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Verbs, Conjugation, Tenses, Active & Passive


A verb denotes an action or a state of being:

e.g. work, learn, be, think, live, eat, play hope, try.


Conjugation is the way verbs change in form according to who or what is 'doing' the action of the verb e.g. the verb to work

I work

you work

he, she or it works

we work

they work


Notice above that very often there is little change in the verb in English - only the addition of an 's' to the verb endings for 'he', ' she' or 'it'.

In other languages, however, verbs have many different endings which indicate who or what is doing the action.

For example, in French:

'I work' is je travaille but

'we work' is nous travaillons and

'they work' is ils travaillent

So we have to learn all the forms of the verb (the conjugation) in every tense.

Fortunately there are patterns which make this easier. Whenever you see a verb conjugated, it will normally be written out in the following order:

singular plural

First person: I ............ we .............

Second person: you ............ you ...........

Third person: he, she, it, ............ they ..........

So if teachers refer to "the first person singular of the verb to understand", they are referring to the 'I' form, that is, 'I understand'

Regular and irregular verbs

Verbs which follow a regular pattern are called regular verbs:

e.g. I work I have worked I worked

Those which do not follow a pattern are called irregular verbs and there:

e.g. I buy I have bought I bought


We talk about the tense of a verb when referring to the time at which the action takes place.

A. Broad time spans:

I am learning refers to the present and is in a present tense.

I learnt refers to the past and is in a past tense.

I will learn refers to the future and is in a future tense.

B. Fine tuning:

Generally, there is more than one type of tense within each broad time span because we have to be more specific about the kind of action.

For example, there is an important difference between these two sentences:

1 I have finished my homework.

2 I was finishing my homework when Jim rang.

Sentence 1 describes a completed action in the past.

Sentence 2 describes an incomplete action in the past

Most languages have two distinct tenses to distinguish between these two kinds of past action.

Active and passive

Verbs can be active or passive. They are said to be active when the subject does the action of the verb:

e.g. 'The secretary opened the letter.'

 subject active verb

A verb is said to be passive when the subject suffers the action of the verb.

e.g. 'The letter has been opened by the secretary.'

 subject passive verb