Understanding Verb Forms—Part One

You may have read some articles from our ‘Commonly Confused Words’ series: a series where we explain the difference between some of the most misused words in academic writing.

As a tangent to that series, we want to spend some time exploring the confusing aspects of tense. What is the past tense form of ‘hang’? Is it ‘hanged’ or ‘hung’? What about ‘swim’? In past tense, is it ‘swam’ or ‘swum’?

This three-part series will also explain some of the tricky transformations of irregular verbs, such as those mentioned above. To begin, we’ll start with verbs in plain form and past tense form.

Plain Form

A plain form—sometimes called present tense—verb is the ‘shape any given verb takes in the dictionary’ (Treddinick, 2008, p. 91). The plain form of a verb tells you that the action is happening right now.

Here are some verbs in plain form:

call, as in ‘We call them every afternoon’

party, as in ‘They party until 3 am’

sing, as in ‘The children sing into the microphone’

swim, as in ‘The fish swim downstream’

The plain form of a verb takes an ‘s’ after it (or sometimes an ‘es’), when the subject of the verb—the person or thing performing the action—is a third person pronoun (e.g. ‘she’, ‘he’ or ‘it’). Additionally, the plain form also takes an ‘s’ when the subject of the sentence is a singular noun.

calls, as in ‘She calls me every afternoon’

parties, as in ‘He parties until 3 am’

sings, as in ‘The child sings into the microphone’

swims, as in ‘A fish swims downstream’

Past Tense Form

Past tense refers to an action that has happened. When you recount your day over dinner with the family, you are likely using past tense:

arrived at university at 8 am. I waited for over an hour for my friend to arrive. I drove myself to work in the afternoon. I finished work late and came straight home.

Plain form verbs can become past tense with the addition of the ‘ed’ suffix—we call these regular verbs. In the previous example, ‘arrived’, ‘waited’ and ‘finished’ are all regular verbs in past tense form. Here are some more regular verbs:

‘call’ and ‘calls’ becomes called in past tense form

‘talk’ and ‘talks’ becomes talked in past tense form

‘carry’ and ‘carries’ becomes carried in past tense form

However, irregular verbs don’t take ‘ed’ and must transform in another way. Here are some irregular verbs and their transformations into past tense form:

‘sing’ and ‘sings’ becomes sang in past tense form—not ‘singed’ (Interestingly, ‘singed’ is past tense of ‘singe’ meaning ‘to burn’ and has nothing to do with ‘musical modulations of the voice’)

‘swim’ and ‘swims’ becomes swam in past tense form—not ‘swimmed’

‘buy’ and ‘buys’ becomes bought in past tense form—not ‘buyed’

Irregular verb forms are part of the reason why the English language is quite confusing at times. Please read our next article, ‘Understanding Irregular Verbs—Part Two’, to learn about past and present participle form verbs.

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