When you look at all the weird rules and exceptions in the English language, verbs can seem pretty scary. Even native English speakers can’t always explain how to conjugate a verb.
Is there a conjugation trick? Sort of. You can’t apply the same rules to every verb, but we’ll get you started.
There are how many tenses?
Once you’ve identified the verb you want to use, then you have to decide which tense of the verb you want. This is one of the trickiest parts, since there are twelve different ways to conjugate a verb. Let’s look at the regular verb change.
- Present Simple: I change
- Present Continuous: I am changing
- Present Perfect: I have changed
- Present Perfect Continuous: I have been changing
- Past Simple: I changed, I did change
- Past Continuous: I was changing
- Past Perfect: I had changed
- Past Perfect Continuous: I had been changing
- Future Simple: I will change
- Future Continuous: I will be changing
- Future Perfect: I will have changed
- Future Perfect Continuous: I will have been changing
Twelve ways seems like a lot, but don’t panic. You’ve probably used every one of these forms before without even realizing it. And it’s pretty easy if you’re using regular verbs.
No matter what, you start with the infinitive form. If you have a regular verb like walk, that’s the infinitive. Usually you see the infinitive with “to” in front of it. To play, to eat, to sleep, to walk. It’s getting past the infinitives that gets people into trouble.
Don’t get tense about tense
To simplify things a bit, we're just going to look at the infinitive, present tense, past tense, and present participle verb forms. Once you understand these forms, it’s easy to construct the rest of the tenses. Let’s go back to the verb walk.
Walk is a regular verb. Walk, by itself, is the infinitive form. If you put the preposition to before walk, that’s still the infinitive form. When you’re describing yourself, pair the pronoun I with the infinitive form of the verb. I walk. If you’re using the singular third person (he, she, or it), then you attach an “s” to the end of the word. He walks, she walks, it walks.
But if you walk in the past tense, you walked. The -ed suffix at the end of a regular verb shows that the action took place in the past. That one is consistent in first, second, and third person. Nice and simple. I walked, we walked, he walked.
If the action is currently taking place, you tack -ing onto the end of the infinitive to make it a present participle. So if you’re walking, you’re currently on your way somewhere.
To complete your verb conjugations, sometimes you need helping verbs. Adding these verbs to your conjugation helps to clarify the meaning and express verb tense. The helping, or auxiliary, verbs are:
- To be: am, is, are, was, were, be, been
- To have: have, has, had
- To do: do, does, did
As in any language, English verbs have their exceptions. We can’t give you concrete rules for irregular verbs because each one conjugates differently. Sometimes they don’t use the standard -ed or -ing when they change tense. In fact, if you didn’t know them already, you might not even recognize them as the same verb.
While some languages have a handful of irregular verbs, English has something of a museum-level collection.
More about irregular verbs on another day.