Is it ‘Swam’ or ‘Swum’?

Do you like to go swimming?  Swimming is one of my favorite gerunds (a noun formed from a verb that ends in -ing).  This is because I love to swim.  I am fortunate to live in an area near the ocean with sunny and pleasant weather. But enough about one of my favorite hobbies, let’s get to the student question for this post:  Should I use ‘swam’ or ‘swum’ when using the past tense of ‘swim’?

First of all, it may surprise some English speakers that swum actually is a word that has a correct usage.  It is the past participle of the word swim used in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.  It gets its irregular conjugation from Old English swimman, with swamm and swummen being the past tenses.  It has roots mostly in German,as well as Dutch and Norse.  An easy way to remember when to use swum, is to use it with a helping verb, such as have, had or has.  Otherwise, use swam.  Here is an example:

The fish swam past us. 

We have swum in this ocean before. 

Why does swum sound so awkward? Probably because no other verb has a past participle like it. Irregular verbs are confusing and simply must be memorized.Because of this, many native speakers will avoid using this word if at all possible, mostly for the reasons of it sounding too formal, not being sure how to use it or just habit. Much more appealing is swam, the simple past tense. In fact, sometimes swam will be used when actually it would be correct to use swum. If you are an English learner, don’t let this confuse you!  However, although it may be entirely appropriate and correct to use swum, it may be better to use swam instead in casual conversation with native English speakers to sound more natural.  Here’s how it can be done:

If you want to say: “I have swum in the neighbor’s swimming pool before“, simple say instead: “I swam in the neighbor’s swimming pool once or twice.”  The difference in the tenses lies in the indication of specific timing of the simple past tense.  Before is a general and non-specific point in the past, while once or twice is vague or unclear, but pinpoints a specific time.  Like this example, very often the meaning can be the same with a slight alteration about the way the time of the past action of swimming is expressed.

If you find this all very confusing, don’t worry about it too much.  Even if you use either word incorrectly, it may not even be noticed.  As I mentioned before, even native speaking English people that didn’t pay very close attention in grammar class have problems with swam and swum.

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The ocean near my house where I have swum.
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