Accessibility links

January 23, 2000 - 'Words and Rules' by Steven Pinker - 2002-02-01

INTRO: Our Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti discuss the ingredients of language found in a new book by a best-selling author.

RS: Steven Pinker is a researcher who has studied many aspects of language. He is also the director of the Center for Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

AA: On the surface it sounds as if they have no connection, but Steven Pinker makes one in his latest book, "Words and Rules." He looks at the complexity of language and the working of the brain through a single linguistic phenomenon.


"And that is the difference between irregular verbs -- bring/brought, come/came, go/went, take/took -- and regular verbs -- walk/walked, stop/stopped, and so on, and using that one example to explore everything you always wanted to know about language."

RS: You might think the result would be of limited interest outside the field of linguistics. But, Steven Pinker reaches for a broader audience.

AA:He recently spoke with Carol Pearson on VOA's Talk to America. He says irregular past-tense verbs explain his theory of how we learn language.


"Language really involves two tricks, and they may even be involved in different parts of the brain. One of them is the ability to memorize words. That's what we do when we learn tens of thousands of words in our vocabulary like 'dog' and 'cat' and 'duck' and 'tree' and so on. And I think that is also what we do when we learn irregular verbs like 'brought' and 'took' and 'came.' We are simply adding another 165 items to a vocabulary that's already in the tens of thousands. Whereas when we generate a form like 'walked' or 'talked' or 'played,' I don't think that we have to dredge them up from memory. We can create them right there and then, on the fly, by a mental rule of grammar."

RS: And, that rule is: add -ed to a verb to form the past tense.

AA: In other words, to describe an action that's already taken place.


"And that's why, when a new word enters the language, like 'to fax' or 'to flame' or 'to spam' you don't have to go to the dictionary to look up its past tense form, you automatically know that it's 'spammed,' and 'flamed' and 'faxed.'"

RS: But, how does the brain handle the exceptions? Steven Pinker says the words must be stored in memory.

AA: Children who grow up speaking English learn the difference between the two forms as they learn language and their mistakes are corrected.

RS: So it's not surprising that irregular verbs can be especially difficult for adult students of English as a Foreign Language.


"There are not many options other than learning them by rote. We even know this because the only irregular (verbs) that survive in a language are those that are high in frequency like 'come,' 'take,' 'put,' 'make,' 'do,' the verbs that we use almost every other sentence."

AA: Steven Pinker says some irregular verbs simply did not survive the passage of time and eventually conformed to the regular pattern.


Things like 'chide/chid' -- which used to be the correct form -- or 'gripe/grope.' What happened was that some generations of English speakers at some point never learned them properly. They started saying 'griped' and 'chided' the same way children say 'breaked' and 'taked.'"

RS: Instead of "broken" and "taken."

AA: Who knows, maybe someday people will say "breaked" and "taked." But until then we figure the problem will be around for a while.

RS: So, we suggest that a sense of humor go into your study.

AA: Here's a poem on the subject by Richard Lederer that we found in Steven Pinker's book.

RS: "The verbs in English are a fright.

Today we speak, but first we spoke.

How can we learn to read and write? Some faucets leak, but never loke.

Today we write, but first we wrote;

AA: We bit our tongues, but never bote.

Each day I teach, for years I taught, And preachers preach, but never praught.

This tale I tell; This tale I told;

RS: I smell the flower, but never smold.

If knights still slay, as once they slew Then do we play, as once we plew? If I still do as once I did, Then do cows moo, as they once mid?"

AA: If you're still confused by irregular verbs, you can check out Steven Pinker's new book, "Words and Rules."

RS: Or, if you have a question about American English, you can write to us. Our e-mail address is

AA: And our postal address is VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Verb"/Schoolhouse Rock!