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Grammatically Speaking, Spring 2004

by Richard Firsten

Posted March 2004

Dear Richard,

My ESOL student wants to know why English has irregular past participles, as in the example break, broke, broken: I break the good dishes. / I broke the dish. / I have broken dishes.Why can't I say I have broke dishes? Thank you.

Janet Searl

Port Washington, NY USA

Dear Janet,

The question really shouldn't be why English has irregular past participles, but why it has past participles at all. (The question about why it has irregular verbs is a whole different matter.) It's possible that your student recognizes only past participles for irregular verbs because they usually appear different from the simple past form, whereas for regular verbs, the simple past and past participle are identical in form.

Past participles serve a few very useful purposes. First, they are coupled with the auxiliary have to form the present perfect aspect (have/has broken) and the past perfect aspect (had broken), and with the auxiliary be to form the passive voice (be broken).

The other purposes are adjectival. Just about all past participles can be used as adjectives in one way or another, e.g., the broken dish / Broken into many pieces, the dish lay on the kitchen floor. In another adjectival use, the past participle describes a person or thing that has received a feeling or action: She's interested in running for public office. / Allinterested parties should be present for the hearing. / Those renovated apartments are ready to be rented out.

And now just a quick note for you, Janet, about why English has so-called irregular verbs. Actually, they're not really irregular but rather are remnants of one of the two kinds of verbs found in Germanic languages, such as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Frisian. These languages had weak verbs, which used a suffix like the -d or -ed of Modern English to form the simple past and past participle (trust, trusted, trusted), and strong verbs, which formed the simple past through an internal vocalic change rather than through the addition of -ed(break, broke). Those strong verbs either repeated the simple past for the past participle (found, found) or used a third form of the verb (rode, ridden).

I hope this information will explain things to your student, and I hope you've found the information about weak and strong verbs interesting as well. Thanks for writing, Janet!

Hello Richard,

Please deliver me from grammar purgatory. I am interested in knowing whether whoever or whomever should be used in the following sentence and why: I especially enjoyed explaining my costume to curious mall-goers . . . and to [whoever/whomever] asked. My first impulse was to choose whomever because whomever appears to be the object of the preposition to. However, the syntax of the sentence is pushing me toward whoever, although I cannot justify my choice. I have polled a number of ESL teachers, but we have not reached a consensus on this matter. Can you help?

Debbie Bart

Nashville, TN USA

Dear Debbie,

Your choice was right, and let me show you how you can justify it. All you've got to do is answer one simple question: Who or what is the subject that goes with the verb in the relative clause of the sentence? The answer here is that whoever is the subject, and it goes with the verb asked. There you have it! Because whoever is the subject in the embedded part, it would be incorrect to use whomever. The reason that this gets confusing to many is that English speakers tend to drop the m in the formal whom when speaking and when writing as well. Then, when trying to be very formal in their writing, people get confused about whether or not whomever is appropriate.

Now let's change your example sentence a little so that whomever clearly is the object of the relative clause: I enjoyed explaining my costume to whomever I approached in the mall.In this sentence, the word I is the subject of the relative clause, so whomever is clearly the object of the verb approached and the appropriate form to use if you want to be formal. Again, I should mention that in informal English, you can just as easily use whoever as whomever in this second example sentence without raising eyebrows. That's why the grammatical waters get muddied.

I hope this has helped, Debbie. Now you can go spread the word to whoever wants to know!

Dear Richard,

When I teach past progressive and give students an example, What were you doing at 7 last night?, they ask whether it is wrong to say, What did you do at 7 last night? I say it is also correct but that the first sentence does not focus on the beginning or ending of the activity but on the progress. Still they seem puzzled. Do you have a better way? Thanks.

Michele Gaetz

Palmdale, CA USA

Dear Michele,

First of all, your point about the past progressive not focusing on the beginning or end of an action is absolutely right—and is a good point to make. Students need to understand that simple past means the action is completed, whether its duration was for 24 hours or 1 second—it's still ended. So how do you get this across to them? Through real-life, physical demonstrations.

  • Have a few actions in mind that can be done in the blink of an eye, such as turning on a radio or TV, making a phone call (dialing the number), or sneezing.
  • Have a few actions in mind that can be caught in the middle, such as watching a TV show, writing a letter, or napping.
  • Have a student ask you, “What did you do at 7 last night?” Then act out one of the blink-of-an-eye actions as you say the sentence out loud to describe it. Have another student ask the same question, and go through another one of those very short actions as you give the answer out loud.
  • Now have a student ask you, “What were you doing at 7 last night?” Then act out one of the caught-in-the-middle actions as you give the answer out loud. Have another student ask the same question, and go through another longer action.

When you've gone through a few of both kinds of actions and the students hear which verb form reflects one kind of action or the other, they should be able to understand what the grammar is doing and begin to internalize the differences.

Let me know how it goes if you plan this activity, Michele. I'll be curious to see if it works as successfully for you as it has for others and for me. I hope this helps!

Dear Richard,

I've got three questions for you.

  1. Do you consider the following sentence acceptable? Who did she see in the airport? I think the use of whom has almost died out and thus this sentence is acceptable.

Your first question fits in nicely with the question sent in by Debbie Bart. How convenient! Both who and whom are considered acceptable these days, Fulana. The one thing to keep in mind is register, that is, the level of formality. In formal writing, it's still considered better form to use whom in the object form, but in conversational English, who works quite well.

The funny thing is that when I first read your example sentence, I thought you were going to ask me a question about the preposition in (in the airport) and not about who! The reason was that it's really more standard to say at the airport. (See the section devoted to in vs. at in Firsten, 2002).

  1. How does one express the negative of used to? I didn't use to play soccer or I never used to play soccer?

Both are fine, Fulana. Using never is just more emphatic or stronger.

  1. Is the used before Ukraine? For example, is it I was born in the Ukraine or I was born in Ukraine?

This is quite interesting, Fulana. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the name was the Ukraine, which made it seem like only a province or region of the Soviet Union. When the country became independent after the breakup, Ukrainians started insisting on their country being called Ukraine to show that it's a complete country unto itself and not a province or region of some other autonomous state. By analogy, consider how the Yukon, the Crimea, and the Yucatan refer to regions rather than countries.

Okay, Fulana, I hope you'll find these answers satisfactory. Thanks again for writing in.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from Essential Teacher, Winter 2003: What's the difference, if any, among the following phrases: made of, made from, and made with?

The first correct answer came from Muzyad Sahadi of Zahle, Lebanon. Muzyad writes,

Made of is used when you can clearly see the material or materials that comprise something. For example, the tiara is made of gold and pearls. Made from means you cannot immediately know or see what material was used in the manufacture. For example, paper is made from wood pulp. Made with means that this is one ingredient or ingredients in something and again, you cannot immediately know or see what the ingredients are. An example here is the sauce is made with cream and sherry.

You've got the three down perfectly, Muzyad. Thanks! Mabrook wa shookran (congratulations and thanks)!

Now here's the Brain Teaser for this issue: Is it teeth marks or tooth marks? Only one is correct. Which is it, and what's the rule if there is one?

Please e-mail grammar questions or Brain Teaser answers to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten

c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center

750 NW 20th Street

Miami, FL 33179 USA

I'd love to hear from you!


Firsten, R., with Killian, P. (2002). The ELT grammar book: A teacher-friendly reference guide. Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center.