The main verb in English sentences

Look at the main verbs in the following sentences:

  • They always wait for the 6 o'clock train.
  • Every day the dog waits for the postman.
  • I am waiting for a friend.
  • We waited for three hours.

Notice that there are only four possible forms of the lexical verb wait:

  • The base form, wait, which is the word you would look up in a dictionary. This is sometimes also called the bare infinitive (the infinitive of an English verb is usually given as to + V e.g. to wait).
  • The V+s form - waits. This is restricted in use to just the third person singular (he, she, or it) of the Present Simple tense as in the example the dog (it) waits... and in he likes and she looks.
  • The V+ing form - waiting. This is also known as the present participle and has a wider range of uses than form 2. In the Verb phrase it is invariably preceded by a form of the verb be (e.g. am, is, were, been).
  • The V+ed form - waited. This form has, in fact, not one use, but two depending on how and where it is used. The first denotes the Past Simple tense as in the example, while the second is used in the formation of the Perfect tenses (see part 2) and the passive voice (see part 3). In the second use it is also called the past participle.

English, then, relies on just four forms of the verb. If we know the base form of a verb (which we can find in the dictionary), we are able to predict the other three forms provided that the verb we are looking for is regular; that is, it obeys the normal rules for verb formation in English.

These changes to the endings of words are called inflections. There are some languages which have very few or no obvious verbal inflections (e.g. Chinese, Indonesian), while some can boast a bewildering number (e.g. Russian, Turkish, German, Finnish, Latin). Other languages have fewer verbal inflections than, say, Russian, but more than English (e.g. French).

There are, however, a fair number of what are known as irregular verbs in English and you may come across charts of these which show their various deviations from the regular verb changes. Unfortunately for students of English many of these verbs are very common and the forms need to be learned by rote if accuracy in the language is to be achieved. A selection of irregular verbs is given in the table below.

base verb (infinitive)

past tense form

past participle

tread

trod

trodden

come

came

come

take

took

taken

write

wrote

written

hit

hit

hit

swell

swelled

swollen

read

read

read

put

put

put

forget

forgot

forgotten

understand

understood

understood

bite

bit

bitten

Note: in American English dive is an irregular verb (dive, dove, dove), but regular in English, and the older past participle of get (gotten) is still retained in American English.


 

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