Every now and then, I see a common usage error — like choosing beat or beaten — and I think, ‘it’s time to do a grammar post on that one!
When you find yourself forced to choose beat or beaten in a sentence, do you get it right?
Many people don’t. Sometimes, even professional news organizations miss it. Take this recent story from CNN about a centenarian who successfully fought off COVID-19. Here’s their headline:
She’s 102. She lived through the 1918 flu and now she’s beat coronavirus — twice
You can’t question that the story itself is good news. The person the story profiles defeated both the 1918 Spanish flu and COVID-19. At 102, beating COVID seems like quite an accomplishment indeed.
But the headline missed the mark when it comes to grammar.
What they meant to say was that she’s now beaten coronavirus, not beat.
We have to talk about the past participle.
I wrote about the confusion over the two words back in 2016.
But if you’re still not certain about the difference between past tense and past participle when it comes to verbs, check out this explainer.
In the meantime, allow me to considerably dumb down the explanation. Let’s say that past tense and past participle both refer to events that already happened. But past participle adds an auxiliary verb like have, has or had alongside the verb.
Some verbs don’t change their form when you go from past tense to past participle. Consider the verb walk.
The past tense of walk is walked. The past participle of walk also takes the walked form.
- PAST TENSE: John walked to the store.
- PAST PARTICIPLE: John has walked that path many times before.
In both cases, John already took that walk. But in the second example, we add has, which provides a broader picture of that action.
Some verbs change when you go from past tense to past participle. Consider the verb ride. You can ride to the store. But when it goes to a past form, the verb itself changes:
- PAST TENSE: John rode to the store.
- PAST PARTICIPLE: John has ridden to the store many times before.
The past participle of ‘beat’ is ‘beaten.’
The verb beat changes from past to past participle. If we read the story above, we can say Angelina beat both the Spanish Flu and COVID-19.
That’s what the headline means, of course. But there’s one little problematic word that precedes the verb: She’s. In that usage, she’s a contraction for the words she has. And it’s that little has that changes everything. Because there’s an auxiliary verb added — albeit subtly — to the mix, you need the past participle version of beat.
So the headline should have been: She’s 102. She lived through the 1918 flu and now she’s beaten coronavirus — twice
She beat both viruses. That means she has beaten both viruses. Not even a pandemic can change basic rules of grammar.
I hope more and more people will be able to beat COVID-19 until there’s a vaccine and the pandemic is under control.