The Meaning and Rules of Conjugation in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A chart featuring many conjugations for the verb "to love"

undefined undefined / Getty Images

From the Latin "join together," conjugation (pronunciation: kon-je-GA-shen) refers to the inflection of verbs for person, number, tense, and mood, also called a verbal paradigm.

Conjugation In English Grammar

Though the term conjugation is still used in some forms of traditional English grammar, contemporary linguists generally regard it as an unnecessary holdover from Latin and Old English. According to the "Oxford Companion to the English Language," the term conjugation is "relevant to the grammar of Old English, in which there were seven conjugations of strong verbs, but not to Modern English, although irregular verbs can be divided into a number of pattern groups."

Learning Conjugation Rules

"Remember when in grade school our teachers had us and the rest of class conjugate verbs? Together we pledged or maybe mumbled, 'I talk, You talk, He/She/It talks, We talk, You talk, They talk.' Whatever language we were learning, at whatever age, conjugation taught us proper use of verb 'tenses,' which in English are time distinctions grouped broadly by past, present, or future; also, each verb had to be connected to a personal pronoun acting as its subject."

Principle Parts

"Conjugation means breaking a verb down into its different forms to show person, number, tense, and voice."
"All verbs have three basic forms, which are called their principal parts. From these basic forms, you can make up the tense of any verb. The first principal part is the verb itself. This is the part with which you are most familiar: form, change, discuss. The second principal part is the past tense form. The third principal part is the past participle."

Aspects of Finiteness

"Frankly (and sadly) most of us learned basic conjugation in foreign-language class. We learned to conjugate verbs in Spanish, French, or Latin. Unfortunately, many people did not learn basic conjugation in English class. Some did not learn correct conjugation."
"When you conjugate a verb, you have to cover all three aspects of finiteness: time (that's tense), people (that's person, as in first person, second person, and third person), and quantity (that's number, either singular or plural."

Verbal Paradigms: See and Talk

"Let us consider [...] the verbal paradigm in English to see how a paradigm works. A verb in English has several forms. The verb see has the forms 'see,' 'sees,' 'seeing,' 'saw,' and '(have) seen.' We take the lexical item itself to be see, which we pronounce 'see.' Some of the forms of see are entirely predictable, some are not. When a form is predictable from the morphological paradigm, we say that it is regular; when a form is not predictable, it is irregular. So the form 'seen' is not predictable as the past participle (She has never seen Paris like this), nor is the form 'saw' as the past tense."
"On the other hand, a verb like talk is completely regular: 'talk,' 'talks,' 'talking,' 'talked,' and '(have) talked.' We want to capture the fact that 'saw' and 'talked' are both past tense forms, even though one is irregular and the other one is regular."

The Lighter Side of Conjugations

"Rupinder continued to dominate the class, but she didn't seem to be learning anything. On a quiz at the end of the week she tried to conjugate the verb wake. Wake, she wrote. Past tense: woke. Past participle: wank. I didn't have the heart to tell her she was wrong."

Conjugate This

"I cut class, you cut class, he, she, it cuts class. We cut class, they cut class. We all cut class. I cannot say this in Spanish because I did not go to Spanish today. Gracias a dios. Hasta luego."

Resources and Further Reading

  • Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
  • Culicover, Peter W. Natural Language Syntax. Oxford University, 2009.
  • Davis, Bob. Your Writing Well. International, 2014.
  • Dixon, Glenn. Pilgrim in the Palace of Words: A Journey Through the 6,000 Languages of Earth. Dundurn, 2009.
  • Good, C. Edward. A Grammar Book for You and I... Oops, Me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Capital, 2002.
  • McArthur, Tom, et al., editors. Oxford Companion to the English Language. 2nd ed., Oxford University, 2018.
  • Williams, Karen Schneiter. Basic English Review. 9th ed., Cengage, 2010.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Meaning and Rules of Conjugation in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). The Meaning and Rules of Conjugation in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Meaning and Rules of Conjugation in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).