ? This pair is a true case of two variations in the simple past tense form. The preference for one over the other seems influenced by cultural concerns, as the British prefer burnt or other factors like the existence of idiomatic uses. Someone who has ruined all his relationships on purpose is said to have burned his bridges. Burnt would be quite strange there.
  13. dive
    a headlong plunge into water
    Evelyn Lennart came prepared, armed with a baseball hat she swung at the bird as it dived toward her head.
    —Washington Times Jun 6, 2014
    Dived or Dove ? This is probably the most often cited instance of two past verb forms. In this case it is interesting to note that dove arose as a form much later than dived , another case of the regular, "-ed" form coming before the "unusual" form.
  14. swim
    travel through water
    Clay held the rope while his friends laughed and cheered as the little boy swam for his life.
    —Copper Sun
    Swam or Swum? Swum is not used much anymore, to the point where many question whether it is a word at all, but it is, technically, the past participle of swim. Swam is the simple past form.
  15. sting
    deliver a sudden pain to
    Even more stinging was his repeated question to the voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
    —Time Jun 5, 2014
    Stang or Stung? Stang was the past tense in Old English, but is now only heard very occasionally in dialects. The dominant past tense form is stung.
Created on April 29, 2014 (updated September 24, 2014)

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