How to Conjugate Verbs

A chart featuring many helping verb conjugations with the verb

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Learning how to conjugate verbs in English is not as difficult as many think. The key to learning how to conjugate verbs in English is to focus on how to conjugate auxiliary verbs, which are also called helping verbs because they that "help" the main verb. Almost all tenses in English can conjugate using an auxiliary verb, except for the present simple and the past simple in the positive form. Follow these easy steps on conjugating verbs, and you'll be able to form verbs in no time.

Identify to Conjugate

Verbs express what someone or something does, and conjugations depend on when the action is happening (tense) and who is doing the action (subject). Follow these basic steps for conjugation:

  1. Subject: Select the subject of your sentence. For example, we'll go with "Amanda."
  2. Action: Select the main verb of a sentence by finding the word expressing the action. Let's use the verb "talk."
  3. General Time: Choose the tense by figuring out whether the action takes place in the present, the past, or the future. In our example, we'll say the event took place in the past.
  4. Specific Time: Is the action happening at the moment? Does the action happen every day? Did the action happen until a certain point in the past, present, or future? Let's decide that it happened in an ongoing manner.
  5. Main Verb: Decide on the form of the main verb. Continuous actions use the present participle form of the verb, which is "talking."
  6. Helping Verb: Select the necessary helping verb based on your tense. Our example sentence is in the past continuous, which uses "be," conjugated as "was" for Amanda.
  7. Conjugate: Add up the subject, helping verb, and main verb like a formula based on the form, tense, and subject of the sentence. For our purposes, we have: "Amanda was talking."

Verb Forms

There are several verb forms:

  • First: the base form of the verb ("walk," "take," "drive")
  • Second: the infinitive, or "to +" the base form ("to talk," "to move," "to cry")
  • Third: the past form, created in regular* verbs by adding "-ed" or (or just "-d" if the verb already ends in "e") to the end of the first form ("walked," "moved," "played")
  • Fourth: the past participle, which is the same as past tense for regular* verbs ("looked," "jogged," "cooked")
  • Present participle: the base form with "-ing" added to the end ("walking," "crying," "feeling")
  • Future: the helping verb "will" followed by the base form ("will see," "will move," "will hide")

Irregularities

Conjugations for these forms and tenses are standard for regular verbs, but irregular verbs are conjugated in many different ways in the third ("felt," "saw," "hid," "forgot") and fourth ("felt." "seen," "hidden," "forgotten") forms. While some words are similar, there are no consistent rules, and you may have to look up each word to figure out how to conjugate for each form. Some verbs are the same across many forms ("fed" and "bet") and some verbs, like those that end in "y," change their spelling ("cried"). There are also additional tenses or moods which require different treatment for all your verbs and subjects!

Helping Verbs

Once you have the basic idea of verb forms down, incorporating helping verbs is easy. There are many helping verbs, but the most important for conjugations are "do," "have," "be," and "will."

If an event will happen in the future habitually, regularly, or at a specific time, that's easy. For many future actions, use only "will" and the first form of the verb. Although there are several ways to express future actions, just the helping verb "will" is the simplest way for most examples.

Apart from "will," the present simple and past tenses use "do," perfect forms use "have," and continuous forms use "be." Learn to conjugate the helping verbs like so:

Simple (Do)

  • Use "do" in the present for the subjects "I," "you," "we," "they," "these," and "those"
  • Use "does" in the present for the subjects "she," "he," "it," and "that"
  • Use "did" for the past
  • Use "will do" when needed in the future

Perfect (Have)

  • Use "have" in the present for the subjects "I," "you," "we," "they," "these," and "those"
  • Use "has" in the present for the subjects "she," "he," "it," and "that"
  • Use "had" for the past
  • Use "will have" when needed in the future

Continuous (Be)

  • Use "am" in the present for the subject "I"
  • Use "are" in the present for the subjects "you," "we," "they," "these," and "those"
  • Use "is" in the present for the subjects "she," "he," "it," and "that"
  • Use "was" in the past for the subjects "I," "she," "he," "it," and "that"
  • Use "were" in the past for the subjects "you," "we," "they," "these," and "those"
  • Use "will be" when needed in the future

Decide

Now that you know when the action happens and the basics of how to use auxiliary verbs, it's time to make decisions. First, figure out which form the main verb takes for each tense and form.

  • Simple: the first form ("play," "walk," "eat," "work")
  • Perfect: the third form ("bought," "understood," "played")
  • Continuous: present participle ("playing," "walking," "eating," "working")

Then, start conjugating by adding verbs together like a formula in math:

  1. If the action happens currently, regularly, or is a habit, use the present simple verb form ("do" + first form). Using "do" is understood, meaning optional, in the present when making a positive statement ("They [do] play football after school"), but it is necessary in the negative ("He doesn't work on Saturdays") or when asking a question ("Do you clean up before lunch?"). This
  2. If the action happened once in the past at a specific point in time, use the past simple ("did" + first form). ("They did go to school on December 23, 2015" or "Did Mary visit you last week?") As in the present, the past simple can be formed in positive statements without "do," but they will take the third form ("They went to school on that day in December, and Mary visited me last week").
  3. If the action was or will be ongoing up to a point in time, or until the current moment, use a perfect form ("have" + third form) depending on tense, either the past perfect ("They had finished lunch by the time he arrived."), present perfect ("She has worked here for many years."), or future perfect ("Mary will have finished the report by 5 p.m.").
  4. If the action is happening, used to happen, or will happen at a specific moment in time, use a continuous form ("be" + past continuous ("Tom was eating when she arrived."), present continuous ("She is working at the moment."), or future continuous ("They will be playing tennis at 5 p.m.") form.

Tips

  • Be patient with yourself when learning how to conjugate verbs.
  • Changes occur in the auxiliary verb, not in the main verb except for in the present simple and past simple if you skip using "do" in positive statements.
  • Many future actions use only the helping verb "will."

Example 1

  • Time?: Present
  • Action Happening?: Up to the present
  • Simple, Continuous, or Perfect?: Perfect
  • Auxiliary verb?: have
  • Main Verb?: live
  • Verb Form?: lived
  • Conjugate: We have lived here for ten years.

Example 2

  • Time?: Future
  • Action Happening?: happening at a specific moment
  • Simple, Continuous, or Perfect?: continuous
  • Auxiliary verb?: be
  • Main Verb?: watch
  • Verb Form?: watching
  • Conjugate: She will be watching TV at nine.

Example 3

  • Time?: Past
  • Action Happening?: one day in past
  • Simple, Continuous, or Perfect?: simple
  • Auxiliary verb?: did
  • Main Verb?: play
  • Verb Form?: play
  • Conjugate: Did you play the piano yesterday?