The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






English verbs

An English verb is a word in the English language that describes an action (a verb).


Principal parts

A typical English verb has five principal parts:

Part Example
1. an infinitive (to) write
2. a third person form writes
3. a present participle writing
4. a preterite wrote
5. a past participle written

In English, only strong verbs like write may have all five distinct parts; in weak verbs, the preterite and past participle are identical, e.g. bake, bakes, baking, baked, baked. The highly irregular verb to be has eight forms: be, am, is, are, being, was, were, been.

Verbs had more forms when "thou" was still in regular use. To be, for instance, had art, wast and wert.

Most of the strong verbs that survive in modern English are considered to be "irregular verbs". Irregular verbs in English come from several historical sources; some are technically strong verbs (i.e. their forms display specific vowel changes of the type known as ablaut in linguistics); others have had various phonetic changes or contractions added to them over the history of English.

The uses of the principal parts of the English forms are:

Infinitive and basic form


The infinitive in English is the naked root form of the word. When it is being used as a verbal noun, the particle to is usually prefixed to it. When the infinitive stands as the predicate of an auxiliary verb, to may be omitted, depending on the requirements of the idiom.


  • The infinitive, in English, is one of two verbal nouns: To write is to learn.
  • The infinitive, either marked with to or unmarked, is used as the complement of many auxiliary verbs: I will write a novel about talking beavers; I am really going to write it.
  • The basic form also forms the English imperative mood: Write these words!
  • The basic form makes the English subjunctive mood: If you write it, they will read.

Third person singular


The third person singular in regular verbs in English is distinguished by the suffix -s. In English spelling, this -s is added to the stem of the infinitive form: run > runs. In Early Modern English, some dialects distinguished the third person singular with the suffix -th; after consonants this was written -eth, and some consonants were doubled when this was added: run > runneth

If the base ends in a sibilant sound like (see IPA) that is not preceded by a silent E , the suffix is written -es: buzz > buzzes; catch > catches

If the base ends in a consonant plus y, change the y to i and add -es: cry > cries

Verbs ending in o typically add -es: veto > vetoes


  • The third person singular is used exclusively in the third person form of the English simple "present tense", which often has other uses besides the simple present: He writes airport novels about anthropomorphic rodents.

Present participle


The present participle is typically made by the suffix -ing: gogoing.

If the base ends in silent e, it is dropped before adding the suffix: believebelieving.

If the e is not silent, it is retained: agreeagreeing.

If the base ends in -ie, change the ie to y and add -ing: lielying.


  • the base form ends in a single consonant; AND
  • a single vowel precedes that consonant; AND
  • the last syllable of the base form is stressed

then the final consonant is doubled before adding the suffix: setsetting; occuroccurring.

In British English, as an exception, the final "l" is subject to the doubling rule: yodelyodelling (American English yodeling).

If the final consonant of a word subject to the doubling rule is -c, that consonant is doubled as -ck: panicpanicking.

Irregular forms include:

  • singeing, where the e is not dropped to avoid confusion with singing;
  • ageing, in British English, where the expected form aging is ambiguous as to whether it has a hard or soft g;
  • a number of words that are subject to the doubling rule even though they do not fall squarely within its terms, such as diagramming, kidnapping, programming, and worshipping.


  • The present participle is another English verbal noun: Writing is learning.
  • It is used as an adjective: a writing desk; building beavers
  • It is used to form a present tense with progressive or imperfective force: He is writing another long book about beavers.
  • It is used with quasi-auxiliaries to form verb phrases: He tried writing about opossums instead, but his muse deserted him.



In weak verbs, the preterite is formed with the suffix -ed: work > worked

If the base ends in e, -d is simply added to it: hone > honed; dye > dyed

Where the base ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i before the -ed is added; deny > denied

Where the base ends in a vowel plus y, the y is retained: alloy > alloyed

The rule for doubling the final consonant in regular weak verbs for the preterite is the same as the rule for doubling in the present participle; see above.

Many strong verbs and other irregular verbs form the preterite differently, for which see that article.


  • The preterite is used for the English simple past tense. He wrote two more chapters about the dam at Kashawigamog Lake.

Past participle


In regular weak verbs, the past participle is always the same as the preterite.

Irregular verbs may have separate preterites and past participles; see the article on English irregular verbs.


  • The past participle is used for the English past perfect tense, usually with the auxiliary have: He has written about the slap of tails on water, about the scent of the lodge. . .
  • With be, it forms the passive voice: It is written so well, you can feel what it's like to gnaw down trees!
  • It is used as an adjective: the written word; a broken dam
  • It is used with quasi-auxiliaries to form verb phrases: 500,000 words got written in record time.

Tenses of the English verb

English verbs, like those in many other western European languages, have more tenses than forms; tenses beyond the ones possible with the five forms listed above are formed with auxiliary verbs, as are the passive voice forms of these verbs. Important auxiliary verbs in English include will, used to form the future tense, shall, formerly used for the future tense, but now used mostly for commands and directives; be, have, and do, which are used to form the supplementary tenses of the English verb, to add aspect to the actions they describe, or for negation.

English verbs display complex forms of negation. While simple negation was used well into the period of early Modern English (Touch not the royal person!) in contemporary English negation almost always requires that the negative particle be attached to an auxiliary verb such as do or be. I go not is archaic; I don't go or I am not going are what contemporary idiom requires.

English exhibits similar idiomatic complexity with the interrogative mood, which in Indo-European languages is not strictly speaking a mood. Like many other Western European languages, English historically allowed questions to be asked by inverting the position of verb and subject: Whither goest thou? Now, in English, questions are trickily idiomatic, and require the use of auxiliary verbs.

The full repertoire of tense in English verbs is:

Simple present

  • Affirmative: I write; He writes
  • Negative: He does not (doesn't) write
  • Interrogative: Does he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Does he not write? (Doesn't he write?)

Note that the "simple present" in idiomatic English is not a simple present. It typically has an imperfective aspect, identifying habitual or customary action:

He writes about beavers (understanding that he does so all the time.)

It can also have a future meaning:

She goes to Milwaukee on Tuesday.

Put Tuesday in the plural, and She goes to Milwaukee on Tuesdays means that she goes to Milwaukee every Tuesday.

Intensive present with do

  • Affirmative: He does write
  • Negative: He does not (doesn't) write
  • Interrogative: Does he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Does he not write? (Doesn't he write?)

The intensive present with do is identical to the simple present except in the affirmative. It is typically used as a response to the question Does he write, whether that question is expressed or implied, and says that indeed, he does write.

Present imperfect with be

  • Affirmative: He is writing
  • Negative: He is not writing
  • Interrogative: Is he writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Is he not writing? / Isn't he writing?

This form describes the simple engagement in a present activity, without any implication of habitual or future action. Word order differs here in the negative interrogative between the hyperformal is he not writing and the usual isn't he writing?


  • Affirmative: He wrote
  • Negative: He has not written or He did not write
  • Interrogative: Has he written? or Did he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Has he not written? (Hasn't he written?) or Did he not write? (Didn't he write?)

The same change of word order in the negative interrogative that distinguishes the formal and informal register also applies to the preterite. Note also that the preterite form is also used only in the affirmative. When the sentence is recast as a negative or interrogative, he wrote not and wrote he? are archaic and not used in modern English. They must instead be supplied by periphrastic forms.


  • Affirmative: He has written
  • Negative: He has not written
  • Interrogative: Has he written?
  • Negative interrogative: Has he not written? (Hasn't he written?)

The perfect differs from the preterite only in the affirmative.

Past imperfect

  • Affirmative: He was writing
  • Negative: He was not writing
  • Interrogative: Was he writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Was he not writing? (Wasn't he writing?)

Past perfect

  • Affirmative: He had written
  • Negative: He had not / hadn't written
  • Interrogative: Had he written?
  • Negative interrogative: Had he not written? (Hadn't he written?)


  • Affirmative: He had been writing
  • Negative: He had not been / hadn't been writing
  • Interrogative: Had he been writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Had he not been writing? (Hadn't he been writing?)


  • Affirmative: He will write
  • Negative: He will not / won't write
  • Interrogative: Will he write?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not write? (Won't he write?)

Future imperfect

  • Affirmative: He will be writing
  • Negative: He will not / won't be writing
  • Interrogative: Will he be writing?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not be writing? (Won't he be writing?)

Future perfect

  • Affirmative: He will have written
  • Negative: He will not / won't have written
  • Interrogative: Will he have written?
  • Negative interrogative: Will he not have written? (Won't he have written?)
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46