Grammar

Beat or Beaten? Can This Mistake Be Stopped?

There’s a popular colloquialism that involves the wrong choice between beat or beaten…and I wish it’d just disappear.

A recent CNN article carried a headline that made me cringe. Yes, it bugged me that much. And it had absolutely nothing to do with politics.

The headline read, “Republican Party math: Can Trump be beat?”

Anyone who appreciates good grammar should cringe as well.

The grammatical way to have crafted the headline would have been, “Republican Party math: Can Trump be beaten?

Beat is an irregular verb. It’s present and past tense form is beat. Its past participle form is beaten.

In the CNN example, whether Donald Trump can be defeated by one of his fellow Republican candidates or not, the verb form requires the past participle version, which means beaten is the proper choice.

Many people’s brackets, I’m told, were blown right out of the water by upsets during March Madness. In those cases, those folks’ chosen teams were beaten, not beat.

The Grammarist explains the problem those of us who hate seeing phrases like “can’t be beat” are dealing with:

This is incorrect grammatically, but is firmly established in slang, especially in North America.

This means, I’m afraid to tell you, that we are stuck with “can’t be beat,” even though most people, if they take the time to think of it, know it’s wrong.

It’s a lot like the phrase, “I’ve got a secret,” which even wound up as a popular game show years ago. If you break it out, it means “I have got a secret,” which is ungrammatical because all you’d need to say is, “I have a secret.” But because it’s a colloquialism that we’ve heard for generations now, it’s one that it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to shake.

So I’ll cringe when I hear someone say someone or something “can’t be beat,” and whenever I have the chance to use the phrase in spoken or written English, I’ll at least do my part by selecting beaten instead.

It’s the least I can do for the sake of grammar.

Does “can’t be beat” bother you, or do you think I’m overreacting when it bugs me?

2 Comments

  1. Hello, I just read your article and would like to comment.

    I’m Spanish and I’m learning English. In Spain happens something similar with the language in the south, a place called Andalucia. People say we’re messing the language because instead of using phrases like ‘ya he comido’, it’s used ‘ya he comio’. We’re shorting the words and that let us to speak faster.

    The languages change and that’s good. I think that the English language is happening by the same case.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Varaskkar.

      If I remember my Spanish, ya he comido, means “I have already eaten” while ya he comio means “I already ate.” Both of these sentences are grammatically correct — at least the English translations are — because the verbs are conjugated correctly. Ate is past tense of eat, while eaten is the past participle of eat. It’s been long enough since I took Spanish that I can’t fully remember the various verb conjugations for the Spanish equivalents…but in this case, both of the forms you gave, when translated, would be perfectly fine.

      If the translation was “I have already ate,” which is grammatically incorrect, I’d have a problem with that as well.

      Yes, language changes. But the beat/beaten example I’m talking about isn’t an example of that kind of change: this is an example of failing to follow proper sentence structure.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.