That a considerable economy has been effected in verb conjugation may be seen chiefly in the invariable negative form ain’t, which serves to negate the present tense of both to be and to have:

He ain’t there = He isn’t there

He ain’t been there = He hasn’t been there

The preterite of to be takes the invariable form was (I was etc, but also we was etc), though the present tense remains, at present, identical with that of the verb in Bourgeois English (BE). In strong verbs, preterite and past participle are usually the same in form – as in I done it; I ain’t done it – though the choice of form from the two available in BE follows a seemingly arbitrary procedure:

I seen it; I’ve seen it (BE past part.)

I done it; I’ve done it (BE past part.)

I ate it; I’ve ate it (BE pret.)

I swum; I’ve swum (BE past part.)

I forgot; he’s forgot (BE pret.)

I wrote; he’s wrote (BE pret.)

I fell; it’s fell (BE pret.)

I drunk it; I’ve drunk it (BE past part.)

Considerations of syllabic economy seem to determine the preference for the shorter of the two forms available (wrote, not written; forgot, not forgotten), but there is no ready explanation of seen for saw and done for did in the demotic tradition embodied in Workers' English. It should be noted also that there has never been, in that tradition, any impulse to level strong verbs under weak forms (I eat; I eated etc); the ablaut transformation – as also in certain nouns – is rooted deeply in the language of the workers, and the rational weakening of strong verbs, desirable to the regularizing philologist, would find no acceptance among WE speakers, who would consider such formations as ‘childish’.

- 1985 by Anthony Burgess

In these part of the book the author explains the rules in Workers' English and Burgeois English (These are two languages used in an imaginary conutry). In those languages the "government" tries to eliminate as many words as it can for "simplifying and rationalising" english in the country. There are no prior mentions of those languages in the book. The explanations start from here.

The first part I separated with a line is simple. I understand what the author says.

But in the second part I don't understan what does author mean by "choice of form from the two available" (emphasis in text is mine). What are two available choices? Past simple and past participle forms?

On the examples I see that when he uses past participle it is noted as BE past part. (as in I seen it; I’ve seen it ) and when he uses past simple it is noted as BE pret. (as in I ate it; I’ve ate it). What I don't understand here is: Are both I ate it and I’ve ate it in the preterite form (because he has written BE pret. in front of them)? Or what does he mean by BE pret. and BE past part..

1 Answer 1


Workers English (WE) and Bourgoise English (BE) are in part an invention for the book, though they do adopt certain grammatical aspects that are observed in real English.

But beware. This is not about real life, and shouldn't be understood as a description of how people do talk or how they should talk.

"Preterite" is "past simple"

In WE language, both the preterite and the past participle are always the same. (unlike in BE, and in real English in which they are sometimes different.)

So in WE the past tense of "I see" is "I seen", and the present perfect is "I've seen". These are both formed from the BE past participle "seen" And in WE the past tense of "I eat" is "I ate", and the present perfect is "I've ate". These are both formed from the BE preterite.

In forming the WE past tense, there are two choices. Either use the BE preterite or use the BE past participle.

In WE "I ate" is the preterite and "I've ate" is the present perfect.

In real English "I ate" is the preterite and "I've eaten" is the present perfect

  • So, did Burgess arbitrarily choose to use "preterite" instead of "simple past", or does "preterite" refer to the form of the verb, while "simple past" refers to the tense?
    – gotube
    Aug 26, 2021 at 18:13
  • 1
    Formal grammars (written for linguists) tend to use the formal term "preterite". Grammars of English written for school tend to use simpler words like "simple past" They mean the same.
    – James K
    Aug 26, 2021 at 20:05

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