Verb Tenses: Verb Tense: Nothing a Little Prozac Wouldn't Cure

Verb Tense: Nothing a Little Prozac Wouldn't Cure

Like people, verbs show the passage of time by changing form. Over the years, some of us get a little thick around the middle while the rest of us get a bit more blond. The tense of a verb shows its time. Verbs add a final -ed or -d to the simple form, use an auxiliary verb, or change their form completely to show that time flies.

You Could Look It Up

The tense of a verb shows its time.

There are six verb tenses in English. Each of the six tenses has two forms: basic and progressive (also known as “perfect”). The following table shows the six forms for the verb to talk.

I'm All Shook Up: Examples of the Six Verb Tenses
TenseBasic FormProgressive Form
Presenttalkam talking
Pasttalkedwas talking
Futurewill talkwill be talking
Present perfecthave talkedhave been talking
Past perfecthad talkedhad been talking
Future perfectwill have talkedwill have been talking

I Feel Your Pain: Principal Parts of Verbs

As the preceding table indicates, you form verb tense from principal parts and helping verbs. Every English verb has four main parts, as the following table shows.

Principal Verb Parts
PresentPresent ParticiplePastPast Participle
Strictly Speaking

The simple form of the verb is also called the base form. The simple form shows action, occurrence, or state of being that is taking place right here and now (I pout). The simple form is also the base for the future form (that is, I will pout, they will pout).

  • The present is used to form the present tense (I talk) and the future (I will talk). Notice that you have to use the helping verb will to show the future tense.
  • The present participle forms all six of the progressive forms (I am talking, I was talking, and so on).
  • The past forms only one tense—you guessed it, the past (I talked).
  • The past participle forms the last three tenses: the present perfect (I have talked), the past perfect (I had talked), and the future perfect (I will have talked). To form the past participle, start with a helping verb such as is, are, was, or has been. Then add the principal part of the verb.

A Class Act: Forming Past Tenses

English verbs are traditionally divided into two classes, according to the ways they form their past tense and past participles.

You Could Look It Up

Regular verbs form the past tense and past participle by adding -d, -ed, or -t to the present form. They don't change their vowel. Irregular verbs don't form the past by adding -ed or -d. They form the past tense in many other ways.

Take My Word for It

Over time, we have come to accept regular verbs as the “normal” ones, so now we usually just add -ed or -d to new verbs, as in televise, televised.

  1. Some verbs are regular. This means they form the past tense and past participle by adding -d, -ed, or -t to the present form but don't change their vowel, as in walk, walked, walked.
  2. Irregular verbs don't form the past by adding -ed or -d. The principal parts of irregular verbs are formed in many different ways. This could be why they need bran.
    • Sometimes, irregular verbs change tense without changing their endings. Instead, they usually travel in time by changing a vowel and adding -n or -en, as in begin, began, begun.
    • Other times, they change their vowel and add -d or -t, as in lose, lost, lost.
    • Or they may not change at all, such as set, set, set, and put, put, put.

The following chart shows the most common irregular verbs.

Present TensePast TensePast Participle
bearboreborn or borne
divedived or dovedived
getgotgotten or got
growgrew grown
hang (execute)hangedhanged
lie (horizontal)laylain
lie (falsehood)liedlied
proveprovedproved or proven
showshowedshowed or shown
wakewoke or wakedwoken or waked

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Danger, Will Robinson

The verb to be is the most irregular verb in English. Beware of this quick-change artist. Its principal parts are: be, being, was, were, been, am, are, is.

You Could Look It Up

When you conjugate a verb, you list the singular and plural forms of the verb in a specific tense.

Quoth the Maven

Something must be laid, nothing can be lied.

You can argue whether men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but everyone agrees that lie and lay are definitely from another planet. These two verbs may be the most commonly confused pair of words in English. Here's the problem: They're just plain evil.

Seriously, lie is an irregular verb that conjugates lie, lay, lain. Lay, in contrast, is a regular verb that conjugates lay, laid, laid. Because lay is both the present tense of to lay and the past tense of lie, many speakers and writers use lay when they mean lie.

To add to the confusion, lie and lay have different meanings. Lie means “to repose”; lay means “to put.” It's enough to make you learn Esperanto.

Try these hints to sort out lie/lay:

  • Lie means “to repose”; lay means “to put.”
  • Lie is an intransitive verb. That means that it never takes a direct object. For example: “If you are tired, you should lie down.”
  • Lay is a transitive verb. That means that lay always takes a direct object. For example: “Lay the book on the table, please.”

Study the following table to further clarify lie and lay. Or have it tattooed in your palm for ready reference.

The Various Forms of Lie and Lay
lieto repose flatPresent tense: Fido lies down.
  Past tense: Fido lay down.
  Future tense: Fido will lie down.
  Perfect tense: Fido has lain down.
layto put down Present tense: Lay your cards down.
  Past tense: He laid the cards down.
  Future tense: He will lay his cards down.
  Perfect tense: He has laid his cards down.

Party Pooper: Test Time

I know you need this quiz like Sinatra needs singing lessons, but humor me. Circle the correct form of each verb in parentheses. Then identify the verb as regular or irregular.

  1. Martin Buser (took/taking/taked) his third Iditarod title in the grueling Alaskan dogsled race. However, the team from Beverly Hills has yet to finish. Apparently, French poodles weren't the way to go.
    • The verb is (regular/irregular).
  2. President Clinton has (proposed/proposing) free TV time for candidates. “Not good,” said one commentator. “This could mean Sonny Bono will be back on television.”
    • The verb is (regular/irregular).
  3. NBA's Dennis Rodman's announcement that he would (choose/chose) professional wrestling has caused a stir. “I hope that sport doesn't turn him into some weird spectacle,” said one viewer.
    • The verb is (regular/irregular).
  4. When he heard that Tonya Harding described herself as “the Charles Barkley of figure skating,” Barkley was (going/went/gone) to sue Tonya Harding for defamation of character. “But then I realized that I had no character,” he said.
    • The verb is (regular/irregular).
  5. The feud between East Coast and West Coast rappers continues. It all (started/starting) over the usual: Who controls what, who insulted whom, whether the theories of Kierkegaard still have relevance …
    • The verb is (regular/irregular).
  6. My karma just (run/ran) over your dogma.
    • The verb is (regular/irregular).


  1. took; irregular
  2. proposed; regular
  3. choose; irregular
  4. going; irregular
  5. started; regular
  6. ran; irregular
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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