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Concourse 2

Lexical / Main verb forms: the essentials

lexical or main verbs

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 or main verbs and copular verbs which link nouns with adjectives and other nouns.  For more on that, see the section on modal auxiliary verbs or the one on copular verbs, both linked in the list of related guides at the end.

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.verb

verbs 1

In comparison to many languages, English verbs are quite simple.  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 or main verbs concerns he, she, it (and the limited-use one) 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:

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 ends in a voiced or voiceless sibilant (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /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, hammer-hammers, dig-digs, pad-pads, throw-throws, fly-flies etc.
    When verbs end in the letter 'r', that it is not pronounced, they have an -s ending pronounced as /z/.
  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, father-fathered, rob-robbed, slug-slugged etc.
    Again, when verbs end in the letter 'r', that it is not pronounced, they have the -ed ending pronounced as /d/.
  3. If the base ends in an unvoiced consonant such as /s/, /p/, /f/, /k/ (but not /t/), then the -ed ending is pronounced /t/.  For example, pass-passed, hop-hopped, scoff-scoffed, sack-sacked 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:

  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 which share characteristics rather than alphabetically (which is the way most commercial teaching materials do it).
The fact that some verbs form rhyming groups is a powerful memory aide.
irregular verbs

This is not a complete list, of course, and excludes some rarer or obsolete words (such as stride and beget).  The list also does not include prefixed verbs whose irregularity can be surmised such as, e.g., forecast, misspend, unlearn, rebuild, withstand, underlie and so on.
You will see that the table includes some phonemic symbols.  You don't need to know them to use the chart (but you could learn them).
The verbs which do not fit into any categories must be learned as single items.

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


There are some oddities

Related guides
PDF document for an English irregular verb list
phonology for an overview of the essentials of phonology
verb and noun inflexions for a longer guide to pronunciation
gerunds and infinitives for a more on these two verb forms
modal auxiliary verbs for more on a particular form of non-lexical verb
copular verbs for more about what are sometimes called linking verbs
word class for the general guide to types of words