Strong and Weak Verbs in Comparison

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Strong and Weak Verbs in Comparison


Basis for Comparison Strong Verbs Weak Verbs
Type/Origin Indo-European (reveals suppletivity) Germanic (reveals dental suffix)
Formation of Past Tense forms by changing the root-vowel (ablaut): sittan (Infinitive) – sæt (Past Indefinite) (verb “to sit”) with the help of the dental suffix -t/-d: līcian (Infinitive) – līcode (Past Indefinite) (verb “to like”)
Formation of Participle2 forms with the help of the suffix –en(+ sometimes root-vowel interchange): findan (Infinitive) – funden (Participle 2) (verb “to find”) with the help of the dental suffix -t/-d: cēpan (Infinitive) – cēped (Participle 2) (verb “to keep”)
Derivation Strong verbs were root-words/non-derivatives (i.e. they were not derived from some other words/roots but were the words/roots from which other words were derived) Weak verbs were derivatives from nouns, adjectives, strong verbs: tellan (to tell) ← talu (a tale) fyllan (to fill) ← fyll (full) fandian (to find out) ← findan (to find)
Productivity unproductive type (no new words employed this type of form-building) productive type (new words that appeared employed this type of form-building)
Principle Forms Infinitive Past Sg Past Pl Participle 2 wrītan – wrāt – writon – writen Infinitive Past Participle 2 cēpan – cēpte – cēped
Classes subdivided into 7 classes subdivided into 3 classes

Strong Verbs and their Development

1.As far as the strong verbs were a non-productive class, some strong verbs turned into weak with time, i.e. started to employ -t/-d suffix in their form-building (e.g. to climb, to help, to swallow, to wash, etc.). Thus in NEonly 70 strong verbs out of 300 in OE remained.

2.The strong verbs were subdivided into 7 classes according to the type of vowel gradation/ablaut.

The classes that survived best through different periods of the history were classes 1, 3, 6:


Class 1 Infinitive Past Sg Past Pl Participle 2
OE wrītan wrāt writon writen
ME writen wrot writen writen
NE write wrote written


Class 3 Infinitive Past Sg Past Pl Participle 2
OE findan fand fundon funden
ME finden fand founden founden
NE find found found


Class 6 Infinitive Past Sg Past Pl Participle 2
OE scacan scoc scōcon scacen
ME shaken shook shoken shaken
NE shake shook shaken

Analysing the tables above, we can see that the following changes occurred:

· In MEthe inflections -an, -on, -en were all reduced to just one inflection à -en.

· In NEthe ending -nwas lost in the Infinitiveand preserved in the Participle 2 in order to distinguish these two forms.

· In NEPast Singular and Past Plural forms were unified, usually with the Singular form preferred as a unified form because Past Plural and Participle 2 often had similar forms and it was hard to distinguish them (e.g. ME writen (Past Pl) – writen (Part. 2))à the category of Number disappeared in the Verb.

In ModE the subdivision into classes was lost though we still can trace some peculiarities of this or that class in the forms of the irregular verbs.

Weak Verbs and their Development

1.The division of weak verbs into classes was based on the original stem-building suffix of a verb that was already hard to distinguish even in OE:

Class 1 Infinitive Past Participle 2 Basis for Subdivision
OE styrian styrede stured stem-suffix -j most verbs – with front root-vowel derived from nouns, adjectives
ME stiren stirede stired
NE stir stirred stirred
Class 2 Infinitive Past Participle 2 Basis for Subdivision
OE lōcian lōcode lōcod stem-suffix –oja most numerous class most verbs – with back root-vowel
ME looken lookede looked
NE look looked looked
Class 3 Infinitive Past Participle 2 Basis for Subdivision
OE libban lifde lifd 3 verbsonly: habban (to have), libban (to live), secζan (to say)
ME livien livde lived
NE This class merged with class 1 in ME

2.Weak verbs were not as complex as strong ones and had a greater regularity and simplicity. That’s why they were productive, i.e. all borrowed verbs used weak model of form-building (suffix -t/-d) (e.g. Scand. to skate, Fr. to charm, Lat. to decorate, etc.) and, as it has already been mentioned above, many originally strong verbs turned into weak (e.g. to bake, to laugh, to help, to lie, etc.). The opposite process of turning of weak verbs into strong was very rare and was mainly based on phonetic similarity between some strong and weak verbs, i.e. was a result of mere confusion that later was accepted as a norm due to its persistent and regular character (e.g. to wear was originally weak and became strong because of the mistaken analogy with to swear, to ring (mistaken analogy with to sing), to hide (mistaken analogy with to ride)).

On-Finite Forms

Participle 1

The formation of the Participle 1 was as follows:


berende bering bearing

In OEParticiple 1 was considered Present Participle, had only the form of the Active Voice, possessed the categories of Number, Gender, Case. It was used predicatively and attributively (agreed with the noun in Number, Gender, Case).

In MEit lost its nominal and adjectival features together with the categories of Number, Gender, Case and became unchangeable.

Participle 2

As it has been mentioned in the table above, in OE Participle 2 was formed:

· in strong verbs – with the help of the suffix –en(+ sometimes root-vowel interchange) + often marked by prefix ζe-:

e.g. OE bindan (Infinitive) – ζebunden(Participle 2) (to bind)

In MEprefix ζe-was weakened toprefixi-/y-(e.g. ME y-runne (run, Part.2 from “to run”) and in NEit disappeared at all.

· in weak verbs – with the help of the suffix -t/-d:

e.g. OE cēpan (Infinitive) – cēped (Participle 2) (to keep)

Participle 2, unlike Participle 1, had two meanings of the category of Voice:


Active Voice Passive Voice
ζegān ζeboren gone, born
somebody was gone, i.e. he did it himself = he was the subject/active doer of the action somebody was born, i.e. somebody gave birth to him = he was the object/passive recipient of the action No Voice distinctions observed


Thus in OEParticiple 2 was considered Past Participle, had the forms of the Active and Passive Voice, possessed the categories of Number, Gender, Case. It was used predicatively and attributively (agreed with the noun in Number, Gender, Case).

In MEit lost the category of Voice and the categories of Number, Gender, Case and became unchangeable.


In OEthe Infinitive resembled the Noun and had the category of Case (only two Cases – Nominative (Nom) and Dative (Dat)):

e.g. OE Nom writan (uninflected)Dat to wrītanne (inflected, indicated direction or purpose).

In ME the Infinitive lost the Dative Case (the inflected form) and only one form was left:

e.g. ME (to) writen.

Particletoremained in NEas a formal sign of the infinitive with no meaning of direction or purpose:

e.g. NE (to) write.

Though sometimes the traces of these meanings are still visible:

e.g. He came to feed the horses (purpose).


The Gerund appeared only in the 12th c. Actually it presented a mixture of the OE Verbal Noun (with suffix -unζ/-inζ) and Participle 1 and its characteristics were:

· It took direct object (verbal feature) (e.g. buying a book);

· It could be preceded by an article or a possessive pronoun (noun feature) (e.g. the cleaning of my room, your coming late).

Preterite-Present Verbs


The preterite-present verbs had the following characteristics:

· Their Present-Tense forms resembledPast-Tense forms (Germ. “Präteritum” = past tense, that’s why they were called so);

· Some of these verbs did not have a full paradigm and were called “defective”;

· These verbs expressed attitude and were followed by the Infinitive without “to” (NB! Most of these verbs are present-day modal verbs);

· Out of 12preterite-present verbs only 6survived in ModE:

āζ (ought), cunnan (can), dear (dare), sculan (shall), maζan (may), mōt (must).


Numb. Pers. Present Past
(formed like Past Tense of strong verbs) (formed like Past Tense of weak verbs)
cunnan sculan cunnan sculan
Sg 1st cann sceal cuðe sceolde
2nd canst scealt cuðest sceoldest
3rd cann sceal cuðe sceolde
Pl - cunnon sculon cuðon sceoldon


The following changes happened to the preterite-present verbs:

· They lost their Verbals (non-finite forms) (e.g. OE cunnen – Part 2 of cunnan);

· They lost the Number and Mood distinctions (e.g. OE cann (Indicative) – cunne (Subjunctive); OE cann (Sg) – cunnon (Pl)).


The paradigm of the preterite-present verbs (that had already become modal verbs) was reduced to one or two forms (e.g. must (just one form), can, could (just two forms), etc.).

Anomalous Verbs

They were irregular verbs that combined the features of the weak and strong verbs. There were 4 of them – willan (will), bēon (to be), ζān (to go), dōn (to do).


· had the meaning of volition;

· resembled the preterite-present verbs in meaning (attitude) and in function (was followed by the Infinitive without “to”);

· eventually became a modal verb and also together with sculan developed into an auxiliary for the formation of the Future-Tense forms.



This verb combined the features of the weak and strong verbs:


Infinitive Past Participle 2
strong verb feature (root-sound interchange) + weak verb feature (dental suffix -d) strong verb feature (suffix -nand prefix ζe-)
dōn dyde ζedōn



This verb was suppletive and also combined the features of the weak and strong verbs:


Period Infinitive Past Participle 2
OE ζān ēode (suppletivism + weak verb feature (dental suffix -d)) ζeζān(strong verb feature (suffix -nand prefix ζe-)
ME goon wente (suppletivism (from OE wendan) + weak verb feature (dental suffix -t) goon (strong verb feature (suffix -n))


This verb was highly suppletive and in OE employed two separate words/roots(Infinitives):

Present OE ME NE
Numb. Pers. wesan bēon been been
Sg 1st eom bēo am am
2nd eart bist art are
3rd is biþ is is
Pl - sint bēoþ are/arn are
Past wesan been be
Sg 1st s was was
2nd wǽre wēre were
3rd wæs was was
Pl - wǽron wēren were

Analytical Forms

In OEthere were no analytical forms. They appeared later:

· ME – Future Tense, Perfect, Passive and Subjunctive forms;

· NE – Continuous and Do-forms;

and had the following characteristics:

· They consisted of 2 elements:

- a verb of broad semantics and high frequency (an auxiliary);

- a non-finite form (Infinitive, Participle 1, 2).


Future-Tense Forms

In OEthere was no Future Tense. Future actions were expressed by Present-Tense forms and modal phrases with sculan (shall), willan (will), maζan (may), cunnan (can), etc.


sculan/willan + Infinitive

Willan had more strong modal meaning (volition) that was later weakened and almost lost.

2. 13th – 14th c.– these forms were very common and sculan (shall) and willan (will) were completely interchangeable.

3. 17th c. – John Wallis introduced the ruleshall – 1st person, will – 2nd and 3rd person”.

4.In ModE there is a tendency to use will + 1st, 2nd and 3rd person without any distinction (earlier will + 1st person had the modal meaning of volition).

Perfect Forms


habban/bēon + Participle 2

↓ ↓

with transitive with intransitive (this distinction is still left in German)

verbs verbs

2.In MEand NEonly the auxiliary habban was left while bēon ceased to be used in the Perfect forms not to confuse them with the Passive forms (though some of these forms are still left, e.g. He is gone).

Passive Forms


bēon/werthen + Participle 2

2.Werthen died out in late ME.

3.Passive constructions were often marked with prepositions “by/with” (to show the doer of the action or the instrument of the action).

Subjunctive-Mood Forms

1.These forms were not always analytical in OE but were widely used in:

· independent clauses – to express wish, command, hypothetical condition, concession, purpose (e.g. Sīēn hira ēāζan āþistrode.Be their eyes darkened!);

· dependent clauses – temporal clauses (related to future) (e.g. Bring me þæt ic ēte. – Bring me that, I would eat), etc.;

· impersonal sentences (e.g. Methinks – I think (мне думается), me lycige – I like (мне нравится)) – went out of use in NE.

2.In MEand NEanalytical forms of the Subjunctive Mood appeared.


biden (bid)/leten (let)/neden (need)/sholde (should)/wolde (would) + Infinitive

These were the modal phrases that were used to express problematic or imaginary actions. The forms with sholde/wolde outnumbered all other forms, soon they weakened their modal meaning and became auxiliaries: should – 1st person, would – 2nd, 3rd person.

3. Meaning of the Subjunctive forms:

· in the Past – present or future imaginary or unreal actions (e.g. He thought he would cope with the task);

· in the Present – future probable or problematic actions (e.g. She thinks he would still come).

4. Peculiarities:

· should/would + Infinitive à simultaneous actions (e.g. If I was young I would be the happiest person in the world);

· should/would + Perfect Infinitive à past or preceding actions (e.g. If I had known all this I would have left that house immediately).

Continuous Forms

Sometimes they were found in OE:


bēon + Participle 1

2.In OEit denoted a “quality” or a “lasting state” and was characterising a person or a thing indicated by the Subject of the sentence. The continuance was not limited in time (as it is in the ModE Continuous forms) and resembled more present-day Indefinite Tense forms, e.g.:

Sēō eorðe is berende missenlīcra fuζela – This land bears many birds.

3.In MEContinuous forms fell into disuse.

4.In NE these forms reappeared together with a synonymous form:

be + Participle 1 = be + on/in + Gerund (indicated a process of limited duration)


He was on huntinge – He was hunting (literally, He was on hunting).

5. 18th c.– Continuous forms became well-established.

6. 19th c. –Continuous forms in the Passivewere accepted as a norm (e.g. The house is being built – previously such forms were considered clumsy and non-grammatical).


1.In NE“do-periphrasis” was used in the Past and Present of the Indicative Mood.

2. 16th c. –“Do” was used in negative, affirmative and interrogative sentences and was freely interchangeable with the simple forms (without “do”), e.g.:

Heard you all this? = Did you hear all this?

I know not why he cries. = I don’t know why he cries.

He knew it. = He did know it (without any meaning of emphasis).

3. 17th c.– “do” was left only in negative and interrogative sentences to keep the word-order S + P + O (e.g. I (S) pity (P) him (O). Do you (S) pity (P) him (O)?). In affirmative sentences “do” acquired an emphatic meaning (e.g. Did you really see him? – I didsee him, I swear!).

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