principal parts of a verb (English grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

principal parts of a verb
The principal parts of the verb see. Some grammarians regard the present participle (in this case seeing) as a distinct part; others don't. (mrPliskin/Getty Images)

Definition

In English grammar, principal parts is a traditional term for the basic forms of a verb:

  1. the base or infinitive (for example, look, see)
  2. the past tense or preterite (looked, saw)
  3. the past participle (looked, seen)

From the base form we derive the (third-person singular) -s form (looks, sees) and the -ing present participle (looking, seeing). Some textbooks regard the present participle as a fourth principal part.

See the observations and examples below. Also see:

 

Observations

  • "Apart from the highly irregular verb be (which has eight forms), irregular verbs may have three, four, or five forms, depending on whether one form is used for two or three form-types. The -s form and the -ing participle are always available and can be predicted from the base for all verbs except the verb be (which has the unpredictable -s form is as well as the unpredictable present tense forms am and are). Except for the verb be, we therefore need list only three forms to show irregularities in the verb: the base, the past, and the -ed participle. These three forms are known as the principal parts of the verb."
    (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996)

     
  • The Principal Parts of Regular and Irregular Verbs
    "Learning the parts of a verb helps you avoid mistakes that occur when those parts are irregular, that is, different from the usual pattern. Take a verb such as help. The principal parts are the simple present (help), the simple past (helped), and the past participle (helped). So today I help. Yesterday I helped. In the past, I have helped. Easy enough because the verb is regular.

    "Not so with a verb such as run. The simple past, we know, is not runned, although a smart child may say that, applying the rule for a regular verb. The principal parts are run, ran, run. Today I run. Yesterday I ran. In the past decade, I have run ten marathons.

    "Both lie and lay are irregular and hence more confusing."
    (Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English. Hachette, 2010)
     
  • How to Find the Principal Parts of Verbs
    "When you are not sure about the principal parts of a verb, consult a dictionary. If the verb is regular, the dictionary will give only one form (play, for example). If the verb is irregular, the dictionary will give the second and third principal parts after the verb (went, gone, for example)."
    (English for Meaning. Houghton Mifflin, 1967)
     
  • Primary Tenses and Perfect Tenses
    "Alone or with helpers, the principal parts of verbs carry a sense of time along with the action or act of being that they express:

    Primary Tenses
    - PRESENT: Today, I call.
    - PAST: Yesterday, I called.
    - FUTURE: Tomorrow, I will call.
    Perfect Tenses
    - PRESENT PERFECT: Before now, I have called.
    - PAST PERFECT: In the past, I had called.
    - FUTURE PERFECT: By some future date, I will have called.
    Why are the perfect tenses called 'perfect'? Anything perfect is complete, and the perfect tenses stress an action at its completion."
    (Patricia Osborn, How Grammar Works: A Self-Teaching Guide. John Wiley & Sons, 1989)
     

Examples

  • "You have done the labor; maintain it—keep it. If men choose to serve you, go with them; but as you have made up your organization upon principle, stand by it; for, as surely as God reigns over you, and has inspired your mind, and given you a sense of propriety, and continues to give you hope, so surely will you still cling to these ideas, and you will at last come back after your wanderings, merely to do your work over again."
    (Abraham Lincoln, speech delivered in Chicago on July 10, 1858)
     
  • "Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others."
    (Amelia Earhart in a letter to her husband, quoted by Louis Baldwin in Women of Strength. McFarland, 1996)
     
  • "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
    (Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983)

 

The Lighter Side of the Principal Parts of Verbs

"English is disorderly. Take the '-end' words. The past tense of 'bend' is 'bent.' It is also 'spend/spent' and 'lend/lent.' Why, then, is it 'mend/mended,' 'fend, fended,' and 'tend/tended'? Probably because it sounds odd to say Bo Peep tent her sheep and Cinderella ment her sister's gowns. What to do with 'blend'? Ask for honest bourbon instead."
(James Kilpatrick, "What's the Good Verb?" Savannah Morning News, October 16, 2006)