How verbs work

How verbs work

Verbs are words of instruction. They order us to carry out an action. Without verbs, we really don’t have a language. The origin of the word “verb” is Latin, verbum, which just means “word”. You can’t get more fundamental than that.

Some instructions can be carried out in the real world, like jump or speak. Others happen inside us, like think or feel or sense as in emotions.

Verbs are the bit of the language where English shows its age and ancestry. Most of the language in an English sentence is pretty static and able to be worked out in a systematic kind of way, but verbs seem to make up their own rules as they go along and can be very frustrating to learn for a new speaker. The mess is explained (but not excused) by English’s habit of stealing bits from other, and older, languages and trying to disguise where they came from.

Verbs which follow a strict pattern are called regular verbs. About 40 English verbs do not follow a pattern and are called irregular verbs. Unfortunately, those 40-odd verbs are the ones we use about 80% of the time. Time spent sorting them out and remembering how they are used is time very well-spent. (And it will be remembering them, because an understanding of their patterns isn’t really possible without quite a deep understanding of all those ancestor languages.)

The main standard pattern has verbs changing their form according the tense (timeframe), number (one or many), and who’s doing it (person). The box below shows how the pattern repeats itself through past, present and future tenses and how the form of the verb changes to suit each slot in the box.

Regular verb: to sit

Person (singular, subject) Simple present tense Simple past tense Simple future tense
first I sit sat will sit
second you (thee) sit sat will sit
third he, she, it sits sat will sit
Person: (plural, subject)
first we sit sat will sit
second you sit sat will sit
third they sit sat will sit


Which all seems pretty simple: only a couple of changes to remember. But now let’s look at one of the irregular verbs: the verb to be, the one used to show that something exists and which is really one of the strangest verbs ever. The only consolation is that it is irregular in every other European and pre-European language as well (which is where the problem started in the first place). Look at how different and unconnected the words are.

Irregular verb: to be

Person (singular, subject) Simple present tense Simple past tense Simple future tense
first I am was will be
second you (thee) are were will be
third he, she, it is was will be
Person: (plural, subject)
first we are were will be
second you are were will be
third they are were will be


These pattern boxes show three simple tenses set in the present, past and the future. Each of these three divisions of time can be subdivided again, depending on whether the action is continuing, has stopped, has been completed or has stopped temporarily and will start again, whether the reference point has been moved into the future and refers to a past which has not happened yet… and so on. English is very rich and precise in terms of time, and because of that can be extraordinarily difficult for non-native speakers to get beyond the present tense.

Even the present tense is more complex than it looks. Most languages have only one present tense. English has three: the simple present (I sit); the present continuous (I am sitting); the present emphatic (I do sit). Forms of these three senses are found in the past and future tenses, as well.

Each of the tenses has a name: or more correctly a series of names depending on which expert decided to name them, and what system of grammar they were following at the time. Some grammar books attempt to name the tenses by using the names of Latin tenses which were kind of similar to English tenses, so you find names like “preterite”, “perfect”, “pluperfect” or “past perfect” to refer to tenses showing actions in the past. However, Latin tenses and grammar did not fit English perfectly and these alien names have caused a good deal of confusion.

I think it is better for the user to make up names which are self-descriptive, such as “simple past” (I sat); “simple past continuous” (I was sitting); “completed in the past” (I have sat); “completed in the far past” (I had sat); “past habitual” (I used to sit); “future continuous” (I will be sitting); and so on. Not only will the names fit the tenses perfectly but while you are working out the description you are analysing precisely what the tense is doing and checking that you are using the correct tense for your purpose. Grammar has strict rules and patterns, but it’s also interactive.


Infinitive forms of a verb

As we’ve seen, verbs come as a kind of kitset ready for assembling before use. Regular verbs keep enough of their original shape (their stem) to be recognisable whenever you come across them. Irregular verbs, on the other hand, are almost impossible to recognise from their stem. How, then, can we devise a system which gives us a reference point from which we can find use a verb family?

Well, we know that verbs change according to tense, person, and number. There is a defined form of each verb to take account of the changes brought about by those three things, and those definite forms, as we have seen, can be very different from one another. Is there a form which is less definite?

Yes, Virginia, there is an indefinite form: a form which deliberately has no connection with tense, person, and number and therefore does not change. It becomes a reference point for each verb and it is how the verb is listed in a dictionary. Because the verb form is not connected to time, person, and number we can say that it has no boundaries: that it is not finite.

And from that idea we call the base form of a verb its infinitive form.

I’d like to tell you that there is a strict rule for writing an infinitive form, but that would just make it too easy. Usually, the infinitive is made up by finding the first person singular form of the verb and putting the preposition “to” in front of it. For example: to sit; to play; to dance; to think… and so on. The fly in the ointment of this simple system comes in the form of those damned irregular verbs, and in particular the verb to be.

(The verb to be is really strange in all Indo-European languages, so there is a kind of expectation that it won’t follow the rules. Historically, however, to be was once an acceptably regular form of verb in English: in some older dialects one could say “I be, you be, she be…” The fact that the word moved away from its original shape is a remnant of invasions of Britain by covetous Danes, Goths and Romans  over a thousand years. Blame the continentals…)


Participles and stems

There is a complicated technical definition of what a participle is but it is most useful to think of it as being any of the variable parts of a verb based on its stem. “Part” is the important morpheme here.

A stem is the minimum number of meaningful letters that are repeated throughout all forms of a verb, except for those – wait for it – unusually irregular verbs. If we take a regular verb like “dance”, for example, we can slice and dice it in these ways:

Verb stem dance
Infinitive form to dance
Participles dance (present); dances (3rd person singular present); dancing (continuous); danced (past).



All of these participles can, with a little bit of help, be put to use to make up all of the past, present and future tenses. How that extra help is given is an important feature of English. Rather than add letters to a stem (a process called inflection) to make the verb do what you want, English tends to leave the primary verb alone and to bring in other verbs to help out.

The word “help” is the important one here. The Latin word for helper is “auxiliary”, and that is the name given to the verbs which give aid and assistance to other verbs so that new tenses are formed. There are a small group of auxiliary verbs which are used over and over again: can/could, may/might, make, do, be, have, go and must, to name the most common.

Now, if you try to find an infinitive form for some of these auxiliaries, you’ll find that you can’t: they fall into a class called “defective verbs” meaning that they lost their structure long ago and have been replaced by other verbs which have a similar meaning but a different stem. Can, for example, is often put in the same family as the verb to be able, which gives it a place to sleep at night but otherwise doesn’t seem to make much sense because they are different words.

Here is a brief summary by one authority:

Defective verbs: The modal auxiliary verbs, can, may, shall, will and must are defective in that they do not have infinitives; so, one cannot say, I want him to can do it, but rather must say, I want him to be able to do it. The periphrases to be able to, to have to and to be going to are generally used in these cases.

(My italics, but stolen with thanks from )

So a class of verbs which we unkindly say are “defective” actually end up doing most of the heavy hauling for the better class of verb. Ain’t it always the way?

(We tended to study verbs but overlook the auxiliaries, as if they’re a second-class citizens. In fact they’re not. If we didn’t have auxiliaries in English we would only have a couple of tenses, simple present and past. We would lose a large part of our history . We wouldn’t be able to consider the future at all. Far from being second-class verbs, auxiliaries are fundamental to English.)



The other way of making verbs say what you want, as hinted above, is to add meaningful groups of letters to them which show their intentions as to time, number, and person. This is a common feature of any language which has a shared ancestry of Latin (the so-called “Romance” languages) or Greek . A language using this structure is an inflected language. English keeps a few verb inflections (-s,-ed,-ing) but in general has settled into an extraordinarily flexible kitset approach based on the word order structure of one of the mediaeval French languages. We are not tyrannised by strict rules of verb inflection: and even the sloppiest of us can find a way to communicate in English as a result.

But pity the non-native learner who is used to inflections and expects to make sense of the language through them…


Verb forms can also change so that they can indicate a particular sense or underlying meaning: this is referred to as mood. The Shorter Oxford English dictionary sums this up neatly:

Mood (noun2): Grammar. Any of the groups of forms of a verb which indicate whether the action of the verb is represented as fact or in some other manner, as a possibility, command, wish, etc.; the quality of a verb as represented or distinguished by a particular mood. (Late Middle English period)

That makes it sound as if there are lots of moods but in grammar terms there are only four main ones: indicative, conditional, imperative, interrogative: and rarely now, the subjunctive. The explanations are actually quite simple.

The indicative mood is the way most sentences are written: the sentence indicates a fact, makes a statement, says something or nothing important, tickles your fancy… whatever you like. If you didn’t have any unusual purpose in mind then what you wrote or said is in the indicative mood.

An interrogative mood is the indicative mood modified to ask a question. Usually the verb is inverted and moved to the front of the sentence (have you done this?) or one of the interrogative pronouns (who, what, when, etc) is used. Using a question mark is a dead giveaway…

An imperative mood is one in which an order is given: do this! Do that! Sit! Stay… Aside from clearly being a personal instruction, clues to the use of the mood are that the subject is often not explicitly stated, the verb is right at the beginning of the sentence, and short sharp commands often terminate in an exclamation mark (incorrectly, but let’s not quibble).

The conditional mood is used to suggest that something will happen once a condition has been fulfilled, or sometimes it expresses a wish that something will happen. Might and may and could and would and should and if help make this mood.

The subjunctive mood is a bit more complex and is quite rare in English now. It’s a form of the conditional mood which expresses a wish that something will happen even though that wish is not realistic. More importantly, it’s useful as an arm’s-length form of polite expression (and it’s still very commonly used like this in French, for example). It can be formed by using the past plural form of the verb to be instead of the singular form (“if I were a pig I’d be flying now”). It can also be used to give formal permission to do something (“Let it be done as my subjects wish it to be done”) and the verb forms let or let it be, may, might and should are big clues to the presence of the mood.


That’s it. That’s the overview. I hope you now have some useful tools for working with verbs. Good luck with the irregulars…