The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Inflection (Accidence) > Regular and Irregular Inflection

Regular and Irregular Inflection

Definition

Inflection, the way we change a word’s form to reflect things like tense, plurality, gender, etc., is usually governed by consistent, predictable rules. This is known as regular inflection.
For example, we usually create the past simple tense of verbs by adding “-d” or “-ed” (as in heard or walked, which also function as the verbs’ past participles), and we normally create plurals by adding “-s” or “-es” to the ends of nouns (as in dogs, cats, watches, etc.).
However, there are many instances in which the way a word is inflected doesn’t seem to follow any rules or conventions at all—this is known as irregular inflection. For example, the past simple tense of the verb go is went (rather than goed, as regular inflection would suggest), and its past participle is gone.
Irregular inflection affects nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and (most commonly) verbs.

Plurals of Nouns

Although nouns are largely uninflected in English (remaining the same regardless of case, gender, or person), we do still inflect them to indicate plurals—that is, when there is more than one of something.

Regular plurals

As we noted above, the standard way to inflect a noun for plurality is to add “-s” or “-es.” Occasionally we have to make a slight alteration to the spelling of the word to accommodate this inflection (for example, when the noun ends in a “-y” and it is preceded by a consonant, we change “y” to “i” and add “-es”), but these are still considered regular because there is a standard rule that they follow. Here are some examples of regular nouns and their plural counterparts:
Regular noun
Plural form
boy
boys
book
books
box
boxes
beach
beaches
lady
ladies
city
cities

Irregular plurals

However, there are a large number of nouns that have irregular plural forms that defy this convention. These are completely unique words that do not follow any rules or conventions for how they are spelled. Here are some of the most common irregular nouns:
Irregular noun
Plural form
person
people/persons*
mouse
mice
goose
geese
child
children
foot
feet
man
men
woman
women
(*Persons is also a plural form of person, but in modern English it is usually reserved for more formal, bureaucratic, or legal language, as in, “Any such persons found to be guilty of shoplifting will be prosecuted.”)
There are many other unique, irregular ways that nouns are pluralized. To learn more, go to the section on Plurals in the chapter dealing with Declension.

Adjectives

Adjectives inflect when we change them into their comparative and superlative forms. Comparative adjectives are used to compare a quality between two nouns, while superlative adjectives identify a noun with the highest (or lowest) degree of an attribute among a group.

Regular adjectives

We generally form the comparative degree by adding the suffix “-er” to the end of the adjective, or by adding the words more or less before it.
To form the superlative degree, we either add “-est” to the end of the adjective or add the word most or least before it.
We sometimes have to change the spelling of the adjective slightly to accommodate the addition of the suffix, but the rules for when this is necessary are straightforward and consistent.
The shift from a basic adjective to its comparative or superlative forms is known as the degrees of comparison. Let’s look at how this is accomplished with regular adjectives:
Adjective
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
Spelling rule
big
bigger
biggest
With one-syllable adjectives, add “-er” or “-est” and double the final consonant if preceded by one vowel.
strong
stronger
strongest
The final consonant is not doubled if it is preceded by two vowels or another consonant.
large
larger
largest
If the adjective ends in an “e,” then you only need to add “-r” or “-st.”
happy
happier
happiest
If an adjective has one or two syllables and ends in “-y,” we replace “y” with “i” and add “-er” or “-est.”
beautiful
more/less beautiful
most/least beautiful
For adjectives that have three or more syllables, or adjectives that have two syllables and do not end in “-y,” use the words more/less or most/least.

Irregular adjectives

The vast majority of adjectives follow the above conventions when forming the comparative or superlative degrees. However, there are a few adjectives that are irregular and have unique forms that do not conform to any spelling conventions. Because of this, they must all be memorized.
Irregular adjective
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
fun
more/less fun
most/least fun
bad
worse
worst
well (healthy)
better
best
good
better
best
far
farther/further
farthest/furthest
little (amount)
less
least
many/much
more
most
To learn more about how comparative and superlative adjectives are formed, go to the Degrees of Comparison section of the Adjectives chapter.

Adverbs

Regular adverbs

A large number of adverbs are formed from adjectives. The standard way of doing this is by adding “-ly” to the end of the adjective. Sometimes the adjective’s spelling needs to be altered slightly to accommodate this, but the rules of doing so are fairly straightforward. Here are some common examples:
Adjective
Regular adverb
Spelling rule
beautiful
beautifully
Adjective + “-ly”
enthusiastic
enthusiastically
If the adjective ends in “-ic,” it will change to “-ically.”
happy
happily
If the adjective ends in a “-y,” it will change to “-ily.”
terrible
terribly
If the adjective ends in “-le,” the ending is dropped and is replaced with “-ly.”
due
duly
If the adjective ends in “-ue,” the “e” on the end is dropped and is replaced with “-ly.”

Irregular adverbs

Although the majority of adverbs follow the above rules when they are formed from adjectives, there are a number of irregular adverbs that go against the conventions. Much of the time, irregular adverbs have the same spelling as their adjectival counterparts, but there are no clues in the adjectives’ spelling as to when this is the case; like all irregular inflections, they just have to be memorized. Below are some of the most common irregular adverbs.
Adjective
Irregular adverb
Sources of confusion
fast
fast
Last becomes lastly, but fast becomes fast.
hard
hard
Hardly (ever) is an adverb of frequency, meaning “almost never.”
straight
straight
lively
lively
Lively still exists as an adverb in phrases like step lively; however, it is more often used in the adverbial prepositional phrase in a lively manner.
late (tardy)
late
Lately is a different adverb that means “recently.”
daily
daily
Adverbs of frequency that relate to units of time have the same form as both adjectives and adverbs.
early
early
friendly
no adverb
Can only be used in the adverbial prepositional phrase in a friendly manner.
timely
no adverb
Can only be used in the adverbial prepositional phrase in a timely manner.
good
well
Well is the adverbial form of good; it can also function as a predicative adjective meaning “healthy.”
Go to the section on Regular and Irregular Adverbs in the Adverbs chapter to learn more about how adverbs are formed from adjectives.

Irregular Degrees of Comparison

Just like adjectives, adverbs also have comparative and superlative degrees, which are used to compare actions among people or things. They are formed in the same way, by adding “-er” or more/less for comparative adverbs or “-est” or most/least for superlative adverbs.
However, there are some adverbs that have irregular comparative and superlative forms. We can’t rely on the irregular adverbs we looked at above, either, because many of those adverbs are regular in how they inflect to become comparative or superlative. As always, we just have to commit them to memory:
Irregular adverb (positive degree)
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
badly
worse
worst
early
earlier
earliest
far
farther/further
farthest/furthest
little
less
least
well
better
best

Verbs

Verbs present the greatest challenge when it comes to learning about regular and irregular inflection. A huge variety of verbs are irregular, which means they have past simple tense and past participle forms that defy the normal conventions. That means that every irregular verb has three unique conjugations that must be memorized. In addition, the verb be is known as being highly irregular, because it has six irregular conjugations in addition to its base and present participle form—eight in all!
We’ll briefly look at the rules for conjugating regular verbs and then look at some common irregular verbs below. You can learn more by going to the section Regular and Irregular Verbs in the chapter on Verbs in Parts of Speech.
(Note that all verbs, whether regular or irregular, conjugate the same way to form present participles, taking “-ing” at the end of the base form. Because of this, we won’t include the present participle form in the breakdowns below.)

Conjugating regular verbs

The majority of verbs take the ending “-d” or “-ed” to their base form (the infinitive of the verb without to) to create both the past simple tense and past participle. There are some instances in which the verb’s spelling must change slightly to accommodate this, but these rules are straightforward and consistent. Here are some common regular verb inflections:
Base Form
Past Simple Tense
Past Participle
play
bake
listen
approach
gather
climb
chop
copy
panic
played
baked
listened
approached
gathered
climbed
chopped
copied
panicked
played
baked
listened
approached
gathered
climbed
chopped
copied
panicked

Conjugating irregular verbs

Irregular verbs do not have spelling rules that we can follow to create the past simple tense and past participles. This means that the only way of knowing how to spell these forms is to memorize them for each irregular verb individually. Here are a few common examples:
Base Form
Past Simple Tense
Past Participle
see
grow
give
think
throw
drive
ride
run
swim
sit
saw
grew
gave
thought
threw
drove
rode
ran
swam
sat
seen
grown
given
thought
thrown
driven
ridden
run
swum
sat

Conjugating be

As we mentioned above, the verb be is unique among verbs for having a huge variety of conjugations. Not only does it have irregular inflections for the past simple tense and past participle, but it also has specific forms depending on plurality and grammatical person (first person, second person, and third person). The table below shows a breakdown of all the different ways we conjugate be.
Grammatical person
Base form
Present Tense Singular
Present Tense Plural
Present Participle
Past Tense Singular
Past Tense Plural
Past Participle
n/a
be
being
been
first person
I am
we are
I was
we were
second person
you are
you are
you were
you were
third person
he/she/it is
they are
he/she/it was
they were

Learning irregular inflection

As we’ve seen, words that inflect in irregular ways are, unfortunately, unpredictable by nature. Because there are no patterns for how they are formed, it can be very difficult to learn them.
The best way to learn irregular words is to pay close attention when you are reading—if a word looks like it has an unusual spelling compared to other words that are used in the same way, then it is probably an irregular inflection. In these cases, look up the word in a good dictionary and make a note of how it is used, then try to remember it for next time.
Quiz

1. In which of the following does irregular inflection not occur?





2. What is the most common way of forming regular adverbs from adjectives?





3. What is the most common way of forming regular superlative adjectives?





4. When do regular and irregular verbs conjugate differently?







5. Which of the following sentences is incorrect?





6. Which of the following is a correct conjugation of the verb be?









Complete English Grammar Rules is available for purchase as Paperback and Kindle eBook.
Share Tweet Share

Conversations