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Finite Verb - Tense, Person, Number, Mood

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A finite verb is just that: finite. It’s finite in time, as in present, past, future, and other time dimensions.

Tense, What Is It?

When we talk about time in relation to verbs, in grammarian parlance we are talking about tense. We have six major tenses in the English language.

Six Major Tenses

Here are the six major tenses you remember from middle school:

Tense Example
 1. present she decides
 2. past she decided
 3. future she will decide
 4. present perfect she has decided
 5. past perfect she had decided
 6. future perfect she will have decided


Six additional tenses enable us to express an ongoing action. These are called the progressive tenses, also called the imperfect tenses. Some grammarians refer to these tenses as the progressive aspect of verbs:

Six Progressive Tenses

And here are the six progressive tenses you conjugated, or should have conjugated, in grade school:

Tense Example
 7. present progressive she is deciding
 8. past progressive she was deciding
 9. future progressive she will be deciding
10. present-perfect progressive she has been deciding
11. past-perfect progressive she had been deciding
12. future-perfect progressive she will have been deciding


Regular and Irregular Verbs

Notice that the verb decide forms its past tense by adding ‑ed. Notice also that its past participle, which shows up in the perfect tenses, also has the ‑ed ending. A verb that forms its past tense and past participle in the same way (usually by adding ‑ed) is called a regular verb. Regular verbs also include those that form their past tense and past participle by adding ‑d or ‑t, as in heard and dealt.

Other verbs aren’t so friendly, for they form their past tense and past participle in an irregular way, usually by changing a vowel in the verb: begin (present tense in the first person), began (past tense), and begun (past participle). Naturally, we call this kind of verb an irregular verb. Below we’ll learn more about the past participle and past tense of irregular verbs.

Person, What Is It?

A finite verb is also finite in identifying who is accomplishing the action it expresses. In grammarian-speak, we call this feature of verbs person. In its finite state, the finite verb reveals whether I am doing it, you are doing it, or somebody else is doing it.

If I am doing the action of the verb, then the finite verb appears in the first person.

If you are doing it, then the finite verb appears in the second person.

And if she is doing it or he is doing it, then the finite verb appears in the third person.

Note the am doing (first person), are doing (second person), and is doing (third person) in the previous sentences.

A finite verb is a conjugated verb. And, on the other side of that coin, an infinitive verb is one that is not conjugated.

Number, What Is It?

A finite verb is finite in identifying how many people or things are accomplishing the verb-like activity. In grammarian lingo, we call this feature of verbs number. If just one person or thing is doing it, then the finite verb appears in the singular. If more than one person or thing is doing it, then the finite verb appears in the plural.

Smart people usually don’t make many mistakes in tense and person, but they do make some colossal blunders when it comes to number. We’ll review this problem of subject-verb disagreement below, when we study verbs in more detail. Also, you can find a complete discussion of subject-verb disagreement in the eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.

How do we get these finite states? Simple. We produce them by conjugating the infinitive verb. Thus, a finite verb is a conjugated verb. An infinitive verb is one that is not conjugated. The infinitive form does not reveal who (person), when (tense), how many (number), or the nature of the statement (mood).

Below, after discussing the present and past participles, we’ll return to finite verbs and run everybody through the process of verb conjugation. That should be fun. But first, mood.

Mood, What Is It?

The mood of verbs shows how the speaker regards the utterance. The speaker might regard the utterance as a statement: that’s the indicative mood. The speaker might ask a question: that’s the interrogative mood. The speaker might issue a command: that’s the imperative mood. Or the speaker might state a possibility, hope, wish, or hypothetical: that’s the subjunctive mood.

Indicative Mood, What Is It?

The indicative mood marks the most frequent form of conjugated verbs, for writers and speakers use verbs to indicate facts about actions or states of being. Most sentences appear in the indicative mood, regardless of tense. The following show the indicative mood:

I write the book. (present tense) I wrote the book. (past tense) I will write the book. (future tense) I will be writing the book. (future-progressive tense)

Interrogative Mood, What Is It?

In the interrogative mood, you don’t change the form of the verb. Instead, you invert the auxiliary verb and place it before the subject. The main verb comes after the subject. Here are some constructions of the interrogative mood:

Is he having any fun? Do you think he will win? Have the women finished the match?

Imperative Mood, What Is It?

You form the imperative mood by using the second-person conjugation and ordinarily leaving out the subject. The subject is the implied you. Sometimes the speaker includes the subject, either stated at the beginning of the sentence or postponed to the end. For emphasis, the speaker can even put a comma after the subject.

Here are some examples of the imperative mood. Notice in the “Maria” examples that Maria is the third person. But the imperative mood is formed by using the second-person form of the verb:

Close the window. Come here! You come here. Maria, write the report. Write the report, Maria.

Subjunctive Mood, What Is It?

Note: You’ll find a more extensive discussion about the subjunctive mood in the eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.

The subjunctive mood is used when you need to (1) depict situations contrary to fact, (2) express a wish, (3) express a supposition, (4) issue a command, (5) make a suggestion, or (6) show necessity.

You form the subjunctive of action verbs by using the plural form of the verb, even in situations calling for the third-person singular, as in The law requires that an applicant file the document within 30 days.

You form the subjunctive of the verb to be by using the plural were, even in situations calling for the singular, as in If I were you, I’d file the papers at once.

Many writers incorrectly think that the word if must always be followed by the word were (when the verb to be appears). Not so. The test is whether the writer is trying to say something hypothetical or contrary to fact.

Robin Cook, the author of the medical thrillers, makes this mistake in many of his books. In Toxin, on page 16, we find:

Kelly regarded Tracy in an attempt to interpret her comment. Kelly couldn’t quite decide if it were [was] meant to be disdainful or merely informative.

In that sentence, the writer is not trying to show a hypothetical or a condition contrary to fact. Instead, Kelly was trying to decide if the comment was meant to be disdainful.

For more Robin Cook examples, see the Grammar eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.


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