Series index: English Parts of Speech Overview
Verbs express actions and states of existence, like “I eat” and “I am hungry.” Know Your Verb Tenses offers grammatical information about any verb.
English verbs have only a few basic forms:
- Infinitive - write
- Singular third person - writes
- Preterite (simple past tense) - wrote
- Present participle - writing
- Past participle - written
They can be categorized based on their conjugations:
- Strong Verbs and Weak Verbs - wrote vs. walked. Also see Strong and Weak for a look at some common errors in conjugation.
- Defective Verbs - can, do, will, etc.
Verb Agreement: Number and Person
In English, a verb must agree with the number and person of its subject: I write, you write, he/she/it writes, we write, you (y’all) write, they write. See Making Subjects and Verbs Agree for basic guidelines. These conjugated verbs, called finite verbs, are required to form a complete sentence; on the other hand, non-finite verbs can’t function as verbs without helping verbs (see Types of Verbs below).
Tense and Aspect
English has three distinct tenses (past, present, and future) and three distinct aspects (simple, perfect, and progressive). Whereas tense distinguishes between I write (present) and I wrote (past), aspect distinguishes between I write (present simple) and I am writing (present progressive). Traditional grammar generally uses the term “tense” for both – in fact, I had never heard of verb aspect until today.
Here’s a list of each tense and aspect in English:
- Past (simple) - I wrote
- Past progressive - I was writing
- Past perfect - I had written
- Past perfect progressive - I had been writing
- Present (simple) - I write
- Present progressive - I am writing
- Present perfect - I have written
- Present perfect progressive - I have been writing
- Future (simple) - I will write
- Future progressive - I will be writing
- Future perfect - I will have written
- Future perfect progressive - I will have been writing
Using Verb Tenses gives a complete overview of each tense and aspect with many examples. If you’re interested in linguistics, read Rick Harrison’s detailed article on Verb Aspect (definitely not light reading).
Verbs are either in the active voice (I threw the ball) or the passive voice (The ball was thrown). Read this article on Active and Passive Voice if you need to brush up a bit.
English has three (arguably four) moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive – some also include the conditional mood.
- Subjunctive - I wish he were right. Expresses doubts, wishes, hopes, and (in some cases) commands. For more on using the subjunctive mood, see The American Heritage Book of English Usage - Subjunctive.
- Conditional - I would write (if I had a pen). Expresses what one would do if a condition were met. Used in the several types of conditional sentences. See Conditonal Verb Forms for more on using the conditional with the subjunctive.
Linguists categorize other types of verbs based on their meaning and usage.
- Dynamic Verbs and Stative Verbs - He writes vs. He is tall. This article on Progressive, Stative, and Dynamic Verbs explains the difference.
- Impersonal Verbs - It rained.
- Auxiliary Verbs (also called helping verbs) - is, have, will, etc. These are used with other verbs to form verb groups. See The American Heritage Book of English Usage - Auxiliary and Primary Verbs for more.
- Modal Verbs - may, can, must, would, etc. Modal verbs are types of auxiliary verbs.
- Phrasal Verbs - catch on, ask over, run across, etc. See Two-Part (Phrasal) Verbs (Idioms) for an explanation and a list, and be sure to bookmark the Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs.
- Compound Verbs - downsize, out-fox, sidestep, etc. Note: not to be confused with verb groups, which are also sometimes called compound verbs.
Some other types of verbs exist, but they aren’t particularly important unless you’re a linguist. If you are, see Wikipedia Category: Verb Types for more.
- Quiz on Subject-Verb Agreement
- A Second Quiz on Subject-Verb Agreement
- Third Quiz on Subject-Verb Agreement
- Identifying Verb Tenses
- Tense Consistency Exercises
- Uses of the Subjunctive
- Interactive Verb Quiz #1- identify the type of verb
- Interactive Verb Quiz #2 -identify the type of verb
- Use of Modal Auxiliaries
- Phrasal Verbs
- Phrasal Verbs: Quiz Two