How to Turn a List of Irregular Verbs Into a Story in Just 2 Steps

Irregular verbs in English… Yikes! That’s one of the things they want you to learn and tick off a list in English class. Yuck! A list is never as good as a story and, for a very good reason (more about which later), I’d never ask you to “learn” words from a list. But until they come to their senses and stop wasting your time in school with pointless activities, we may try and go about irregular verbs in a somewhat more sensible way than usual. Frequency lists are the way to go.

Table of Contents

Step One: Use a Frequency List

Lists will be lists, but even one list differs from another. From the learner’s point of view, alphabetical lists – which are the most common in textbooks – are the most useless. You should definitely not use them for a start. For one thing, they are predictable – the next item will always be determined by the alphabet. Frequency lists make a lot more sense. They present irregular verbs in descending order of frequency, with the most common ones at the top, like this:

This is a sample list of the most common irregular verbs in English

Do you find this more interesting than the usual alphabetical list? (Perhaps you could tell me in a comment?)

If it does not fire your enthusiasm (it’s still a list, nothing more), don’t worry – it only means you are a normal human being, not a machine. So let’s take another step to make it more human.

Step Two: Turn the List into a Story

Have you heard of gamification? It’s quite a fashionable term nowadays. What does it mean? It simply means that you take something that’s boring by itself and turn it into a game. When I look at a frequency list, I always start thinking and trying to make up a story. So let’s play this game with the list above and see if I can make up a story by starting at the top and then going down the middle column word by word. (That is, I’ll use the past tense of each verb on the list. When you try out the game yourself you’ll see that striving to use all three forms would spoil the fun.)

Sample Story One

  • When I WAS young
  • I HAD a beautiful girlfriend.
  • But one day, I DID something silly.
  • “You are not really beautiful,” I SAID.
  • She WENT home because
  • she GOT mad at me.
  • Alone in the house, I MADE tea for myself.
  • I KNEW I was in big trouble.
  • Finally, I TOOK my hat to go and say sorry to her.
  • But I never SAW her again.
  • She never CAME out of the house to talk to me.
  • She FOUND another boyfriend.

You know what? This was real fun! Making up the story took me about as long as it took to type it out. I’ll try and write another story right away:

Sample Story Two

  • When Lucy WAS a little girl,
  • she HAD a doll named Elsie.
  • Lucy and Elsie DID everything together.
  • When Lucy SAID hello, Elsie SAID hello, too.
  • When Lucy WENT to bed, Elsie WENT to bed with her.
  • When Lucy GOT up in the morning, Elsie GOT up with her.
  • Lucy and Elsie MADE sandpies together.
  • Everybody in the family KNEW that Lucy and Elsie were inseparable.
  • Everybody THOUGHT, “What a cute little girl, Lucy and her doll.”
  • On the first day of school, Lucy TOOK Elsie to school.
  • Elsie was the first thing the teacher SAW
  • when she CAME into the classroom.
  • But she FOUND Elsie too big for the class because Elsie was twice as tall as the tallest kid in class! She was a huge doll!
  • So the teacher GAVE Lucy a warning.
  • “Don’t take your doll to school tomorrow,” she TOLD Lucy.
  • Lucy FELT insulted. (Elsie FELT insulted, too.)
  • “Has school BECOME a place where inseparable friends are separated?” Lucy wondered.
  • Years later, when she LEFT secondary school, Lucy went on to train as a kindergarden teacher. She wanted to make the world a better place.

To be honest, this has taken a little (though not much!) longer than the first story, but it was still pretty easy. I had to think a little harder because I’d already used the ideas that came to my mind as I wrote the first story. I wonder if you will be content to make up just the first story that comes to mind as you start going down the list, or else if you will find it fun to compete with yourself and not stop before you have written up a few more stories. Please let me know and post your stories in the comments.

Actually, you could write any number of stories based on the following outline:

  • When X WAS …
  • she/he HAD ….
  • X (or Y) DID ….
  • X/Y SAID ….
  • X/Y WENT to ….
  • X/Y (or A/B) GOT … etc etc.

You get the idea, right? I hope you feel like trying it, don’t you?

Once you’ve tried it, please share in the comments the stories that you’ve come up with. Check back to read what stories other people make up using this simple formula.

English Irregular Verb Frequency Lists

The image above was just the top of a list. Click the links below for a few more complete versions of irregular verb frequency lists:

Irregular verbs by frequency and CEFR level

Irregular verbs by frequency and CERF level EDITABLE (Docx)

50 Most Common Irregular Verbs

The first 100 out of 157 verbs

A word of warning: I do not endorse direct grammar instruction, nor “learning” words from a list. You’ll not get far with your English unless you get a lot of Comprehensible Input and interaction in English in real-life contexts.

Any questions or suggestions? Fire away! Comments, questions & suggestions are welcome in any language!

You might like to check out my related post on Irregular Verb Sound Patterns.

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