The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Inflection (Accidence) > Regular and Irregular Inflection
Regular and Irregular Inflection
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
(*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.”)
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:
With one-syllable adjectives, add “-er” or “-est” and double the final consonant if preceded by one vowel.
The final consonant is not doubled if it is preceded by two vowels or another consonant.
If the adjective ends in an “e,” then you only need to add “-r” or “-st.”
If an adjective has one or two syllables and ends in “-y,” we replace “y” with “i” and add “-er” or “-est.”
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.
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.
To learn more about how comparative and superlative adjectives are formed, go to the Degrees of Comparison section of the Adjectives chapter.
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 + “-ly”
If the adjective ends in “-ic,” it will change to “-ically.”
If the adjective ends in a “-y,” it will change to “-ily.”
If the adjective ends in “-le,” the ending is dropped and is replaced with “-ly.”
If the adjective ends in “-ue,” the “e” on the end is dropped and is replaced with “-ly.”
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.
Sources of confusion
Last becomes lastly, but fast becomes fast.
Hardly (ever) is an adverb of frequency, meaning “almost never.”
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.
Lately is a different adverb that means “recently.”
Adverbs of frequency that relate to units of time have the same form as both adjectives and adverbs.
Can only be used in the adverbial prepositional phrase in a friendly manner.
Can only be used in the adverbial prepositional phrase in a timely manner.
Well is the adverbial form of good; it can also function as a predicative adjective meaning “healthy.”
Irregular Degrees of Comparison
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)
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!
(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:
Past Simple Tense
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:
Past Simple Tense
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.
Present Tense Singular
Present Tense Plural
Past Tense Singular
Past Tense Plural
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.