How to get past participles right every time

I’m a little fussy about past participles. Unjustifiably fussy. It may have to do with the fact that I married someone from small-town Massachusetts, where everything is “I have ate this” and “I should’ve went to that” and “You could’ve brung your sister.” And every time I visit, I have to mute the little voice in my head that says, “It’s I have eaten this” and “I should have gone to that” and “You could’ve brought your sister.”

I should let it go. It’s a waste of energy to expect people to use my preferred past participles, especially because most of the past forms that make me flinch aren’t wrong, exactly. “Dreamt” is as correct as “dreamed,” whether I like it or not.

Even when I’m right, it’s silly to care. People don’t say, “I have lain on the beach for an hour.” They say “laid.” According to leading dictionaries, “laid” is wrong in this context. But it’s a moot point. People aren’t going to start using “lain” in casual conversation.

If you don’t want to accommodate my absurdly stringent standards, you don’t have to. But if you’d like to know how to choose stickler-approved past participles, here’s a primer.

The past participle is the form of the verb that goes with “have.” Take the verb “begin,” for example. In the present it’s “I begin.” In the simple past tense it’s “I began.” But in past tenses that use a form of “have,” you say, “I have begun.” So “begun” is the past participle of “began.”

When “have” is in the present and working as an auxiliary, the verb tense is called the present perfect: I have begun. But when the auxiliary is “had,” which is the past tense of “have,” it’s the past perfect: I had begun. But those labels aren’t important. Either way, the word you’re pairing with “have,” “has” or “had” is a past participle.

For regular verbs, past participles are identical to simple past tense forms. For example: Today I walk. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked. Just add “ed” at the end of the verb.

Irregular verbs don’t follow a formula for their past tenses. Sometimes, the past participle is identical to the simple past tense: Today I think. Yesterday I thought. In the past I have thought. Other times, the past participle is different: Today I know. Yesterday I knew. In the past I have known.

In many cases, there’s more than one correct past participle. You can say, “I have swum in that lake many times” or “I have swam in that lake many times.” They’re both right.

The hardest thing about past participles isn’t choosing the right one. It’s knowing how to look them up. They’re all in the dictionary, but you have to understand how dictionaries communicate this information to you. Here's my recent column explaining how you can look them up.