A Quick Guide to English Verbs

A Quick Guide to English Verbs

A verb is often described as a 'doing' word, it signifies an action, something that is happening, or how something is. The English language is full of actions and places a lot of emphasis on verbs of which there are many. Though English is full of irregular verbs which must be learnt, the constructions of verbs for use in different tenses are generally quite simple, once you have mastered the rules.

Present tense

In English we use three present tenses: Present Simple, Present Continuous and Present Perfect.

Present simple
Present Simple is used to describe an action or state of being that happens regularly such as a person's daily routine or job.
For example: 'Every day I walk to the bus stop,' or 'I teach children to dance.' The Present Simple is constructed by using the infinitive form of the verb (for example 'to walk), and in the third person, an 'S' is added:
I walk
You walk
He/she/it walks
An irregular example of this construction is the verb 'to have', which has a small deviation in the third person, to make it easier to pronounce:
I have
You have
He/she/it has
Another irregular verb is 'to be', which doesn't follow the pattern at all:
I am
You are
He/she/it is
We are
They are

It is important to learn the construction of the present simple 'to be' because it is used in forming the Present Continuous. We use the Present Continuous when describing something that is happening now.
It is formed like this: Pronoun + Present Simple to be + infinitive + ing
For example, 'I am learning', 'you are reading', 'he is listening'.

Present perfect
The Present Perfect is usually used to describe a state where an event or action that happened in the past directly affects the present. The construction is: Pronoun + present simple to have + past participle
For example, 'I have eaten', 'you have written a book', 'she has cooked'.
The past participle is formed in different ways depending on the verb, sometimes it is the Past Simple form of the verb, sometimes an 'n' or 'en' is added to the infinitive.

Past Tenses

The Past Simple is formed by adding 'd' or 'ed' on to the infinitive
For example, 'I laughed', 'he cooked', 'you arranged'.
There are many irregularities including instances where the vowel changes:
'I ran', 'I sang', 'I wrote'
Or where the whole word changes:
'I went' (from 'to go')
And, in the case of 'to be', the word changes twice:
I was
You were
He/she/it was
We were
They were

The Past Continuous tense is used to describe something happening repeatedly or over a period of time in the past.
The construction is: Pronoun + past simple to be + infinitive + ing
For example: 'I was reading', 'you were watching', 'it was barking'.

The Past Perfect tense is used to signify an event that affected something in the past.
Pron + Past simple to have + past participle
For example: 'I had seen', 'you had drunk', 'she had said'.

Often, tenses are combined. The Past or Present Perfect Continuous tenses are formed to describe a continuous action happening up to a certain point:
'I have been drinking' or 'I had been cooking'.

Arguably, English only has one future tense, the Future Simple, which is constructed like this:
Pron + will + infinitive, for example 'I will go', 'you will make', 'he will sing'. It is used to express plans and intentions.

The Present Simple is used for events in the future that happen regularly or are scheduled, for example 'the train leaves tomorrow at 6pm'.

Other types of English verbs include Modals, which express obligation, ability or permission: Must/may/can/will/shall.

There are also tenses which are sometimes described as moods. For example, the conditional is used to put across imaginary or theoretical situations, such as 'I could be a great dancer'. Similarly, the subjunctive expresses a hope or wish that depends on external circumstances, for example: 'if I were to win the lottery, I would buy a house.'

All of this can be confusing and sometimes it's best to make use of professional services such as copy editors and proofreaders for written documents, essays and academic texts.