7 troublesome verb pairs

‘Swam’ or ‘swum’? ‘Dived’ or ‘dove’? Try these tips when you can’t figure out the difference.


“About half the grammatical errors made in writing are mistakes in the use of verbs.” — Grammar for Journalists

In last week’s post, I wrote about the basics of verbs. These words power our sentences, but they can cause trouble even for the most experienced writers and editors. Test yourself on the use of verbs in the following sentence:

Sarah (swam or swum) out, (dove or dived) to the bottom and (drug or dragged) the drowned child from the lake.

Not sure of the answers? You’re not alone. Troublesome verb pairs trip can trip up anyone. Below is the sentence with the correct verbs, along with a few rules about verb pairs.

Sarah swam out, dived to the bottom, and dragged the drowned child from the lake.

Lay and lie

Lay means to put or place. Lay and its tense forms—lay (present tense), laid (past tense), laid (past participle)—are transitive. This means they always have a direct object.

Please lay the book on the table.
I laid the book on the shelf.

Lie means to rest or recline. Its tense forms—lie, lay, lain—are intransitive and do not have a direct object.

I need to lie down.
Emily lay on the beach all afternoon. She said she had lain in the sun too long.

Here another way to remember it: chickens lay eggs; people lie down.

Sit and set

Sit, sat, sat are intransitive, meaning they do not have direct objects.

Sit down and finish writing that article.

Set, set, set does not change tense forms and the verb is transitive. There must be a direct object in the sentence.

Set my laptop down and walk away very slowly.

Remember: Sit down and let me set the scene.

Swam and swum

Swim is the present tense of the verb.

I swim 50 laps every day.

Swam is the past tense.

Brian swam to the deep end by himself.

Swum is the past participle form of the verb. This form takes the auxiliary verbs have, has, had.

I had swum only 30 laps that day.
I have swum in that pool before.
He has swum in three triathlons.

Dived and dove

Dive, dived or dove, dived: Dived is the past tense and past participle of dive. The AP Stylebook and Garner’s Modern American Usage both specify that dived should be used.

The word dove—coined as another past tense form of dive—is a newer form. It has gained some acceptance (even prevalence in some regions) in the United States and Canada, but outside North America dove would be considered wrong.

Amy dived off the high dive.

Rise and raise

Both words mean “to move upward,” but they are used differently.

Rise, rose, are risen are intransitive verbs and do not have a direct object. Use rise when something moves upwards by itself.

A red sun rises in the desert.

Raise, raised, raised is a transitive verb and requires a direct object. Something raised something else.

We raised $250,000 for the scholarship.

Drag and drug

Drag, dragged, dragged is transitive and has a direct object, which is the thing or person that is being pulled along by force.

We dragged the boat to the other side of the lake.

Drug, drugged, drugged means to “administer drugs to.”

We drugged the cat before taking him in the car.

Hang and hung

Hang has two forms, depending on whether a person or object is receiving the action.

Hang, hung, hung refers to objects.

Steve hung the picture upside down.

Hang, hanged, hanged refers to executions or suicides.

They hanged criminals in the town square.

Remember: Pictures are hung and people are hanged.

PR Daily readers, what other verb pairs give you trouble?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. She writes about writing at www.impertinentremarks.com.

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