Hanging with Strong Verbs

A student had this question today: “I was reading a book at home and came across the sentence: ‘She hanged herself’ and I thought it was a mistake because the word should be hung and my mom told me that the author was correct as is, hanged. Who is right?”

*Note: There is a semantic difference between ‘hanged’ and ‘hung.’ The former is used in reference to execution whereas the latter refers to suspending. 

While there is a semantic difference in this word pair, what an amazing opportunity this question is to dig into strong and weak verbs from Old English.

After a class about Old English from LEX and reading through Steven Pinker‘s book Words And Rules, I knew that hang is probably a strong verb. I verified it through etymonline and sure enough Doug Harper cites it as a class VII strong verb.

LEX has a great class that gave me enough to go off to at least start a discussion about it confidently today.

Here is the paradigm we started with:

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We looked at the first three examples see ~ saw, bend ~ bend and hear ~ heard and talked about how the past tense had a spelling change and that all three are older words, diachronically, that are all from Old English. We labelled them the same way Jacob Grimm and his brother did: strong verbs.

Then, we talked about the suffix <-ed> in the past tense of plug, text and Google. All three of these are newer than the previous, and the past tense of all when used in a sentence utilizes the suffix <-ed>.

The <-ed> is the only productive verbal past tense inflection, but it doesn’t mean that the suffix <-ed> ONLY makes past tense verbs. In fact, if you check with the LEX Insights Into Inflections, you can verify the different inflections for past tense in Present-Day English.

My class helped me label the second group in the paradigm: weak verbs.

We can utilize a continuum to talk about what Dr. Steven Pinker describes as a phenomena where strong verbs become weaker over time, both “forms live side by side in a person’s mind” as is the case with hanged and hung. Dr. Pinker goes on, “Some of the past-tense forms…became muzzier and muzzier until they faded out entirely and their verbs became regular” (Pinker 69):

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Pinker classifies strong and weak verbs as “regular” and “irregular,” but I prefer strong and weak because of the psychological advantage the truth yields. If I tell students that a verb is “irregular,” then I am saying it is an “exception” that basically has to be memorized. It reinforces the idea that English is just crazy. Dr. Pinker also writes about children learning the rules that govern strong verbs: “Children would have a hard time making sense of the rule, and at some point they would stop trying and simply memorize the past-tense forms as a list” (68).

There is no doubt that memory plays an important role in learning, but I would only point out that a student asked for this story, was curious for this story, and the story can and should be based on facts, not exceptions and memorizing lists.

So, today we talked about how both my student’s mom was accurate and my student was accurate as well. Both hanged and hung can be used and understood. More importantly, though, we began a generative discussion about strong and weak verbs. We can hang out with our new understandings as we start to build onto them.

hanging in old english


Pinker, Steven. Words and rules: the ingredients of language. Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015.