Verb Forms

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The English Verb Forms and Their Correct Tense Usage

Each verb in the English language has six basic forms; and these forms are used to create the entire tense system of English, they include: base formOpens in new window, presentOpens in new window, pastOpens in new window, infinitiveOpens in new window, present participleOpens in new window, and past participleOpens in new window.

These are the basic parts of verbs from which all the different forms indicating personOpens in new window, numberOpens in new window, voiceOpens in new window, moodOpens in new window and tenseOpens in new window are formed.

Using the regular verb visit and the irregular verb fly as case study, the six basic verb forms are illustrated in the chart below:

Base FormPresent TensePast TenseInfinitivePresent ParticiplePast Participle
Regular Verbvisitvisitvisitsvisitedto visitvisitingvisited
Irregular Verbflyflyfliesflewto flyflyingflown
  1. Base Form

    The base form is the basic of verb forms. It is the dictionary directory form of verb, i.e., if you looked up sang, the dictionary would refer you to the base form sing.

    The base form is generally the source for the present —although with a few exceptions— infinitive, and present participle of the verb, whether it is regular or irregular.

    The base form can be used as a verb particularly in the following ways:
    1. It can be used with certain helping verbs, particularly the modal auxiliary verbs, can/could, may/might, will/would, shall/should, and must.

      Observe the base form of the verb be in the following sentences:

      • He may be here any moment from now.
      • You should be more concerned.
      • It will be a crazy day.
    2. The base form is frequently used in imperative sentences, as:

      • Be cheerful!
      • Ring me at home.
      • Keep to time.
  2. Present Form

    The present form of all verbs, including that of irregular verbs is directly derived from the base form of verbs. This is true of all verbs, with the sole exception of the verb be.

    The difference between the present form and base form is that the third-person singular present form adds –s or –es to the base form of the verb; all other present forms take identical pattern with the base form.

    The base form of be is different from all of its present tense forms. Examine the chat below:

    Number1st Person2nd Person3rd Person
    SingularI amyou arehe/she/it is
    Pluralwe areyou arethey are

    The third-person singular present endings are fairly predictable both in pronunciation and in spelling.

    If the base form ends in a sibilant sound (s, z, x, sh, ch, tch, or j [as in judge]), the ending is pronounced as a separate syllable and rhymes with buzz.

    The ending is spelled -es, unless the base form already ends in -e, in which case only -s is added:

    Base Form3rd Person Singular Present
    loseloses
    freezefreezes
    beseechbeseeches
    catchcatches

    Note that if the base form ends in a silent consonant sound other than a sibilant, the ending is pronounced /s/ and is spelled -es.

    The voiceless consonants are usually spelled with a p, t, ck, k, f, or gh (when pronounced /f/):

    Base Form3rd Person Singular Present
    keepkeeps
    beatbeats
    seekseeks
    taketakes

    In cases where the base form ends in a pronounced consonantOpens in new window other than a sibilantOpens in new window or in a pronounced vowelOpens in new window (as opposed to a silent final -e), the ending is pronounced /z/ and is spelled -s :

    Base Form3rd Person Singular Present
    forbidforbids
    bendbends
    digdigs
    feelfeels
    swimswims
    meanmeans
    proveproves
    paypays
    fleeflees
    flyflies
    throwthrows
    strewstrews
    Note that if the base form ends in -y without a preceding vowel, the -y alters to -ie before the -s ending (as in fly above).

    A few verbs have peculiar third-person singular present forms:

    beis
    havehas

    Two verbs, particularly “do,” and “say”, have irregular pronunciations in the third-person singular present form:

    dodoes (rhymes with buzz)
    saysays (rhymes with fez)
  3. Past Form

    The past form indicates actions that happened before now. The past forms are of two types: regular and irregular.

    Patterns for Regular Verbs Are Predictable

    Regular verbs form the past tense by adding -ed to the base form or -d if the base form already ends in -e :

    Base FormRegular Past Form
    startstarted
    arrivearrived

    The past form ending of regular verbs is known to have three different, but fairly predictable, pronunciations.

    If the base form ends in a /t/ or /d/ sound, the -ed is pronounced as a separate syllable rhyming with bud.

    Base FormPast Form Pronounced As A Separate Syllable.
    votevoted
    decidedecided

    If however, the base form ends in a silent consonant sound other than /t/, the -ed is pronounced /t/.

    The final consonants with voiceless sound are commonly spelled with a p, ck, k, s, sh, ch, tch, x,f, or gh (if it’s pronounced /f/) :

    Base FormPast Form Pronounced As /t/
    taptapped
    attackattacked
    missmissed
    matchmatched
    coughcoughed

    However, when the base form ends in a single consonant preceded by a stressed short vowel, the consonant is typically doubled to form the past: permit ~ permitted, stop ~ stopped.

    If on the other hand, the base form ends in a pronounced vowel or in a voiced consonant sound other than /d/, the -ed is pronounced /d/.

    The voiced consonants are typically spelled with a b, g, z, j, m, n, l, or r :

    Base FormPast Form Pronounced As /d/
    tietied
    enjoyenjoyed
    killkilled
    carecared
    Note that if the base form ends in -y without a preceding vowel, the -y changes to -ie before the -d ending (cry ~ cried ). Likewise note the spellings of the past forms of lay and pay: laid and paid, respectively.
    Patterns for Irregular Verbs Are Unpredictable

    When it comes to irregular verbs, the past forms reflect older patterns for forming the past tense. These patterns have merged to such an extent that it is not practical to learn the past forms of irregular verbs on the basis of their historical patterns.

    Irregular verbs vary considerably in patterns but similarities exist, however, in how some irregular verbs form the past tense:

    Vowel ChangeVowel Change (+ -d)Vowel Change
    (+ -t)
    No Change
    Base FormPastBase FormPastBase FormPastBase FormPast
    ringrangtelltoldkneelkneltbetbet
    singsangsellsoldfeelfeltputput
    sweepsweptridrid
    sleepslept
    keepkept

    The following is a brief summary of past forms for some of the most common irregular verbs in English:

    Base FormPast Form
    bewas/were
    havehad
    dodid
    saysaid (rhymes with fed )
    makemade
    gowent
    taketook
    comecame
    seesaw
    findfound
    getgot
    givegave
    knowknew
  4. Infinitive

    An InfinitiveOpens in new window is the root of a verb form, its characteristic sign being the infinitive marker to + base form (root) of verb.

    There are no exceptions — even the verb be is regular, in that it is to be.

    Base FormInfinitive
    beto be
    flyto fly
    walkto walk
    Observe the following Examples showing various Uses:
    1. The infinitive is often used without to after certain auxiliary verbs:

      • You must try
      • They may return
    2. The infinitive is also used with to after certain adjectives:

      • It is hard to understand him.
      • She’s quick to argue.
    3. The infinitive can also be used after nouns:

      • This is a chance to succeed.
      • The time to move is now.
  5. Present Participle

    All verbs have present participle forms. The present participle is formed through the addition of an –ing ending to the base form of verb:

    Base FormPresent
    Participle
    bebeing
    buybuying
    tietieing
    excelexceling

    Note that in the present participle forms, if a verb ends in a single consonant preceded by a stressed short vowel, the consonant is usually doubled:

    Base FormPresent
    Participle
    betbetting
    digdigging
    forbidforbidding

    However, when a verb ends in voiceless –e, the –e is usually omitted before the –ing ending:

    come → coming, have → having, write → writing.

    Observe the following Uses:
    1. The present participle can be used in many ways. It is more often used in the progressive tenses after a form of the verb be:

      • The workers are having lunch in the cafeteria.
      • They were going to the cinema.
      • I am being delayed.
    2. Although less common, the present participle can be used as a complement of certain verbs:

      • He likes watching the talk show every night.
        (“watching” as complement of the verb “likes”)
      • I hate driving the car alone.
        (“driving” as complement of the verb “hate”)
      • They prefer staying together.
        (“staying” as complement of the verb “prefer”)
    3. Present participles are also used in clauses to indicate the continuous forms of verbs:

      • going solo, riding bare bareback
    4. The present participle can also assume the role of nouns known as gerundsOpens in new window:

      • Don’t make fun of my dancing.
      • Swimming can be fun.
      • John’s occupation is schooling.

    Learn more on GerundsOpens in new window

    Problems with Present Participle

    There may be complications sometimes when using a present participle with a pronoun. Most people especially non-native speakers of English are uncertain as to which type of pronoun to use before a particular participle.

    The rule is this: If the participle has its own subject (meaning that the participle is actually a gerund, acting more like a noun than a verb), then the possessive pronoun is appropriate. Consider this sentence:
    • How about my bringing something to eat?

    If the participle is acting more like a verb than a noun, then the possessive form Opens in new window should not be used:

    • Do you mind me singing?
  6. Past Participle

    Past participles are of two types: regular and irregular. Regular past participles can be formed precisely the same way as the regular past by adding –ed to the base form or –d if the base form already ends in –e.

    Like irregular past forms, irregular past participle forms are quite unpredictable. However, there is a universality, which seems to emanate in ancient periods of English, that most irregular past participles ended in –en.

    Today, about one third of irregular past participles still retain this –en ending. Thus, by instinct, we know that an irregular verb form with –en (or –n ) ending is a past participle.

    Base FormPast Participle
    speakspoken
    choosechosen
    eateaten
    flyflown
    seeseen

    In distinguishing the two forms, remember that the past form tends to occur by itself, but the past participle almost always occurs after a form of be or have. Note also that:

    Some irregular verbs have identical present tense and past participle forms:

    Past TensePast Participle
    cutcut
    hithit
    letlet
    splitsplit

    In other instances the past participle differs completely from the past tense:

    Past TensePast Participle
    diddone
    flewflown
    wentgone

    There are also two alternatives for both the past tense and the past participle:

    Past TensePast Participle
    burnedburntburnedburnt
    dreameddreamtdreameddreamt
    leapedleaptleapedleapt
    showedshownshowedshown
    spilledspiltspilledspilt
    spoiledspoiltspoiledspoilt
    Important! 

    In U.S. English the –ed form is commonly used than elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

    The past participle can be used in a number of ways:

    1. The past participle is used after the helping verbs to be or to have to stand as a main verb:

      • I was fascinated and repelled by the Michael Jackson documentary.
      • We have operated the printing machine for a month.
      • Jilian and DeShawn had stopped by the time we arrived.
    2. Past participlesOpens in new window are often used in passive sentences after the helping verb be:

      • Skirmishes are being fought at the border.
      • Her play was seen by thousands of people.
    3. Apart from forming the perfect tensesOpens in new window and passive forms of verbs, they are commonly encountered serving as adjectives:

      • A fallen star.
      • A broken chair.
      • A startled look.
    The chart below lists the principal parts of a few selected verbs

    All the verbs listed are irregular verbs, excluding, the infinitive, to look. Most regular verbsOpens in new window use the past participleOpens in new window to form the simple past tenseOpens in new window.

    Being the case that most irregular verbs have a separate form for the simple past tense, that form has been placed within parentheses on the list.

    In some cases, verbs are said to have a perfect participle. However, the perfect participle form is not included in the list.

    Infinitive FormBase FormPresent ParticiplePast Participle
    To Bebe (was, were)beingbeen
    To Beginbegin (began)beginningbegun
    To Blowblow (blew)blowingblown
    To Breakbreak (broke)breakingbroken
    To Choosechoose (chose)choosingchosen
    To Dodo (did)doingdone
    To Drinkdrink (drank)drinkingdrunk
    To Drivedrive (drove)drivingdriven
    To Givegive (gave)givinggiven
    To Gogo (went)goinggone
    To KnowKnow (knew)knowingknown
    To Lielie (lay)lyinglain
    To Looklooklookinglooked
    To Wearwear (wore)wearingworn
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