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Verb Conjugation

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips

Verb Conjugation in English

Every verb in the English language has two states or dimensions—two realms, if you will. In the infinitive state, the verb reveals only the activity described: to hit or to run. From neither of these do we know who is hitting or running (person), when the hitting or running is taking place (tense), how many people or things are doing the hitting or running (number), or what sort of statement is being made (mood). To learn these bits of information about the activity, we must convert the infinitive verb into the finite verb. To pull that off, we must conjugate the verb.

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. For example, in a course I taught at a corporation, one of my students—a graduate from a top law school—told me that she had learned from her English teacher in high school never to put the word had in front of a verb.

Reread the last sentence. Notice my construction: had learned. That’s the past-perfect tense, which is often used to show indirect quotations.

Oh my goodness, we have a problem here. An English teacher has decided to abolish the past-perfect tense, also known as the pluperfect tense. I gently informed the student that her teacher was wrong. Granted, writers should not use the past-perfect tense in place of the regular past tense, but many statements require the past perfect, as we’ll see a bit later.

Conjugation - Showing Four Aspects

What Conjugation Shows

When you conjugate a verb, you cover four aspects of finiteness:

time (that’s tense) people (that’s person, as in first person, second person, and third person) quantity (that’s number, as in singular or plural) nature of the statement (that’s mood)

Regardless of where you learned to conjugate verbs or whether you ever learned to conjugate verbs, I would be remiss in my duties as your English teacher if I didn’t do as Miss Hamrick did to poor old Damron way back in the 1950s in Greensboro, North Carolina. So put your spit wads away, get up in front of the class, and conjugate the verb to decide in the six major tenses.

In your mind, you should form a chart like the one Miss Hamrick made Damron write on the chalkboard.

Miss Hamrick’s Chart

Verb: ________ Tense: ________  
Person Singular Plural
First Person I _____ We _____
Second Person You _____ You _____
Third Person* He-she-it _____ They _____


* You would use third-person singular when conjugating a verb with a given person’s name, like Amber or Igor. You would even use third “person” when your subject is not really a person, but an object or thing or abstract idea—an it. You would use third-person plural with two or more people’s names or multiple names of objects, things, or ideas as the subject of the sentence. More about “subject-verb agreement in number” when we explore verbs in more detail below.

To conjugate the verb to decide, we simply insert the correct form of the verb in the blank lines above to yield the correct finite form for each of the six major tenses. Before we do that, however, we need to clue everybody in about the six major tenses:

The Six Major Tenses

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


Hard Copy

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


Previous: Developing Your Love Affair Next: Present Tense of Verbs

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