Saturday, February 19, 2011

Verb Forms

English verbs come in several forms. For example, the verb to sing can be: to sing, sing, sang, sung, singing or sings. This is a total of 6 forms. Not many, considering that some languages (French, for example) have more than 30 forms for an individual verb. English tenses may be quite complicated, but the forms that we use to make the tenses are actually very simple! With the exception of the verb to be, English main verbs have only 4, 5 or 6 forms. To be has 9 forms. Do not confuse verb forms with tenses. We use the different verb forms to make the tenses, but they are not the same thing.

Forms of Main Verbs

Main verbs are also called "lexical verbs".
Main verbs (except the verb "be") have only 4, 5 or 6 forms. "Be" has 9 forms.
infinitivebasepast simplepast participlepresent participlepresent simple, 3rd person singular
regular(to) workworkworkedworkedworkingworks
irregular(to) sing
(to) make
(to) cut
(to) do*
(to) have*
infinitivebasepast simplepast participlepresent participlepresent simple
(to) be*bewas, werebeenbeingam, are, is
In the above examples:
  • to cut has 4 forms: to cut, cut, cutting, cuts
  • to work has 5 forms: to work, work, worked, working, works
  • to sing has 6 forms: to sing, sing, sang, sung, singing, sings
  • to be has 9 forms: to be, be, was, were, been, being, am, is, are
The infinitive can be with or without to. For example, to sing and sing are both infinitives. We often call the infinitive without to the "bare infinitive".
At school, students usually learn by heart the base, past simple and past participle (sometimes called V1, V2, V3, meaning Verb 1, Verb 2, Verb 3) for the irregular verbs. They may spend many hours chanting: sing, sang, sung; go, went, gone; have, had, had; etc. They do not learn these for the regular verbs because the past simple and past participle are always the same: they are formed by adding "-ed" to the base. They do not learn the present participle and 3rd person singular present simple by heart - for another very simple reason: they never change. The present participle is always made by adding "-ing" to the base, and the 3rd person singular present simple is always made by adding "s" to the base (though there are some variations in spelling).
* Note that "do", "have" and "be" also function as helping or auxiliary verbs, with exactly the same forms (except that as helping verbs they are never in infinitive form).

Example Sentences

These example sentences use main verbs in different forms.


  • I want to work
  • He has to sing.
  • This exercise is easy to do.
  • Let him have one.
  • To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Base - Imperative

  • Work well!
  • Make this.
  • Have a nice day.
  • Be quiet!

Base - Present simple
(except 3rd person singular)

  • I work in London.
  • You sing well.
  • They have a lot of money.

Base - After modal auxiliary verbs

  • I can work tomorrow.
  • You must sing louder.
  • They might do it.
  • You could be right.

Past simple

  • I worked yesterday.
  • She cut his hair last week.
  • They had a good time.
  • They were surprised, but I was not.

Past participle

  • I have worked here for five years.
  • He needs a folder made of plastic.
  • It is done like this.
  • I have never been so happy.

Present participle

  • I am working.
  • Singing well is not easy.
  • Having finished, he went home.
  • You are being silly!

3rd person singular, present simple

  • He works in London.
  • She sings well.
  • She has a lot of money.
  • It is Vietnamese.

Forms of Helping Verbs

All helping verbs are used with a main verb (either expressed or understood*). There are 2 groups of helping verbs:
  • Primary helping verbs, used mainly to change the tense or voice of the main verb, and in making questions and negatives.
  • Modal helping verbs, used to change the "mood" of the main verb.
Study the table below. It shows the prinicipal forms and uses of helping verbs, and explains the differences between primary and modal helping verbs.
* Sometimes we make a sentence that has a helping verb and seems to have no main verb. In fact, the main verb is "understood". Look at the following examples:
  • Question: Can you speak English? (The main verb speak is "expressed".)
  • Answer: Yes, I can. (The main verb speak is not expressed. It is "understood" from the context. We understand: Yes, I can speak English.
But if somebody walked into the room and said "Hello. I can", we would understand nothing!
Helping Verbs
do(to make simple tenses, and questions and negatives)cancould
be(to make continuous tenses, and the passive voice)maymight
have(to make perfect tenses)willwould

ought (to)
"Do", "be" and "have" as helping verbs have exactly the same forms as when they are main verbs (except that as helping verbs they are never used in infinitive forms).Modal helping verbs are invariable. They always have the same form.
Primary helping verbs are followed by the main verb in a particular form:
  • do + V1 (base verb)
  • be + -ing (present participle)
  • have + V3 (past participle)
"Ought" is followed by the main verb in infinitive form. Other modal helping verbs are followed by the main verb in its base form (V1).
  • ought + to... (infinitive)
  • other modals + V1 (base verb)
"Do", "be" and "have" can also function as main verbs.Modal helping verbs cannot function as main verbs.
Now check your understanding »

Main Verb Forms Quiz

1Baking cookies is very easy.
2A bird sang to me this morning.
3I want to be a fireman when I finish school.
4Have anything you like, except the champagne.
5We might not finish our work on time.
6I asked your brother to go to the store for me.
7It is a sunny day today.
8We are in the kitchen doing the dishes.
9The dogs were fed an hour ago.
10He walks to my car with me at night.


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