I’m glad English is my first language. I would hate to learn it as a second language. These words with a long “e” sound and their past tenses help demonstrate why:
Many people use pled as the past tense of plead, but in the news business the AP Stylebook says to use pleaded, not pled or plead, the latter pronounced like pled. Those two versions of plead’s past tense reflect past tenses of similar verbs and the myriad inconsistencies of the language.
Read, for example, has as its past tense read, pronounced red. But lead’s past tense is led, not lead. Lead pronounced like led is a metal.
Feed’s past tense is fed. Bleed’s is bled. But the past tenses for heed, need, seed and weed are, respectively, heeded, needed, seeded and weeded. We chuckle at the cute toddler who has yet to learn the irregular conjugations and says he readed something or she bleeded when she fell down, but it’s amazing that children master the past tenses at relatively young ages.
People over the years have preached spelling reform, and if that goal was ever achieved, these words should all be spelled with ee to make the long “e” sound, and the past tenses should take one e and no ed suffix, like lead and led.
We would thus have plead, pled; read, red; lead, led; bleed, bled; feed, fed; heed, hed; need, ned; seed, sed; and weed, wed. You may say that this could lead to confusion, such as in wed, but words are understood in context, and many homographs and homophones are defined by such, as the homographs lead the verb and lead the noun; and the homophones your and you’re; its and it’s; there, they’re and their; and brake and break.
Nearly everyone gets confused by lie and lay, which mean two similar but distinct ideas, the former describing a state of reclining and the latter an action performed on an object. In the present tense, I say that I lie down when I am tired and I lay the pen on the desk when I am done writing. Then the past tense comes along and totally confuses things. The past of lie is lay and of lay is laid, so I lay down last night for a short nap but I laid my pen on the desk before lying down. The past participle of lie is lain and of lay is laid. I had lain down before arising again, and I had laid the pencil on the desk. The present participles are lying and laying. To further confuse matters, the verb lie also means to prevaricate, its past tense and past participle are lied, and its present participle is lying, just like that of the other lie. Die follows the rules of the prevaricating, not the reclining, lie, so it’s die, died, died, not die, day, dain.
Then we have words with a long “a” sound. The past tense of say is said, pronounced sed, the same sound in lead the metal and led the past tense of lead, to go in front. But the past tense of play is played, pronounced with a long “a,” not plaid, which is a pattern of criss-crosses pronounced plad, although in Scotland a plaidie is the old body-length version of the kilt and is pronounced “play-dee” with a long “a.” If you fear something, you are afraid, but it is pronounced with a long “a,” like frayed, which means being worn at the edge, and not like said.
Weigh is pronounced with a long “a,” and its past, weighed, also has a long “a” sound. Neigh is the same. Weigh’s homophone is way, and neigh’s is nay. Sleigh is pronounced like slay, but one is a noun and the other a verb. Slay’s past is slew, not slaid, which could be pronounced like sled. A naysayer is one who denies something, and its verb equivalent is naysay, past tense naysaid. These three would make me give up: bass the fish is pronounced with a short “a,” but bass the instrument has a long “a,” like base, a foundation or bottom part.
I studied four years of French in high school and a smattering of German, Spanish, Italian and Latin over the years, and in all those languages I found comfort in the fact that pronunciation and spelling are absolutely consistent. A vowel is always pronounced a certain way unless it has a diacritic over it, a little mark that tells the speaker or writer that the sound is different. I enjoy studying those languages, but if I were to attempt English as a second language, I think I would lie down and admit defeat.
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