Verb Conjugation in English

by Craig Shrives

This Page Includes...

What Is Verb Conjugation? (with Examples)

"Verb conjugation" means changing a verb so it works in your sentence. More specifically, it means changing a verb so your audience knows who is performing the action, when the action happens, and whether the action is completed or ongoing.

Let's start by doing some verb conjugation with the verb "to paint." The first thing to say is that "paint" is the base form of the verb "to paint." (The base form is the verb without the "to." It's the version of the verb you would find in a dictionary.)

Let's do some verb conjugation with "to paint":
  • Jack has painted the fence. correct tick
  • (In this example, we have added "has" and "-ed" to the base form. That means we have changed, or "conjugated" as grammarians say, the verb "to paint" to fit into our sentence. That is an example of verb conjugation.)
Let's examine "has painted" a little more.
  • "Has" fits with "Jack." It tells us the action was performed by one person.
  • The "-ed" ending tells us the action was in the past.
  • The "-ed" ending also tells us the action is completed.
There are lots of different variations. Let's add another person:
  • Jack and Jill have painted the fence. correct tick
  • (To make this sentence work, we had to change "has" to "have" so it fits with "Jack and Jill." The word "have" tells our audience that the action was performed by more than one person.)
Let's make some more changes:
  • Jack and Jill are painting the fence. correct tick
  • (This time, we have added "are" and "-ing" to the base form.)
Let's examine "are painting" a little more.
  • "Are" fits with "Jack and Jill." It tells us the action was performed by more than one person.
  • "Are" also tells us the action is in the present.
  • The "-ing" ending tells the action is ongoing.
That's it. We've covered the main idea of verb conjugation. Hopefully, you're stating to get a feel for the type of information that is conveyed by verb conjugation. As you might have guessed though, verb conjugation provides far more information than we've touched upon so far, and that's what we'll cover next.

The rest of this page will give an overview of, and provide links to, the different topics related to verb conjugation. (I know it looks complicated, but persevere. Learning the topics that fit under the verb-conjugation "umbrella" is the key to cracking a language, any language.)
verb conjugation in English

More about Verb Conjugation

Verb conjugation can tell us six things about a verb:
  • (1) Who or what is performing the action.
  • (2) Whether the action is performed by one or more than one.
  • (3) When the action is happening.
  • (4) Whether the action is ongoing or completed.
  • (5) Whether the action is done by or to the subject.
  • (6) Whether the action is a wish or hypothetical, a statement, or an order.
NB: In other languages, verb conjugation can also tell us about the gender of the person or thing performing the action. In English, gender does not affect the verb.

(1) Verb Conjugation Tells Us Who or What Is Performing the Action.

The subject of a verb tells us who or what is performing the action. In these two examples the subjects are in bold:
  • I am painting the fence. correct tick
  • You are painting the fence. correct tick
  • Jack is painting the fence. correct tick
The subject governs the verb. This means that the verb must change to match the subject.

Every subject fits into one of three categories:
  • First Person. This is the person or people speaking (i.e., "I" or "we").
  • Second Person. This is the person or people being addressed (i.e., "you").
  • Third Person. This is everybody else. It is the person or people neither speaking nor being addressed (i.e., "he," "she," "it," "they," or any noun).
These are called the person categories.
As a subject can be singular or plural, there are six categories in total. It is the subject's category that governs the verb. This table shows all six categories and how the verb "to be" and the verb "to paint" are conjugated for each one in the present tense.
Person Category Pronoun or Noun "to be" "to paint"
First Person Singular I am paint
Second Person Singular you are paint
Third Person Singular he / she / it
dog, alien
(or any other singular noun)
is paints
First Person Plural we are paint
Second Person Plural you are paint
Third Person Plural they
dogs, aliens
(or any other plural noun)
are paint
Read more about subjects. Read more about grammatical person.

(2) Verb Conjugation Tells Us Whether the Action Is Performed by One or More Than One.

As we've just covered, the subject of a verb tells us whether the action is performed by one person or thing or more than one. In grammar, this is called number. In English, there are two number categories: singular and plural.

In the last section, we said that the subject of a verb always fits into one of six categories. There are three person categories (first person, second person, and third person) and two number categories, giving us six categories in total (first person singular, second person singular, third person singular, first person plural, second person plural, and third person plural).

So, now we can say that the person and number of a subject determines how a verb is conjugated.

This infographic gives an overview of the concept of number in grammar:
Read more about grammatical number.

(3) Verb Conjugation Tells Us When the Action Is Happening.

The tense of a verb tells us when the action is happening. An action can be in the past, present, or future. As we will cover in the next section on aspect, there are four more ways to describe an action. ("Ongoing" and "completed" are two of those four ways.) This means there are 12 tenses in total.

Here is the full list of the 12 tenses in English, showing how the verbs "to go" and "to laugh" are conjugated for each tense. (The table includes a link to a lesson for every tense, where there is a detailed explanation, a test, and an explainer video.)
The 4 Past Tenses Example 1Example 2
simple past tense I wentShe laughed
past progressive tense I was goingShe was laughing
past perfect tense I had goneShe had laughed
past perfect progressive tenseI had been goingShe had been laughing
The 4 Present Tenses Example 1Example 2
simple present tense I goShe laugh
present progressive tense I am goingShe is laughing
present perfect tense I have goneShe has laughed
present perfect progressive tense I have been goingShe has been laughing
The 4 Future Tenses Example 1Example 2
simple future tense I will goShe will laugh
future progressive tense I will be goingShe will be laughing
future perfect tense I will have goneShe will have laughed
future perfect progressive tense I will have been goingShe will have been laughing
Here is an example of an infographic from one of the tense lessons:

(4) Verb Conjugation Tells Us Whether the Action Is Ongoing or Completed.

The aspect of a verb tells us whether the action is ongoing or completed. In fact, there is a little more to aspect than that. There are four aspects:
AspectUseExample
Simple Aspect
(also called the indefinite aspect)
Expresses a fact
  • John fished in the sea.
  • Perfect Aspect
    (also called the complete aspect)
    Expresses a completed action
  • John had caught two mackerel before the seals arrived.
  • Progressive Aspect
    (also called the continuing aspect)
    Expresses an ongoing action
  • John was fishing when the seals arrived.
  • Perfect Progressive AspectExpresses the end of an ongoing action
  • John had been fishing successfully before the seals arrived.
  • Aspect is part of tense. There are three main tenses: past, present, and future. As each one has the four aspects shown above, there are 12 tenses in total. Here are links to videos that explain the three main tenses and their four aspects:

    (5) Verb Conjugation Tells Us Whether the Action Is Done by or to the Subject.

    The voice of a verb tells us whether the action is done by or to the subject. There are two possibilities:
    VoiceUseExamples
    The Active VoiceShows a verb whose subject performs the action of the verb
  • The dog ate our turkey.
  • I will pass the law to protect the vulnerable.
  • The Passive VoiceShows a verb whose subject has the action of the verb done to it
  • Our turkey was eaten by the dog.
  • The law will be passed to protect the vulnerable.
  • This infographic shows the difference between an active sentence (i.e., one with a verb in the active voice) and a passive sentence (i.e., one with a verb in the passive voice):
    Read more about grammatical voice.

    Verb Conjugation Tells Whether the Action Is a Wish or Hypothetical, a Statement, or an Order.

    The mood of a verb tell us whether the action is a wish or hypothetical, a statement or question, or an order.

    There are three moods in English:
    MoodUseExamples
    The Indicative MoodStates a fact or asks a question
  • The sky is blue.
  • Why is the sky blue?
  • The Imperative MoodExpresses an order
  • Make your bed.
  • Go away!
  • The Subjunctive MoodShows a wish, a suggestion, a demand, or hypothetical situation
  • I wish it were true.
  • I demand he be released.
  • This infographic summarizes the three grammatical moods in English:
    Read more about grammatical mood.

    Help Us Improve Grammar Monster

    • Do you disagree with something on this page?
    • Did you spot a typo?

    Find Us Quicker!

    • When using a search engine (e.g., Google, Bing), you will find Grammar Monster quicker if you add #gm to your search term.
    Next lesson >

    See Also

    top 10 irregular verbs top 10 regular verbs What is the past tense? Try our drag-and-drop test on verb tenses What is the present tense? What is the future tense? What is verb aspect? List of reporting verbs in academic writing Verbs of attribution in academic writing

    Page URL