Verbs in English grammar

A verb is a word that expresses a state of doing, being, or ownership. If that sounds confusing, consider a simple sentence such as ‘John ran’. The word ‘John’ is a noun, referring to a person. The word ‘ran’ is a verb which tells us what John did. Other obvious action verbs are walked, jumped, skipped, climbed, sailed, danced, and other similar words. They may appear in longer sentences – for instance: ‘John jumped and skipped on his way home‘. In that sentence, the words ‘jumped’ and ‘skipped’ are both verbs.

Words like dreamed, slept, thought, smiled, sat, and so on are also verbs, even though they do not express clear forms of action. But they still tell us something about what someone or something was doing. Every sentence in English should contain a verb of some sort.

Verb tenses

Verbs are confusing to small children, and those learning English, because they come in several different forms. Verbs don’t just tell us what action somebody takes, they tell us whether the action is in the past, the present, or the future. The examples given above refer to actions or states that have already happened. When we say ‘John ran’, we might mean he ran five minutes ago, or we might mean he ran in a race a week ago, or we might mean he ran as a child although now he’s an old man. But we don’t mean that he is actually running as we speak. The action of running took place in the past. So ‘ran’ is an example of the past tense. So is ‘climbed’, and ‘slept’, and so on.

If we want to talk about John doing something right now, we use a different form of the verb – the present tense. We might say ‘John runs fast’, or ‘John is running a race‘. And if we want to talk about what is going to happen in the future, we use the future tense of the verb: for instance, ‘John will run tomorrow‘, or ‘John is going to run in the race‘.

Verbs with auxiliary (or helping) words

You may have noticed that some forms of the verbs above are in fact two words rather than one – ‘will run‘ (future tense), ‘is running‘ (present tense) and ‘is going to run‘ (future tense). We might also say ‘John was running‘ (past tense), ‘John might be going to run‘ (a form of future tense), ‘John had been running‘ (past tense) – and many other variations on the theme. Whereas small children pick up these forms intuitively, by the time they’re about five or six, so long as they hear them used correctly, they are very confusing to people learning English as a second or third language.

Helping – or auxiliary – words that can be used with the main forms of the verbs include:

am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, going, has, have, had, did, does, shall, will, should, may, might, can, could… and probably several more. These are all verbs in their own right, and can be used as such, but can also be used to modify or change the meanings of other verbs.

Four basic verb forms

There are, however, only four basic forms of any verb, excluding the auxiliary words. These are known as the present, the present participle, the past, and the past participle.

Let’s take the basic word walk. That form of the word is its basic present tense. It can be used as it is (eg ‘I walk to church every Sunday‘) or with an s on the end (eg ‘he walks very fast‘). It can also be used with auxiliary words (eg I have to walk for my health, or I am going to walk more this year).

Simple past tense form of verbs

The basic past tense of the word ‘walk’ is ‘walked‘. Many past tenses are formed from the present form in a similar way, ie by adding ‘-ed’ on the end. They are known as regular past tenses – examples are climbed, dreamed, prayed, jumped, cleaned, sailed. If the present tense of a word ends with ‘e’ then just a ‘d’ is added to form the past tense – for instance: danced, smiled, typed, stroked.

It’s slightly more complicated if the present form of the verb ends in a consonant followed by -y; in that case, we remove the ‘y’ and replace it with ‘ied’ to form the past tense. For instance: rely, relied; spy, spied; cry, cried; reply, replied. And if the present form ends in a single consonant (excluding x and y), following a single vowel, then the final consonant is doubled before adding ‘-ed’. For instance: repel, repelled; cancel, cancelled; travel, travelled; scan, scanned; pin, pinned; hop, hopped; bob, bobbed; jam, jammed.

[Note that in American English, words which have the emphasis on the first syllable, such as ‘travel’ or ‘cancel’ do NOT double the final consonant. But in the UK, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries, ‘traveled’ or ‘canceled’ are incorrect]

Irregular past forms of verbs

While the ‘ed’ ending for the past tense is the easiest and commonest, it is not always the case. There are many verbs whose past tense is formed differently – such as ‘ran’, the past tense of the verb ‘run’. This is an example of an irregular verb. There are many, with few discernable patterns. Other examples are: freeze, froze; bring, brought; think, thought; fly, flew; swim, swam; sit, sat; speak, spoke; fall, fell; knew, knew; eat, ate – and many more. Again, this is something that small children pick up just by hearing the correct forms around them, but those learning English as a foreign language find very confusing. Some forms of verb do not change in the past tense – eg ‘beat’, which is both the present and past tense of the same verb, or ‘burst’.

Participle forms of verb

The two other basic forms of a verb are called the present and past participle; both are forms used with auxiliary verbs. The present partiple of regular verbs is formed by adding ‘ing’ to the simple form (removing the final ‘e’ if there is one, and doubling the final consonant, if it’s doubled to make the past tense). For instance: walking, running, smiling, sitting, flying, replying, seeing, jumping.

The past participle of regular verbs is the same as the ordinary past form.

Irregular verbs form irregular past participles, although the present particple is formed like those of regular verbs. For instance, the word ‘freeze‘, which has past tense ‘froze‘, has present participle ‘freezing‘ , and past participle ‘frozen‘.

These are the most straightforward forms of verb usage in English. If you are interested in more complex structural forms, or the difference between active/passive, transitive/intransitive, etc, see the page complex use of verbs.

For further examples, here are a couple of sites that go into more detail:

Verbs – lots of examples of different types of verb

Wikipedia on verb tenses – some historical and linguistic background,detailed description of how verb tenses work, and even more complexity.

For further information on English grammar, see:

Basic English grammar – an overview of the different parts of speech
Nouns – different uses of nouns, with plenty of examples
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adjectives – what adjectives are, how to use them, comparative and superlative forms
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them