Conjugation in English grammar

(Formation and modification of English verbs)

What is conjugation in English and why is it necessary?

In general, conjugation is the modification, more precisely, the formation of verb forms (action words). It also takes place in English grammar – although not as intensively as in other languages, such as German, for example. Therefore, English verb forms can be learned relatively easily.

Conjugation is necessary because a verb (if it is the only one) cannot occur in its basic form (which is the unconjugated form) within a sentence. However, it may sometimes appear so. Consequently, the verb must always match the subject in terms of specific grammatical aspects, which means agree with it (see agreement), and be modified accordingly.

Compare the following sentences:

  • The first example contains the verb ‘to be’. This verb is the only one in English that possesses three different forms in the present tense. As a result, it is possible to recognise the categories easily:
    • “Harry be my brother.”
      • This sentence is ungrammatical because ‘be’ does not have the appropriate form.
    • “Harry is my brother.”
      • Here, the verb ‘to be’ is conjugated in accordance with the subject ‘Harry’ in the third person singular present and, so, it is grammatically correct.
  • With all other verbs, the difference in the present tense is not so clear. Exclusively the third person singular is distinguished by the ‘-s’ at the end of the verb:
    • “We read very often.”
    • “She reads very often.”
  • In the past tense, you cannot identify a grammatical person at all – the forms are all the same for regular verbs. Solely the ending ‘-ed’ indicates that it is a conjugated verb:
    • “We talked about a healthy diet.”
    • “She talked about a healthy diet.”

Information: Conjugation also belongs to inflection. Despite that, it only takes place with verbs. Other parts of speech, such as nouns, adjectives, pronouns, etc., are subject to declension.

Conjugation forms of regular verbs

Regular English verbs follow this (rather simple) conjugation pattern:

Person (pronoun as the subject) Present simple Past simple (ed-form) Present participle (ing-form)
I (1st person singular) help helped helping
you (2nd person singular and plural) help
he, she, it (3rd person singular) helps
we (1st person plural) help
they (3rd person plural) help

Information: Irregular verbs have particular forms – a look into the verb tables helps here.

Which grammatical categories are used for conjugation?

In English grammar, verbs are conjugated according to the following categories. As you can see, the formation is neither very extensive nor complicated.

The following examples are illustrated by the irregular verb ‘to write’. The English conjugation or modification distinguishes …

  • … the grammatical time (tense):
    • present → write, writes
    • past → wrote
    • Careful: Verbs never reveal any future tense. In English, no real future forms exist.
  • … the grammatical person:
    • first person → write
    • second person → write
    • third person → write, writes
  • … the number:
    • singular → write, writes
    • plural → write
  • … the mood:
    • indicative → write, writes
    • subjunctive → write
    • imperative → write
  • … the grammatical voice:
    • active voice → write, writes
    • passive voicewritten
  • … the grammatical aspect:
    • perfect → have written
    • progressive or continuous → writing

Determination of the categories on the basis of examples

It is possible to determine a verb in the sentence according to the categories mentioned above. The subject (What is the subject in English?), to which the verb must always refer, helps with this. Compare:

  • They arrived at the airport too late.”
    • 3rd person plural, past simple, indicative, active
    • Information: Without including the subject, the sentence could also be formed with all other persons, which are ‘I, you, we, it, he, she’.
  • I am waiting for a letter from Chile.”
    • 1st person singular, present progressive, indicative, active
  • You have been working for three hours.”
    • 2nd person singular, present perfect progressive, indicative, active
    • Watch out: In English, ‘you’ can also be the 2nd person plural.
  • The cake is made.”
    • 3rd person singular, present simple, indicative, passive

Further explanations related to the topic ‘Conjugation’

The following explanations are relating to the topic ‘Conjugation/formation of English verbs’ and might be interesting as well: