Strong Verbs Overview

Strong Verbs are one of the most complex elements of Old English grammar as they are so heavily altered by sound changes that happened as Old English evolved from the earliest forms of the language. The most important thing to remember about Strong Verbs is that they form their past tense by changing the root vowel of the verb. So 'ic bite - I bite' becomes 'ic bat - I bit' and 'ic write - I write' becomes 'ic wrat - I wrote'.

Many modern English verbs still form their past tense in this way. However, many verbs which are strong in Old English have weakened in modern English and form their past by adding 'ed', so do not rely on modern verbs to figure out which are strong in Old English. For example, examine the sentences below: 'Wyrmas his lichaman ceowað - Worms chew his body' and 'Wyrmas his lichaman cuwon - Worms chewed his body'. The Old English 'ceowan' is strong, and its modern English descendant 'chew' is weak.



The second important thing to remember is that there are two vowel changes used to form the past tense of strong verbs. The first vowel change is used for first and third person singular past, and the second vowel change is used for second person singular and the plural past. There are no endings for first and third past (so we have 'ic/heo wrat - I/she wrote') but there are endings added to second person singular past ('ðu write - you wrote') and plural past ('we writon - we wrote'). Finally, there is sometimes a third vowel change to form the past participle. Many of the past participles of strong verbs in modern English are descended from these forms.

Strong Verb Classes

There are seven classes of Strong Verb, each with a specific signature root and conjugation pattern. So Class II verbs always have an (eo/u + consonant) in the root, for example, 'beowan - to chew' or 'lutan - to bend') and always follow the vowel change pattern eo - ea - u or u - ea - u. Class VI verbs can have an (a + consonant or e/ie + double consonant), for example, 'wascan - to wash' or 'sceððan - to injure', and follow the vowel change pattern e - æ - æ.

Class Root Signature Example Change Pattern
I i + consonant Writan i - a - i ī - ā - i
II eo/u + consonant Beodan, Brucan eo/u - ea - u ēo/ū - ēa - u
III vowel + l/r/h/n + consonant Helpan, Weorpan, Feohtan, Findan i - a - u, eo/e - ea - u
IV e + l/r/m Beran, Stelan e - æ - æ e - æ - ǣ
V e + consonant (not l/r/m/n) Sprecan e - æ - æ e - æ - ǣ
VI a + consonant or e/ie + double consnant Wascan, Hliehhan a - o - o a - ō - ō
VII a/o/ea/æ/e + consonant Hatan, Rædan a - e - e, ea - eo - eo a - e - ē, ea - eo - ēo

Other Rules to Remember

I-mutation occurs in most Strong Verbs in the 2nd and 3rd person singular present. So 'ic cweþe - I say' becomes 'þu cwist - you say' and 'heo cwiþ - she says'. Do not get confused between the root vowel change when a verb is used in the past tense, 'heo cwæþ - she said' and i-mutation which applies to second and third person in the present tense.

Verners law causes voiceless stops to change to a voiced stop if it is not the first or final letter, next to other voiceless consonants, or not immediately proceeded by the stress. This means that when a verb has a letter like 'þ' or 'r' directly after the root vowel, and it gains a suffix, the 'þ' changes to a 'd' and the 's' changes to an 'r'.

Double consonants, like those found in verbs such as 'hliehhan - to laugh', or 'steppan - to step', are shortened when the verb gains a present suffix without a vowel or when conjugated in the past tense. For example, 'Þu hliehst - you laugh' and 'Þu stope - you stepped'. Similarly, if a difficult to pronounce double consonant would be produced by conjugation, it will be simplified so that it is easier to pronounce. So if a 'þ/ð' comes after an unvoiced consonant like 't', it becomes a 't' also. So 'hatan' conjugates to 'heo hætt - she orders' not 'heo hætþ'. Similiarly, if a 'þ' comes after a 'd', they become 'tt'. For example, 'rædan' becomes 'heo rætt - she advises', not 'heo rætþ'. However, if '' or '' comes after another consonant, then it is changed to a single 't'. For example, 'meltan - to melt' conjugates to 'hit milt - it melts' not ''hit meltþ''.

Working with Strong Verbs

If you look up a verb form in a dictionary, you may need to find the infinitive (-an) form, and this can be tricky with strong verbs which have different vowels in the past tense. A good rule of thumb is to take the form you encounter in a text (such as 'wrat') and then look at the sequence of vowel changes that have an -a- in the past tense: you should then be able to work out that the vowel in the infinitive is an -i- and be able to look up 'writan' rather than the nonexistant 'wratan' in a dictionary.

The table below gives you a quick reference for recognising the seven different classes, but remember that there are some sub-divisions within these seven classes. Use this as a guide when completing the quiz, but navigate to the pages on individual classes of strong verbs for the full picture!

Strong Verbs Class I
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic write Ic wrat
2nd Person Singular Þu writst Þu write
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo writ He/Hit/Heo wrat
Plural We/Ge/Hie writaþ We/Ge/Hie writon
Participles writende (ge)writen
Strong Verbs Class II
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic beode Ic bead
2nd Person Singular Þu bietst Þu bude
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo biet He/Hit/Heo bead
Plural We/Ge/Hie beodaþ We/Ge/Hie budon
Participles beodende (ge)boden
Strong Verbs Class III
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic helpe Ic healp
2nd Person Singular Þu hilpst Þu helpe
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo hilpþ He/Hit/Heo healp
Plural We/Ge/Hie helpaþ We/Ge/Hie hulpon
Participles helpende (ge)holpen
Strong Verbs Class IV
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic cwele Ic cwæl
2nd Person Singular Þu cwilest Þu cwæle
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo cwileþ He/Hit/Heo cwæl
Plural We/Ge/Hie cwelaþ We/Ge/Hie cwælon
Participles cwelende (ge)cwolen
Strong Verbs Class V
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic sitte Ic sæt
2nd Person Singular Þu sitst Þu sæte
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo sit He/Hit/Heo sæt
Plural We/Ge/Hie sittaþ We/Ge/Hie sæton
Participles sittende (ge)seten
Strong Verbs Class VI
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic hliehhe Ic hlog
2nd Person Singular Þu hliehst Þu hloge
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo hliehþ He/Hit/Heo hlog
Plural We/Ge/Hie hliehhaþ We/Ge/Hie hlogon
Participles hliehhende (ge)hlægen
Strong Verbs Class VII
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic hate Ic het
2nd Person Singular Þu hætst Þu hete
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo hætt He/Hit/Heo het
Plural We/Ge/Hie hataþ We/Ge/Hie heton
Participles hatende (ge)haten

You can practice Strong Verbs below.

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