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Concourse 2

Lexical verb forms: the essentials


If you have done the guide to word class in this area of the site, you will be familiar with the basic characteristics of verbs and with the concept of transitivity.
Here we look at what are called main or lexical verbs.  These are verbs like sleep, do, own, enjoy, make etc. which have a meaning even when they stand alone.
There are other sorts of verbs, auxiliary verbs, such as have, be, must, may, could, will etc., which function to change or modify the tense and meaning of lexical verbs.  For more on that, see the section on modal verbs.

how many

How many parts to a verb?

This table shows the basic forms of verbs in English with an example of each use.  The table is incomplete.
Fill in the empty cells in your head or on a piece of paper and then click on the table for the answer.

verbs 1

In comparison to many languages, English verbs are quite simple.  Notice that except for the 3rd person singular in the present tense, verbs don't change at all for I, you, we, they.  The only change in the present tense in English for lexical verbs concerns he, she, it where we add a final -s or -es.  In the past tense, there are no changes at all in English: everybody drank.
Other languages you may have learned or speak are very much more complicated.
Here's the terminology:

  • drink is called the base form or the bare infinitive
  • drinks is called the -s form
  • drank is called the past tense form
  • drinking is called the present participle or gerund (for more on this, see the section on gerunds and infinitives)
  • drunk is called the past participle

Before we go on, take a very quick test on that to help you remember.

For the examples here and in the test we used irregular verbs to show the differences in form.  Regular verbs in English, i.e., most of them, have the same form for the past tense and the past participle.  So, for example, the verb enter has the forms: enter, enters, entered, entering and entered.


Pronunciation rules

You need to make yourself familiar with some of the material on phonology in this section before this will be easy to understand.  If you want to do that later, skip to the next bit on spelling.

Pronouncing the -s ending

  1. If the base end in a voiced or voiceless sibilant (/s/, /z/, /ʧ/ /ʤ/, /ʒ/) then the -s is pronounced /ɪz/.  For example, pass-passes, push-pushes, lodge-lodges, sabotage-sabotages etc.
  2. If the base ends in any other voiced sound (e.g., /d/, /b/, /ɡ/ etc.) or a vowel then the -s ending is pronounced /z/.  For example, cab-cabs, dig-digs, pad-pads, throw-throws, fly-flies etc.
  3. If the base ends in an unvoiced consonant (e.g., /p/, /t/, /f/, /k/) then the -s is pronounced /s/.  For example, hop-hops, pick-picks, drop-drops.

Pronouncing the -ed ending

  1. If the base ends in /d/ or /t/, we pronounce the -ed ending as /ɪd/.  For example, fit-fitted, pad-padded etc.
  2. If the base ends in any other voiced consonant, apart from /d/, or a vowel, we pronounce the ending as /d/.  For example, mow-mowed, show-showed, rob-robbed, slug-slugged etc.
  3. If the base ends in an unvoiced consonant such as /k/ or /p/ etc., then the -ed ending is pronounced /t/.  For example, pass-passed, sack-sacked, slop-slopped etc.


Spelling rules

For many verbs, it is a simply matter of adding the ending we want to the base form.  For example, the base form call simply adds -s for the -s form, -ing for the present participle and -ed for the past tense and past participle.  However, note the following:

  1. The spelling of the -s ending is dependent on the pronunciation but the rules are the same for regular and irregular verbs.
    1. When the ending is pronounced iz, it is spelled with -es unless the base form ends in -e, so we get choose-chooses, catch-catches, push-pushes etc.
    2. When the ending is pronounced z or s, the spelling is simply to add an -s so we get fall-falls, sell-sells, cut-cuts, lop-lops etc.
    3. Note the exceptions: do-does, go-goes, have-has
  2. The -ed ending is added to the base form unless the form already ends in -e, in which case we simply add -d so we get allow-allowed, hate-hated, water-watered etc.
  3. Consonant doubling
    1. If the stress comes at the end of the base verb, we double the consonant: permit-permitting etc.
    2. If the stress is at the beginning, we do not double the consonant: enter-entered etc.
    3. British English doubles 'l', 'm', and 'p' on some multi-syllable verbs but American English does not (travelled vs. traveled).
    4. There are alternative spellings of some past tenses and participles of regular verbs which seem to break the stress rule: focused/focussed, benefited/benefitted etc.
  4. 'y'
    1. If the base ends in a consonant + 'y', we change '-y' to '-ies' or '-ied' but we do not do this with the ending -ing so we get, e.g., marry-marries-married-marrying etc.
    2. If the base ends in '-ie', we change it to 'y' before '-ing' so we get lie-lying, die-dying etc.


Irregular verbs

There are some 650 irregular verbs in English (but many are rarely used).  For a full list, try the Wikipedia entry.
There are NO irregular forms of present participles or gerunds.  None at all.

  1. Most irregular verbs change the central vowel rather than the ending.
    This is a result of their origin.  In Old English there were classes of what are known as 'strong verbs' which changed the central vowel, a phenomenon which persists in, e.g., German and Dutch.  Many common verbs, therefore, are 'irregular' in Modern English.
    There is some evidence of a tendency to regularise irregular verbs, which accounts for the dual forms of the past tenses.  For example, the past tense of light and dream can be either irregular, lit, dreamt, or regular, lighted, dreamed.
    There is also evidence of a reverse trend with, e.g., the past tense of sneak often being heard as snuck despite the fact that the verb is regular.)
  2. A large number of irregular verbs have the same form for the past tense and the past participle so learners need only to remember one change.
  3. Most irregular verbs actually fall into categories with predictable patterns, however.  So we get:
Verbs which never change put, cut, cost, rid etc.
Verbs adding -t smell, learn, spill etc.
Verbs adding -t and changing /i:/ to /e/ dream, sweep, weep, mean etc.
Verbs changing /ɪ/ to /ʌ/ cling, dig, win etc.

and so on.

For pedagogical use, it often makes sense to list irregular verbs in memorable groups rather than alphabetically (which is the way most commercial teaching materials do it).  Like this:

irregular verbs

Click here to download a version of this list as a PDF document.

There are some oddities to note:

  • shine is irregular when it refers to light but regular when it means 'polish': The sun shone, I shined my shoes
  • hang is regular when it means 'execute' but irregular in other senses: I hung the picture on the wall, He was hanged in 1834
  • run, become and come are slightly odd in having only one change but to the past form not the participle
  • be and go have tense forms derived from different Old English verbs which accounts for went and was etc.
  • verbs that have regular -ed ending and irregular -t endings (such as learn, dream, smell etc.) are more often used in the regular form in American than British English
  • dive is regular in British English but irregular in American English (the past is dove)
  • gotten is the Old English form of the past participle of get which American English has retained in certain senses

Related guides
PDF document for an English irregular verb list
phonology for an overview of the essentials of phonology
gerunds and infinitives for a more on these two verb forms
modal verbs for more on a particular form of non-lexical verb
word class for the general guide to types of words