Definitions

trickily

English verbs

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

While English has many irregular verbs (see Appendix:Irregular verbs:English), for the regular ones the conjugation rules are quite straightforward. Being partially analytic, English regular verbs are not very much inflected; all tenses, aspects and moods except the simple present and the simple past are periphrastic, formed with auxiliary verbs and modals.

Principal parts

A regular English verb has 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

Strong verbs like write have all three distinct parts, for a total of five forms (e. g. write, writes, wrote, written, writing). The more irregular weak verbs also require up to three forms to be learned.

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 principal 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.

See also: Appendix:Irregular verbs: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 also forms the English imperative mood: Write these words.
  • 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.

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

If the base ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to an i and -es is affixed to the end: crycries.

Verbs ending in o typically add -es: vetovetoes.

The third person singular present indicative in English is notable cross-linguistically for being a morphologically marked form for a semantically unmarked one. That is to say, the third person singular is usually taken to be the most basic form in a given verbal category and as such, according to markedness theory, should have the simplest of forms in its paradigm. This is clearly not the case with English where the other persons exhibit the bare root and nothing more.

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.

Usage

  • 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.

Exception

English preserves a number of preterite-present verbs, such as can and may. These verbs lack a separate form for the third person singular: she can, she may. All surviving preterite-present verbs in modern English are auxiliary verbs. The verb will, although historically not a preterite-present verb, has come to be inflected like one when used as an auxiliary; it adds -s in the third person singular only when it is a full verb: Whatever she wills to happen will make life annoying for everyone else.

Present participle

Formation

The present participle is 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 is subject to doubling even when the last syllable is not stressed: yodelyodelling, traveltravelling; in American English, these follow the rule: yodeling, traveling.

Irregular forms include:

  • singeing, where the e is (sometimes) 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;
  • words ending in -c, which add k before the -ing, for example, trafficking, panicking, frolicking, and bivouacking.
  • 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 (see gerund for this sense).
  • It is used as an adjective: a writing desk; building beavers.
  • It is used to form a past, present or future 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 (non-iterative or progressive) past tense. He wrote two more chapters about the dam at Kashagawigamog 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 Appendix:Irregular verbs:English.

Uses

  • The past participle is used with the auxiliary have for the English perfect tenses: They have written about the slap of tails on water, about the scent of the lodge... (With verbs of motion, an archaic form with be may be found in older texts: he is come.)
  • With be, it forms the passive voice: It is written so well, you can feel what it is 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: five hundred thousand words were written in record time.

Tenses

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 mainly for the future tense, but now used mainly 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 usually requires that the negative particle be attached to an auxiliary verb such as do or be. I go not is archaic; I do not go or I am not going are what the 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 often trickily idiomatic, and require the use of auxiliary verbs, though occasionally, the interrogative mood is still used in Modern English.

Overview of tenses

In English grammar, tense refers to any conjugated form expressing time, aspect or mood. 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. This can be confusing for foreign learners; however, English tenses can be considered clear and systematic once one understands that, in each of the three time spheres (present, past and future), there exists a basic or simple form which can then be made either progressive (continuous), perfect, or both.

Simple Progressive Perfect Perfect progressive
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
Future I will write I will be writing I will have written I will have 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 subjunctive, if I be writing, if I were writing.

Some systems of English grammar eliminate the future tense altogether, treating will/would simply as modal verbs, in the same category as other modal verbs such as can/could and may/might. See Grammatical tense for a more technical discussion of this subject.

Present simple

Or simple present.

  • Affirmative: I write; He writes
  • Negative: He does not write
  • Interrogative: Does he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Does he not write?

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

He writes about beavers (understanding that he does so all of the time.)
It is used with stative verbs:
She thinks that beavers are remarkable
It can also have a future meaning (though much less commonly than in many other languages):
She goes to Milwaukee on 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 different syntactic behavior of the negative particle not and the negative inflectional suffix -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? This in fact is a contraction of a more archaic word order, still occasionally found in poetry: *Does not he write?

Present progressive

Or present continuous.

  • Affirmative: He is writing
  • Negative: He is not writing
  • Interrogative: Is he writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Is he not 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 is always doing that (and it annoys me). Word order differs here in the negative interrogative between the more formal is he not writing and the colloquial contraction 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?

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). Alternatively, it may indicate a period 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 or with since clauses. Although the label “perfect tense” implies a completed action, the present perfect can identify habitual (I have written letters since I was ten years old.) or continuous (I have lived here for fifteen years.) action.

In addition to these normal uses where the time frame either is the present or includes the present, the “have done” construct is used in temporal clauses to define a future time: When you have written it, show it to me. It also forms a perfect infinitive, used when infinitive constructions require a past perspective: Mozart is said to have written his first symphony at the age of eight. (Notice that if not for the need of an infinitive, the simple past would have been used here: He wrote it at age eight.) The past infinitive is also used in the conditional perfect.

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?

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).

Present Perfect Continuous is used for denoting the action which was in progress and has just finished (a) or is still going on (b). For example,

a) Why are your eyes red? – I have been crying since morning. (The action has already finished but was in progress for some time)
b) She has been working here for two years already and she is happy. (The action is still in progress).

If we have to ask a question with “How long…?” we should use the present perfect continuous. For example,

How long have you been working here?
However, with stative words (such as see, want, like, etc), or if the situation is considered permanent, we should use the present perfect simple. For example,
I have known her since childhood.

If we talk about the whole period, we use “for” and when we talk about the starting point of the action, we use “since”.

We should not use the present simple tense for denoting actions that began in the past and are still going on. For example,

I am ill since Monday. (It is not correct).
I have been ill since Monday. (It is correct).

Past simple

Or preterite. In older textbooks often called the imperfect.

  • Affirmative: He wrote
  • Negative: He did not write
  • Interrogative: Did he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Did he not 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. Periphrastic forms must instead supply them.

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.

Although it is sometimes taught that the difference between the present perfect and the simple past is that the perfect denotes a completed action whereas the past denotes an incomplete action, this theory is clearly false. Both forms are normally used for completed actions. (Indeed the English preterite comes from the Proto-Indo-European perfect.) In addition, either can be used for incomplete actions. The real distinction is that the present perfect is used when the period either is the present or includes the present, whereas the simple past is used when the time frame is in the absolute past.

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 fact that the action has been discontinued.

Past continuous

Or imperfect or past progressive.

  • Affirmative: He was writing
  • Negative: He was not writing
  • Interrogative: Was he writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Was he not 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 focusing on a point in the middle of a longer action:
At three o'clock yesterday I was working in the garden. (Contrast: I worked in the garden all day yesterday.)

Past perfect

Or the "pluperfect"

  • Affirmative: He had written
  • Negative: He had not written
  • Interrogative: Had he written?
  • Negative interrogative: Had he not written?

Past perfect progressive

Or "pluperfect progressive" or "continuous"

  • Affirmative: He had been writing
  • Negative: He had not been writing
  • Interrogative: Had he been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Had he not 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 write
  • Interrogative: Will he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not 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 am going to write a book some day.
I think that it is going to rain.
The will future, however, is preferred for spontaneous decisions:
Jack: "I think that we should have a barbecue!"
Jill: "Good idea! I shall go get the coal."

The will future is also used for statements about the present to indicate that they are speculative:

Jack: "I have not eaten a thing all day."
Jill: "Well, I suppose you will be hungry now."

Jack: "There is a woman coming up the drive."
Jill: "That will be my mother."

Future progressive

  • Affirmative: He will be writing
  • Negative: He will not be writing
  • Interrogative: Will he be writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not be writing?

Used especially to indicate that an 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 have written
  • Interrogative: Will he have written?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not 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 have been writing
  • Interrogative: Will he have been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not have been writing?

Conditional

Or past subjunctive.

  • Affirmative: He would write
  • Negative: He would not write
  • Interrogative: Would he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Would he not write?

Used principally in a main clause accompanied by an implicit or explicit doubt or "if-clause"; may refer to conditional statements in present or future time:

I would like to pay now if it is not too much trouble. (in present time; doubt of possibility is explicit)
I would like to pay now. (in present time; doubt is implicit)
I would do it if she asked me. (in future time; doubt is explicit)
I would do it. (in future time; doubt is implicit)
(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!" Nevertheless, of course, both will and would can occur in an if-clause when expressing volition. A student of English may rarely encounter the incorrect construction as it can occur as an archaic form.)

Conditional progressive

  • Affirmative: He would be writing
  • Negative: He would not be writing
  • Interrogative: Would he be writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Would he not be writing?

Used as the progressive or continuous tense of the conditional form; describes a situation that would now be prevailing had it not been for some intervening event:

She would be playing today if it were not for her injury.
He would be working today had he not been allowed time off.

Conditional perfect

Or pluperfect subjunctive/past-perfect subjunctive.

  • Affirmative: He would have written
  • Negative: He would not have written
  • Interrogative: Would he have written?
  • Negative interrogative: Would he not have written?

Used as the past tense of the conditional form; expresses thoughts which are or may be contrary to present fact:

I would have set an extra place if I had known you were coming. (fact that an extra place was not set is implicit; conditional statement is explicit)
I would have set an extra place, but I did not because Mother said you were not coming. (fact that a place was not set is explicit; conditional is implicit)
I would have set an extra place. (fact that a place was not set is implicit, conditional is implicit)

Conditional perfect progressive

  • Affirmative: He would have been writing
  • Negative: He would not have been writing
  • Interrogative: Would he have been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Would he not have been writing?

Present subjunctive

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

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

Used to refer to situations which are or may be contrary to fact in the present or future; the infactuality is rarely explicit:

I insist that he come at once. (present time; fact that the action is not currently occurring is implicit)
I insist that he come when I call. (future time; fact that the action may or may not occur is implicit)
(The present subjunctive is often interchangeable with the past subjunctive like so: I insist that he must come at once.)

Imperfect subjunctive

The use of the old term "imperfect" 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 (i.e., I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener, vs. I wish I was a girl).

  • Indicative: I was
  • Traditional Subjunctive: I were
  • Colloquial Subjunctive: I was
  • If I were rich, I would retire to the South of France.

See also

References

  • Gilman, E. Ward (editor in chief) Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, 1989) ISBN 0-87779-132-5
  • Greenbaum, Sidney. The Oxford English Grammar. (Oxford, 1996) ISBN 0-19-861250-8
  • McArthur, Tom, The Oxford Companion to the English Language (Oxford, 1992) ISBN 0-19-863136-7

External links

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