Saturday, October 14, 2017

Still Life with Robin: I've Dealt with Knelt

Kneeling statue - The Netherlands
(public domain)
by Peggy Robin

It’s been my practice in this space to avoid dealing with weighty national issues but to stick to local matters and also tackle some quirky but inconsequential little matters that only a curmudgeon would find worth pondering. Like the past tense of “to kneel.” While others are debating the deeper meaning conveyed when a football player choose to “take a knee” during the playing of the national anthem, I’m in a dither over the “kneeled” versus “knelt.” The Washington Post wrote, “After players of several NFL teams kneeled….” [Sept 24, 2017], while the New York Times wrote, “Colin Kaepernick may forever be known as the quarterback who knelt for the national anthem…”
[Sept 7, 2017].

Why can’t we all just agree? Because sometimes both sides are right. Here’s how the Grammarly Blog gives props to each past tense.

Kneeled and knelt are interchangeable. Knelt is more common in British English than in American English. One ending is enough for most verbs. However, some verbs have a regular and irregular ending in the past tense. To kneel is to bend down or rest on one or both knees. Let’s take a good look at the past tense of “to kneel.”

Kneeled Examples:
“Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers.”
―Charles Dickens, The Complete Works of Charles Dickens: The Tale of Two Cities
“The one time Richard had kneeled, unavailingly, was when he returned from Ireland and bowed his knee to Mother England herself, begging the very ground to sustain him against his enemies.”
―Meredith Anne Skura, Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing

Knelt Examples:
“She walked down to one of the front pews and knelt, genuflecting in long, sweeping movements from her head to her chest to each shoulder.”
―Robert Hicks, A Separate Country
“I patted down the summit and knelt on it, time seemed to stand still. I opened my arms wide and in the instant that lasts forever, a gust of wind gently nudged me forward and I toppled into the void.”
―Mark Brook, “Climbing Mountains: Day Eight and Summit”

What’s the Difference Between Kneeled and Knelt?

Languages change over time. In English, knelt is slowly giving way to kneeled. This trend is not limited to this verb; there are a few others that are losing their irregular past tense forms―or gaining an -ed form, at least. If knelt were a caterpillar making a transition into a butterfly, it would still be in the cocoon. Right now, both forms exist. They are both still acceptable. In American and British English, knelt is still the most common of the two. British English speakers don’t use kneeled as much as Americans do, but it is also gaining in popularity in that version of English. Though both forms are correct, one or the other may look more natural to you based on what you learned in school or where you live.

So the underlying question is, do you want to be part of the trend toward promoting the regular “-ed” ending? Or do you want to be one of those holding the line for the odd, irregular form, and insist on “knelt”? It helps, I think, to look at what other past tenses of “ee”-sounding verbs we’ve kept (not keeped!) and see whether we’ve learned (not learnt!) from the plethora of examples.

Creep – can be “creeped” or “crept,” with “creeped” on the rise. In the phrase, “that creeps me out” the past tense can ONLY be creeped – as in “that creeped me out.”
Deal – can’t be anything but “dealt”
Dream – can be “dreamed” (more typically American) or dreamt (more typically British) – but “dreamt” does seem to be fading, even in the UK.
Feel – can’t be anything but “felt.”
Keep – can’t be anything but “kept.”
Kneel – equally acceptable as “knelt” and “kneeled”
Leap – can be “leaped” (more typically American) or “leapt” (more typically British).
Learn – “learned” is now standard on both sides of the Atlantic, but “learnt” is still in use in the UK
Leave – Can’t be anything but “left”
Mean – can’t be anything but “meant”
Sleep – can’t be anything but “slept.”
Smell – “smelled” has become standard on both sides of the Atlantic, but “smelt” is still in use in the UK.
Sweep – can’t be anything but “swept”
Weep – While I did find one dictionary, [] that accepts “weeped” as well as “wept, ” I have never heard anyone use it….and if I did, I might very well weep!

Here’s the count: Eight of the fourteen verbs on this list have just one acceptable past tense, the irregular form. If the “-ed” form has crept up in usage, it certainly hasn’t swept out the odder, older forms. So I come down on the side that says “Knelt” should be left alone.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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