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Weaved or wove?

Q From Anne Umphrey: In a recent issue you included a quote from a newspaper: “Shelby weaved through traffic.” Am I old-fashioned to want to use the word wove? Perhaps you have written about how certain past tenses have gone to the -ed form from an older format for making a verb past tense? Or is this the proper word because it isn’t particular to creating cloth?

A Your second guess is the correct one. The reason why there are two different past tenses is that there are actually two different verbs here, though at times — such as in this case — their senses are sufficiently close to cause confusion.

The older one — to form cloth by interlacing strands — refers to such an ancient technique that the word for it can be traced back through Old English to a prehistoric Indo-European root that was later taken into Greek and Sanskrit. It has retained the way of forming the past tense that was once often found in Old English verbs. The method was to change the internal vowel in a standard way, a process called ablaut or gradation, in this case weave changing to wove. Some 70 such verbs survive in English today, including drive, sing, come, and grow. Grammarians call these strong verbs, a term invented by the German grammarian and folklorist Jacob Grimm; it remains the standard way to describe them, although it’s unsatisfactory and obscure.

A big shift happened in Middle English between about 1100 and 1500. Many strong verbs became weak, forming their past tenses in -ed or -t, depending on the ending of the stem. To take just two examples: glide, which had had the Old English strong form glode as the past tense, came to use glided instead; help changed its past tense from halp to helped. Only the commonest retained their strong forms. Verbs that form their past tenses by adding one of these endings are said to be weak, another term invented by Jacob Grimm.

The verb in the quotation — to twist and turn from side to side to avoid obstructions while moving in some direction or other — is from a different source to the other weave. It derives from the Old Norse word veifa, to wave or brandish. In Middle English it was spelled weve and may be a relative of our modern wave. Weve vanished from the written language but survived in dialect; it reappeared in books in the late sixteenth century with the spelling changed to weave, almost certainly through the influence of the other verb. By the time it started to be used in writing again, the weak form had become dominant and this version of weave followed the trend, making weaved.

A very few verbs retain both forms, causing some confusion; the classic case is hang, in which pictures are hung but people are hanged. Weave is sometimes said to be another example of this multiple tense disorder but it’s actually a confusion between two words of the same spelling from different sources.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Apr. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 11 April 2009.