English verbs

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Verbs in the English language are a lexical and morphologically distinct part of speech which describes an action, an event, or a state.

While English has many irregular verbs (see a list), for the regular ones the conjugation rules are quite straightforward. Being part of an analytic language, English regular verbs are not very much inflected; all tenses, aspects and moods except the simple present and the simple past are periphrastic, using with auxiliary verbs and modals.

Contents

Principal parts

A regular English verb has only only one principal part, the infinitive or dictionary form (which is identical to the simple present tense for all persons and numbers except the third person singular). All other forms of a regular verb can be derived straightforwardly from the infinitive, for a total of four forms (e.g. exist, exists, existed, existing)

English irregular verbs (except to be) have at most three principal parts:

  Part Example
1 infinitive write
2 preterite wrote
3 past participle written

Only strong verbs like write have all three distinct parts, for a total of five forms (e. g. write, writes, wrote, written, writing). In weak verbs, the third person singular present tense form and the present participle, as well as the preterite, can be derived regularly from the infinitive, and the preterite also coincides with the past participle.

The highly irregular copular verb to be has eight forms: be, am, is, are, being, was, were, been, of which only one is derivable from a principle part (being is derived from be). On the history of this verb, see Indo-European copula.

Verbs had more forms when the pronoun thou was still in regular use and there was a number distinction in the second person. To be, for instance, had art, wast and wert.

Most of the strong verbs that survive in modern English are considered irregular. Irregular verbs in English come from several historical sources; some are technically strong verbs (i. e. their forms display specific vowel changes of the type known as ablaut in linguistics); others have had various phonetic changes or contractions added to them over the history of English.


Infinitive and basic form

Formation

The infinitive in English is the naked root form of the word. When it is being used as a verbal noun, the particle to is usually prefixed to it. When the infinitive stands as the predicate of an auxiliary verb, to may be omitted, depending on the requirements of the idiom.

Uses

  • The infinitive, in English, is one of two verbal nouns: To write is to learn.
  • The infinitive, either marked with to or unmarked, is used as the complement of many auxiliary verbs: I will write a novel about talking beavers; I am really going to write it.
  • The basic form makes the English subjunctive mood: If you write it, they will read.

Third person singular

Formation

The third person singular in regular verbs in English is distinguished by the suffix -s. In English spelling, this -s is added to the stem of the infinitive form: runruns. In Early Modern English, some dialects distinguished the third person singular with the suffix -th; after consonants this was written -eth, and some consonants were doubled when this was added: runrunneth

If the base ends in a sibilant sound like (see IPA) that is not followed by a silent E, the suffix is written -es: buzzbuzzes; catchcatches

If the base ends in a consonant plus y, change the y to i and add -es: crycries

Verbs ending in o typically add -es: vetovetoes

Use

  • The third person singular is used exclusively in the third person form of the English simple "present tense", which often has other uses besides the simple present: He writes airport novels about anthropomorphic rodents.

Present participle

Formation

The present participle is typically made by the suffix -ing: gogoing.

If the base ends in silent e, it is dropped before adding the suffix: believebelieving.

If the e is not silent, it is retained: agreeagreeing.

If the base ends in -ie, change the ie to y and add -ing: lielying.

If:

  • the base form ends in a single consonant; AND
  • a single vowel precedes that consonant; AND
  • the last syllable of the base form is stressed

then the final consonant is doubled before adding the suffix: setsetting; occuroccurring.

In British English, as an exception, the final "l" is subject to the doubling rule: yodelyodelling (American English yodeling).

If the final consonant of a word subject to the doubling rule is -c, that consonant is doubled as -ck: panicpanicking.

Irregular forms include:

  • singeing, where the e is not dropped to avoid confusion with singing;
  • ageing, in British English, where the expected form aging is ambiguous as to whether it has a hard or soft g;
  • a number of words that are subject to the doubling rule even though they do not fall squarely within its terms, such as diagramming, kidnapping, programming, and worshipping.

Uses

  • The present participle is another English verbal noun: Writing is learning.
  • It is used as an adjective: a writing desk; building beavers
  • It is used to form a present tense with progressive or imperfective force: He is writing another long book about beavers.
  • It is used with quasi-auxiliaries to form verb phrases: He tried writing about opossums instead, but his muse deserted him.

Preterite

Formation

In weak verbs, the preterite is formed with the suffix -ed: workworked

If the base ends in e, -d is simply added to it: honehoned; dye > dyed

Where the base ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i before the -ed is added; denydenied

Where the base ends in a vowel plus y, the y is retained: alloyalloyed

The rule for doubling the final consonant in regular weak verbs for the preterite is the same as the rule for doubling in the present participle; see above.

Many strong verbs and other irregular verbs form the preterite differently, for which see that article.

Use

  • The preterite is used for the English simple past tense. He wrote two more chapters about the dam at Kashawigamog Lake.

Past participle

Formation

In regular weak verbs, the past participle is always the same as the preterite.

Irregular verbs may have separate preterites and past participles; see the article on English irregular verbs.

Uses

  • The past participle is used for the English past perfect tense, usually with the auxiliary have: He has written about the slap of tails on water, about the scent of the lodge. . .
  • With be, it forms the passive voice: It is written so well, you can feel what it's like to gnaw down trees!
  • It is used as an adjective: the written word; a broken dam
  • It is used with quasi-auxiliaries to form verb phrases: 500,000 words got written in record time.

Tenses of the English verb

English verbs, like those in many other western European languages, have more tenses than forms; tenses beyond the ones possible with the five forms listed above are formed with auxiliary verbs, as are the passive voice forms of these verbs. Important auxiliary verbs in English include will, used to form the future tense, shall, formerly used for the future tense, but now used mostly for commands and directives; be, have, and do, which are used to form the supplementary tenses of the English verb, to add aspect to the actions they describe, or for negation.

English verbs display complex forms of negation. While simple negation was used well into the period of early Modern English (Touch not the royal person!) in contemporary English negation almost always requires that the negative particle be attached to an auxiliary verb such as do or be. I go not is archaic; I don't go or I am not going are what contemporary idiom requires.

English exhibits similar idiomatic complexity with the interrogative mood, which in Indo-European languages is not strictly speaking a mood. Like many other Western European languages, English historically allowed questions to be asked by inverting the position of verb and subject: Whither goest thou? Now, in English, questions are trickily idiomatic, and require the use of auxiliary verbs.

Overview of tenses

The large number of different composite verb forms means that English has the richest and subtlest system of tense and aspect of any Germanic language. It is however extremely confusing for foreign learners. In fact, though, the English verb is very systematic once one understands that in each of the three time spheres past, present and future, English has a basic tense which can then be made either perfect or progressive (continuous) or both.

Simple Progressive Perfect Perfect progressive
Future I will write I will be writing I will have written I will have been writing
Present I write I am writing I have written I have been writing
Past I wrote I was writing I had written I had been writing

Because of the neatness of this system, modern textbooks on English generally use the terminology in this table. What was traditionally called the "perfect" is here called "present perfect" and the "pluperfect" becomes "past perfect", in order to show the relationships of the perfect forms to their respective simple forms. Whereas in other Germanic languages, or in Old English, the "perfect" is just a past tense, the English "present perfect" has a present reference; it is both a past tense and a present tense, describing the connection between a past event and a present state.

However, historical linguists sometimes prefer terminology which applies to all Germanic languages and is more helpful for comparative purposes; when describing wrote as a historical form , for example, we would say "preterite" rather than "past simple".

This table, of course, omits a number of forms which can be regarded as additional to the basic system:

  • the intensive present I do write
  • the intensive past I did write
  • the habitual past I used to write
  • the "shall future" I shall write
  • the "going-to future" I am going to write
  • the "future in the past" I was going to write
  • the conditional I would write
  • the perfect conditional I would have written
  • the (increasingly seldom used) subjunctives, if I be, if I were.

A full inventory of verb forms follows.

Present simple

Or simple present.

  • Affirmative: I write; He writes
  • Negative: He does not (doesn't) write
  • Interrogative: Does he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Does he not write? (Doesn't he write?)

Note that the "simple present" in idiomatic English is often identifies habitual or customary action:

He writes about beavers (understanding that he does so all the time.)

It is used with stative verbs:

She thinks beavers are remarkable

It can also have a future meaning:

She goes to Milwaukee on Tuesday.

Put Tuesday in the plural, and She goes to Milwaukee on Tuesdays means that she goes to Milwaukee every Tuesday.

The present simple has an intensive or emphatic form with "do": He does write. In the negative and interrogative forms, of course, this is identical to the non-emphatic forms. It is typically used as a response to the question Does he write, whether that question is expressed or implied, and says that indeed, he does write.

The idiomatic use of the negative particles not and -n't in the interrogative form is also worth noting. In formal literary English of the sort in which contractions are avoided, not attaches itself to the main verb: Does he not write? When the colloquial contraction -n't is used, this attaches itself to the auxiliary do: Doesn't he write? An expansion of the colloquial form — *Does not he write? — offends against idiom, and is seldom encountered except occasionally in poetry.

Present progressive

Or present continuous.

  • Affirmative: He is writing
  • Negative: He is not writing
  • Interrogative: Is he writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Is he not writing? / Isn't he writing?

This form describes the simple engagement in a present activity, with the focus on action in progress "at this very moment". It too can indicate a future, particularly when discussing plans already in place: I am flying to Paris tomorrow. Used with "always" it suggests irritation; compare He always does that (neutral) with He's always doing that (and it annoys me). Word order differs here in the negative interrogative between the hyperformal is he not writing and the usual isn't he writing?

Present Perfect

Traditionally just called the perfect.

  • Affirmative: He has written
  • Negative: He has not written
  • Interrogative: Has he written?
  • Negative interrogative: Has he not written? (Hasn't he written?)

This indicates that a past event has one of a range of possible relationships to the present. This may be a focus on present result: He has written a very fine book (and look, here it is, we have it now). Or it may indicate a time-frame which includes the present. I have lived here since my youth (and I still do). Compare: Have you written a letter this morning? (it is still morning) with Did you write a letter this morning? (it is now afternoon). The perfect tenses are frequently used with the adverbs already or recently.

Present perfect progressive

Or continuous.

  • Affirmative: He has been writing""
  • Negative: He has not been writing
  • Interrogative: Has he been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Has he not been writing? (Hasn't he been writing?)

Used for unbroken action in the past which continues right up to the present. I have been writing this paper all morning (and still am).

Past simple

Or preterite. In older text books this was sometimes called the "imperfect" by analogy with French and to contrast it with the perfect, but that is misleading, as it is used precisely for completed actions.

  • Affirmative: He wrote
  • Negative: He did not write
  • Interrogative: Did he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Did he not write? (Didn't he write?)

The same change of word order in the negative interrogative that distinguishes the formal and informal register also applies to the preterite. Note also that the preterite form is also used only in the affirmative. When the sentence is recast as a negative or interrogative, he wrote not and wrote he? are archaic and not used in modern English. They must instead be supplied by periphrastic forms.

This tense is used for a single event in the past, sometimes for past habitual action, and in chronological narration. Like the present simple, it has emphatic forms with "do": he did write.

The "used to" past tense for habitual actions is probably best included under the bracket of the past simple. Compare:

When I was young I played football every Saturday.
When I was young I used to play football every Saturday.

The difference is slight, but "used to" stresses the regularity, and the fact that the action has been discontinued.

Past progressive

Or past continuous.

  • Affirmative: He was writing
  • Negative: He was not writing
  • Interrogative: Was he writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Was he not writing? (Wasn't he writing?)

This is typically used for two events in parallel:

While I was washing the dishes my wife was walking the dog.

Or for an interrupted action (the past simple being used for the interruption):

While I was washing the dishes I heard a loud noise.

Or when we are focussing on a point in the middle of a longer action:

This time yesterday I was working in the garden. (Contrast: I worked in the garden all day yesterday.)

Past perfect

Or pluperfect

  • Affirmative: He had written
  • Negative: He had not / hadn't written
  • Interrogative: Had he written?
  • Negative interrogative: Had he not written? (Hadn't he written?)

Past perfect progressive

Or pluperfect progressive or continuous

  • Affirmative: He had been writing
  • Negative: He had not been / hadn't been writing
  • Interrogative: Had he been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Had he not been writing? (Hadn't he been writing?)

Relates to the past perfect much as the present perfect progressive relates to the present perfect, but tends to be used with less precision.

Future simple

  • Affirmative: He will write
  • Negative: He will not / won't write
  • Interrogative: Will he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not write? (Won't he write?)

See the article Shall and Will for a discussion of the two auxiliary verbs used to form the simple future in English. There is also a future with "go" which is used especially for intended actions, and for the weather, and generally is more common in colloquial speech:

I'm going to write a book some day.
I think it's going to rain.

But the will future is prefered for spontaneous decisions:

Jack: "I think we should have a barbeque!"
Jill: "Good idea! I'll get the coal."

Future progressive

  • Affirmative: He will be writing
  • Negative: He will not / won't be writing
  • Interrogative: Will he be writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not be writing? (Won't he be writing?)

Used especially to indicate that a event will be in progress at a particular point in the future: This time tomorrow I will be taking my driving test.

Future perfect

  • Affirmative: He will have written
  • Negative: He will not / won't have written
  • Interrogative: Will he have written?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not have written? (Won't he have written?)

Used for something which will be completed by a certain time (perfect in the literal sense) or which leads up to a point in the future which is being focused on.

I will have finished my essay by Thursday.
By then she will have been there for three weeks.

Future perfect progressive

Or future perfect continuous.

  • Affirmative: He will have been writing
  • Negative: He will not / won't have been writing
  • Interrogative: Will he have been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not have been writing? (Won't he have been writing?)


Conditional

  • Affirmative: He would write
  • Negative: He would not / woundn't write
  • Interrogative: Would he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Would he not write?

Used principally in a main clause attached to an "if-clause":

I would do it if she asked me to.

(A very common error by foreign learners is to put the would into the if-clause itself. A humorous formulation of the rule for the EFL classroom runs: "If and would you never should, if and will makes teacher ill!" But of course, both will and would CAN occur in an if-clause when expressing volition.)

Conditional perfect

  • Affirmative: He would have written
  • Negative: He would not / wouldn't have written
  • Interrogative: Would he have written?
  • Negative interrogative: Would he not have written?

Present subjunctive

The form is always identical to the infinitive. This means that, apart from the verb "to be", it is only distinct in the third person singular.

  • Indicative: I write, he writes, I am
  • Subjunctive: I write, he write, I be

Used increasingly seldomly, but regarded as high style in sentences like:

  • I insist that he come at once.

Imperfect subjunctive

The use of the old term "imperfect" (by analogy with French) shows that this form is so rare that it has not been integrated into the modern system of English tense classification. The imperfect subjunctive is identical to the past simple in every verb except the verb "to be". With this verb, there is an option, but no longer a necessity, of using were throughout ALL forms.

  • Indicative: I was
  • Subjunctive: traditionally I were but now more commonly I was.

Used increasingly seldom, but regarded as high style in sentences like:

  • If I were rich, I would retire to the South of France.

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