Verbs are often described as "doing" words, they are the actions in sentences. It is possible to have sentences without verbs, but mostly, they are like a car without wheels, they don't really go anywhere.
Verbs not only demonstrate actions but also when they happen, in the past, present or future. They can be used in a variety of forms:
To be or not to be: The Base form/Infinitive
Before verbs are changed to indicate who or what does the action or when the action is done, it is in the infinitive form. This is the most "pure" form of a verb, the meaning of the action without being restricted by relation to time, mood or person. Being restricted is a good way to think about it. The infinitive is effectively unrestricted, infinite. When a verb is changed for tense or person, the meaning is "finite", restricted to time or person.
Splitting hairs: The Split infinitive
The infinitive is the verb without changes, sometimes referred to as the bare infinitive because there is also something known as the full infinitive, which is the verb with the preposition to.
Because Latin does not allow the division of the infinitive it has become understood that good grammar practice in English is not to insert a word between to and the infinitive. Known as a split infinitive. Although such structures are not uncommon in English. Perhaps the most well known example of a split infinitive is the Star Trek catch phrase "To boldly go". As ever with English, there is not really a rule to follow but it is worth considering the power and purpose of what you wish to say.
This strange idea came into language thinking in the 18th century when the fashion was to model English in Latin form. Latin infinitives are complete words and Latin is a different language, why insist on bringing a regulation of structure from another language into your use of English? English is a Germanic language, not a Romance language. The Latin in English comes in later, mostly via French and is not the base of the language. Trying to enforce Latin rules on English is like trying to get a dog to behave like a cat.
A good concept to keep in mind is that if each word goes in the correct place, the meaning and power of words is at full effect. Sometimes using a split infinitive can reduce the power of the words.
If avoiding the split infinitive makes the sentence unclear or clumsy then split away. Look at these examples:
They decided to never eat at that café again.
They decided never to eat at that café again.
People or Persons: The three Pronouns
Even though verbs are doing words, as we have seen, they need a pronoun, a word that tells us who or what is doing the action. There is a a far more detailed review of the different types of pronouns and how they operate here.
Who are you?: The Pronouns in English
In terms of grammar there are three "persons", as opposed to "people":
First Person: the speaker (I, me, we, us)
Second Person: the listener (you)
Third Person: the thing or person being spoken about (he, she, it, they, him, her, them)
In modern English you operates as both the singular and plural form, but always takes a plural verb form, even when only one person is being referred to. In the past thee and thou were used for the singular form but these have fallen out of use. You was the formal form while thou was informal. It is perhaps interesting to some people that English has retained the more formal form.
It is a simple thing: The Dummy Pronoun
The curious dummy pronoun in English is often seen when we talk about the weather:
"it is raining"
What is this mysterious it we refer to? We use dummy pronouns to insert a subject into sentences that do not really have one, you can learn more about it in the dummy pronoun section of the pronoun page here.
Why so tense? Verb tenses in English
Here is an introductory list of tenses in English. This list may be considered a little controversial as many of these are form rather than tenses. Some are labelled with their less common Latin titles as well but the key tenses are listed in bold and more detailed information on form and use can be found on the links to the Grammar Guide pages linked in the table.
I do English class on Fridays
This is something I do regularly and will continue to do it.
I am doing English classes at the moment
I am doing this now or it is not finished
I have done English classes for years
I started English classes some time ago and still do them now
I have been doing English classes for years
I started English classes some time ago and will continue to do it into the future
I did English classes last year
I finished doing English classes in the past
I used to do English classes
I do not do English classes anymore
I was doing English classes on Wednesdays but they were changed to Fridays
English classes on Wednesdays were interrupted by the change
I would do English classes if they had stayed on Wednesdays
I do not do English classes at the moment, but I could do if things were different
I had done English classes before I started Japanese classes
Before I started Japanese classes I did English classes
I had been doing English classes before I go a job in England
I was doing English classes when the job opportunity came up
I will/shall do English classes next year
An intention to do classes in the future
I will/shall have done English classes
An action that will have been completed by or before a moment in the future
I will/shall be doing English classes next year
This will be happening at that moment in the future
I will/shall have been doing English classes
English classes will have been underway but not completed at a moment in the future
Now and Then: Past and Present
Languages indicate time by making changes to the verbs (conjugations) to indicate actions. Technically speaking, English only has two pure tenses, past and present. I like / I liked.
It helps to understand that in English there is a distinction between tense and time. Unlike other languages, especially Romance languages (languages that emerge from the Roman language; Latin) - English does not have different forms of verbs that specify actions for the future, but in many ways the present simple is not really used to talk about now. It is used to speak about facts, opinions and habitual actions. Likewise the past simple is not actually used to talk about actions in the past, but more accurately actions that are completed or finished.
To further complicate maters, the Present Simple is not really used to talk about the present but more facts, opinions and habits. it is called the Present Simple after Latin grammar convention but is probably best understood as the indicative tense, or mood. To learn more about the idea of the indicative mood and how moods are different from tenses please go to our section on this topic.
Our Grammar Guide has detailed information pages on these tenses, their structure and use:
How do you do?: Auxiliary verbs
One of the wonderful ways in which English is able to simplify the structure for learners is with auxiliary verbs. With the present tense we use Do/Does - Do not - Don't/Does not - Doesn't - followed by the infinitive form to express questions or negative ideas, and likewise Did/Did not - Didn't for the same in the past. These verbs don't really hold a meaning but are merely a way of indicating the a negative or question form for the action.
One exception to this is the verb to be which Is used in the negative form or question for without an auxiliary verb.
Keep Calm: Irregular Verbs
Present: Most verbs follow a simple pattern for the changes required to indicate time or person. In the present tense there are almost no irregular verbs. With to be (am/are/is), to do (do/does), to have (have/has), to go (go/goes) as the primary exceptions. Some others follow some minor spelling changes on the third person singular.
More information on these spelling and exceptions can be found on the Grammar Guide Present Simple page here.
Past: It is in the Past tenses that most irregular verb changes are found in English. There is only one form of the verb for the past tense, so only one word needs to be understood for each verb. Most verbs have an -ed ending and the small changes are related to pronunciation rather than spelling
More can be found regarding these principles on the Grammar Guide Past Simple page here.
Many people find the irregular verbs in the Past Simple intimidating. Compared to other languages there are nowhere near as many words and changes to learn and it is possible to approach them by recognising the paterna of sounds rather than spelling.
Our Grammar Guide has a complete list of irregular verbs grouped by sound rather than a straight alphabetical list. You can find that here.
He goes on and on: the Continuous forms
The continuous form, often referred to as the gerund or the ING form or even as the present participle is the most natural form in native English speaking.
The continuous form is normally used with the verb to be as an auxiliary. It is used in the present, past, future and perfect tenses to express the following ideas:
something happening before and after a specific time
something happening before and after another action
something continuing for some time
something happening again and again
Our Grammar guide covers simple continuous forms in detail:
The uses of the continuous in the perfect and future forms can be found here:
Back to the future: Future forms
English, as a language, understands Einstein's theories by understanding that time is relative. Unlike Romance languages there are no strict rules about time and activity. This is most obvious when we look at the future. There is no future. We have already seen that the only tenses that really exist are the present and the past, there is no conjugation of the verb to represent a future action. We use structures when talking about the future. Technically, we are talking about decisions in the past or the present rather than actions in the future. To learn more about the various future forms in English our Grammar Guide goes into greater detail:
Perfect in every way: The Perfect tenses
Perfect tenses are used to show that experiences or actions are completed, or perfected. The continuous form describes an ongoing action. The Past Perfect structures express the earlier or earliest action or experience. The Present Perfect is often described as a bridge between the past and the present while the Past Perfect is often simply understood as the Past Past.
A future perfect exists to express an experience or action that will have been completed before a moment in the future.
The tense is formed with have or had as an auxiliary verb. The perfect form is originally Latin grammar but it has slightly different uses in English so students need to pay attention to concepts in English rather than translate into their own language.
It can come back into fashion: Modal verbs
Modal verbs are one of the areas of English grammar that makes the language efficient and enables people to start using and expressing complex ideas very quickly. They are different to other verbs.
1) They do not conjugate for people or time. They have only a negative and a positive forms.
2) They always come first, so they are not used in compound tenses or after an auxiliary verb.
3) They are always followed by a verb in the infinitive form.
Can, Could, Should, Would, Will, May, Might - these are just some of these very flexible and clever verbs.
They fulfil a variety of functions and meanings and are very common in everyday use.
Modals can be used to say how sure we are about something that happened, is happening or will happen. These are often called modals of deduction, speculation, probability and certainty.
Modals can be used to talk about ability.
Modals can be used to talk about obligation and advice.
Modals can be used to ask for or to give permission.
Modals can be used to talk about habits.
Because modal verbs do not have a past form we use them with the infinitive of have followed by a participle to talk about these concepts in the past.
Halfway there! Semi-Modals
Semi Modal verbs are verbs that behave like modal verbs, sometimes they are called modal auxiliary verbs. They are used in the base form. What makes some of them different to Modal verbs is that they can also be used as main verbs and this can lead to confusion for many students.
Are you in a mood? Mood forms rather than tenses
While tenses cover when an action is performed, there is some grammar that describes the quality of the action or the speaker's view on the events rather than when it was done. these are called moods or modes.
Although pedants list the three principle moods (indicative, imperative and subjunctive) we can generally consider there to be five (although linguists list a total of six!) but other grammar could easily be considered as conveying quality or opinion rather than just time.
A fact's a fact and that is that: Indicative Mood
This mood is used to express facts. It is more commonly referred to as the Present Simple
Do as I say: The Imperative
The Imperative is used to express a command or a request. It is a direct form of speaking, and is formed with the infinitive used without the subject.
Tidy your room!
If I were you: The Subjunctive
The subjunctive is a formal tense in Latin languages but is usually expressed as structures in English. It is used to express a wish, doubt, demand or a hypothetical situation.
Are you talking to me? : The Interrogative
A relatively straight forward concept here, these are questions. Literally nothing more fanciful happening here and the foundational grammar concept for asking questions in English, regardless of tense, is the inversion of the subject and the auxiliary verb.
I would be king : The Conditional
A conditional mood is used to express a possibility dependent on another action or outcome. These can also express hypothetical situations.
Kill or be killed: The active and passive forms
The Passive is another concept that has come into English language from Latin. It is used to emphasise an action rather than who is doing it. Structurally, the key difference here is that the phrase starts with the object and the subject is often omitted.
sic transit gloria mundi: transitive and intransitive verbs
A transitive verb requires a direct object for the subject to act on. Without the object a phrase using a transitive verb does not make sense:
the bird made a nest
An intransitive verb does not require a direct object to make sense:
To keep things confusing, some verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on what they mean. These are sometimes referred to as ambitransitive verbs:
He read the novel in one sitting
He reads everyday
He kissed her hand
I understand the problem
I think I understand
Verb patterns: verb plus infinitive or verb plus gerund.
Sometimes one action just is not enough and we need to express two actions or ideas in a sentence. How these verbs interact with each other or the meaning of what we want to say dictates the form the second verb will take. These patterns can cause frustration and confusion for learners. We go into these patterns in more detail but they can be understood as follows:
Verbs followed by an infinitive
Verbs followed by a gerund
Verbs followed by infinitive or a gerund with no difference in meaning
Verbs followed by an infinitive or a gerund with little difference in meaning
Verbs followed by an infinitive or gerund with completely different meanings