Verbs

 

PowerPoint Presentation

To learn more about subject-verb agreement, check out our slideshow, Subject-Verb Agreement.

 

Definition

Verbs are a very important part of a sentence in English. While in some other languages sentences can be complete without a verb, in English a complete sentence must always contain a verb.

Fragment

Jane … the smartest girl in my class.

Complete Sentence

Jane is the smartest in my class.

Verbs carry the idea of being or action in the sentence. For example:

  • I am a student.
  • The students passed all their courses.

Verbs can be classified in many ways. First, some verbs require an object to complete their meaning: “She gave _____ ?” Gave what? She gave money to the church. These verbs are called transitive.

Verbs that are intransitive do not require objects: “The building collapsed.” In English, you cannot tell the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb by its form; you have to see how the verb is functioning within the sentence. In fact, a verb can be both transitive and intransitive: “The monster collapsed the building by sitting on it.”

Although you will seldom hear the term, a ditransitive verb — such as cause or give — is one that can take a direct object and an indirect object at the same time: “That horrid music gave me a headache.”

Verbs are also classified as either finite or non-finite. A finite verb makes an assertion or expresses a state of being and can stand by itself as the main verb of a sentence.

  • The truck demolished the restaurant.
  • The leaves were yellow and sickly.

Non-finite verbs or verbals (think unfinished) cannot, by themselves, be main verbs:

  • The broken window . . .
  • The wheezing gentleman . . .

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Four Verb Forms

The inflections (endings) of English verb forms are not difficult to remember. There are only four basic forms. Instead of forming complex tense forms with endings, English uses auxiliary verb forms. English does not even have a proper ending for future forms; instead, we use auxiliaries such as “I am going to read this afternoon” or “I will read” or even “I am reading this book tomorrow.” The four basic forms are:

Base Form

Past Form

Present Participle

Past Participle

To work:

  • I can work.
  • I work.

To write:

  • I can write.
  • I write.
To work:

  • I worked.

To write:

  • I wrote.
To work:

  • I am working.

To write:

  • I am writing.
To work:

  • I have worked.

To write:

  • I have written.

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Verb Tenses

Definition

We use verb tenses to convey the time and duration of actions relative to the time of speaking. The English language has twelve tenses. There are four present tenses, four past tenses and four future tenses.

The four present tenses are:

  • the simple present (I do)
  • the present progressive (I am doing)
  • the present perfect (I have done)
  • the present perfect progressive (I have been doing)

The four past tenses are:

  • the simple past (I did)
  • the past progressive (I was doing)
  • the past perfect (I had done)
  • the past perfect progressive (I had been doing)

The four future tenses are:

  • the simple future (I will do)
  • the future progressive (I will be doing)
  • the future perfect (I will have done)
  • the future perfect progressive (I will have been doing)

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The Simple Present Tense


In the affirmative, the simple present tense uses the base form of the verb. In the third person singular an –s is added to the base form. In questions and negative sentences, the simple present is formed with the auxiliary do (and does in the third person singular).

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I walk Do I walk? I do not walk
You walk Do you walk? You do not walk
He/she/it walks Does he/she/it walk? He/she it does not walk
We walk Do we walk? We do not walk
You walk Do you walk? You do not walk
They walk Do they walk? They do not walk

The simple present describes:

– habitual actions and routines.

  • I never wake up before 9 o’clock on the weekend.
  • He always takes a long bath in the evening.

– general truths and facts.

  • Smoking is a major cause of serious diseases.
  • Water boils at 100 °C.

– actions and events that are scheduled to happen in the future.

  • The shipment arrives tomorrow at 2 p.m.
  • Spring semester classes start next Monday.

Present tense habitual activities are frequently signaled by time expressions such as the following:

  • all the time
  • always
  • every class
  • every day
  • every holiday
  • every hour
  • every month
  • every semester
  • every week
  • every year
  • most of the time
  • never
  • often
  • rarely
  • sometimes
  • usually

 

The simple present is also used with stative verbs (verbs expressing emotions, senses and mental states) that cannot be used in the progressive form.

  • My mom hates the icing on cinnamon rolls.
  • Do you smell something burning?
  • I don’t remember your name.

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The Present Progressive Tense


The present progressive tense uses the auxiliary be in the present tense + the present participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I am walking Am I walking? I am not walking
You are walking Are you walking? You are not walking
He/she/it is walking Is he/she/it walking? He/she/it is not walking
We are walking Are we walking? We are not walking
You are walking Are you walking? You are not walking
They are walking Are they walking? They are not walking

The present progressive describes:

– an ongoing action in the present.

  • She is watching an interesting documentary on TVO.
  • They are working on a group assignment.

– an ongoing action that takes place around now but not at the time of speaking.

  • I am reading one of Jane Urquhart’s books.

– a repeated action that irritates the speaker (used with always).

  • He is always leaving the car unlocked!
  • He is always eating the last cookie!

– actions that are scheduled to happen in the future.

  • We are flying to Paris tomorrow evening.
  • My dad is coming over later today to look after the kids.

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The Present Perfect Tense


The present perfect tense uses the present tense of the auxiliary have + the past participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I have walked Have I walked? I have not walked
You have walked Have you walked? You have not walked
He/she/it has walked Has he/she/it walked? He/she/it has not walked
We have walked Have we walked? We have not walked
You have walked Have you walked? You have not walked
They have walked Have they walked? They have not walked

The present perfect describes:

– an action that started in the past but continues into the present (often with for and since).

  • My parents have lived in Nepean for 20 years. (They still live there.)
  • I have loved you since I first saw you. (I still love you.)

– an action that was completed in the past but continues to have an impact on the present.

  • I have had a lot to eat. (Now I’m full.)
  • He has cut the grass. (The lawn looks great.)

The choice between the present perfect and the simple past is often determined by the time expression accompanying the verb.

– With adverbs referring to a period gone by, we use the simple past:

  • Maria left her abusive husband two weeks ago.

– With adverbs referring to a period beginning in the past and going up to present, we use the present perfect:

  • Maria has left her abusive husband recently.

Time expressions such as today, this month, or for an hour can take either the simple past or the present perfect:

  • worked for the government for two months. (I don’t work there any more.)
  • have worked for the government for two months. (I still work there.)

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The Present Perfect Progressive Tense


The present perfect progressive tense uses the present perfect of the auxiliary be + the present participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I have been walking Have I been walking? I have not been walking

You have been walking

Have you been walking?

You have not been walking

He/she/it has been walking Has he/she/it been walking? He/she/it has not been walking
We have been walking Have we been walking? We have not been walking
You have been walking Have you been walking? You have not been walking
They have been walking Have they been walking? They have not been walking

The present perfect progressive, like the present perfect, can be used to describe an action that started in the past but continues into the present (often with for and since).

  • The marathoner has been running for hours. (He is still running.)
  • We’ve been renovating our kitchen this month. (We are not finished yet.)

The present perfect progressive differs from the present perfect in that the present perfect often emphasizes the result of an action, while the present perfect progressive focuses on its ongoing nature or duration.

  • I have cleaned the house. (The action is completed; the house is clean.)
  • I have been cleaning the house. (Here the emphasis is on the duration of cleaning and not on its result.)

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The Simple Past Tense


In the affirmative, the simple past tense uses the past tense form of the main verb (most regular verbs end in –ed, irregular verbs change in a variety of ways). In questions and negative sentences, the simple past uses the past tense of the auxiliary do (did). The only exception is the verb be, which does not require an auxiliary to form questions and negative sentences in the simple past. For example: “Were you at Danny’s last night?” or “I wasn’t there yesterday.”

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I walked/ran Did I walk/run? I did not walk/run
You walked/ran Did you walk/run? You did not walk/run
He/she/it walked/ran Did he/she/it walk/run? He/she/it did not walk/run
We walked/ran Did we walk/run? We did not walk/run
You walked/ran Did you walk/run? You did not walk/run
They walked/ran Did they walk/run? They did not walk/run

The simple past describes an action that was completed in the past.

  • We went to Chicago last Christmas.
  • When I was a girl, I walked five miles to school every day.

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The Past Progressive Tense


The past progressive tense uses the auxiliary be in the past tense (was/were) + the present participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I was walking Was I walking? I was not walking
You were walking Were you walking? You were not walking
He/she/it was walking Was he/she/it walking? He/she/it was not walking
We were walking Were we walking? We were not walking
You were walking Were you walking? You were not walking
They were walking Were they walking? They were not walking

The past progressive describes:
– an ongoing action in the past.

  • I was riding my bike all day yesterday.
  • Between breakfast and lunch I was working on my taxes.

– that something was in the process of happening at a given time in the past.

  • Carlos was watching TV at midnight last night.

– that something was in the process of happening when something else took place.

  • Carlos was watching TV when his phone rang.

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The Past Perfect Tense


The past perfect tense uses the past tense of the auxiliary have (had) + the past participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I had walked Had I walked? I had not walked
You had walked Had you walked? You had not walked
He/she/it had walked Had he/she/it walked? He/she/it had not walked
We had walked Had we walked? We had not walked
You had walked Had you walked? You had not walked
They had walked Had they walked? They had not walked

The past perfect indicates that an action was completed at some point in the past before something else happened.

  • He didn’t do as well on the test as his parents had hoped.
  • Javed got married last year. Unfortunately his mom couldn’t be there; she had died the year before.

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The Past Perfect Progressive Tense


The past perfect progressive tense uses the past perfect of the auxiliary be (had been) + the present participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I had been walking Had I been walking? I had not been walking
You had been walking Had you been walking? You had not been walking
He/she/it had been walking Had he/she/it been walking? He/she/it had not been walking
We had been walking Had we been walking? We had not been walking
You had been walking Had you been walking? You had not been walking
They had been walking Had they been walking? They had not been walking

The past perfect progressive indicates a continuous or long-lasting action in the past that was either completed before something else happened or was interrupted by another action.

  • Samira failed the math test because she had not been going to class.
  • They had been arguing for an hour when the lawyer arrived.

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The Simple Future Tense


The simple future tense uses the auxiliary will + the base form of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I will walk Will I walk? I will not walk
You will walk Will you walk? You will not walk
He/she/it will walk Will he/she/it walk? He/she it will not walk
We will walk Will we walk? We will not walk
You will walk Will you walk? You will not walk
They will walk Will they walk? They will not walk

The simple future describes an action that will take place in the future. It expresses:
– willingness or unwillingness:

  • Maggie will help you with your homework. You just need to ask her.
  • I won’t go to the gym tonight. I feel very tired.

– intention (unplanned):

  • Have you emailed Dad? No, I forgot. I’ll take care of it after dinner.
  • What would you like? A coke or a ginger ale? I’ll have a coke.

– prediction (based on the speaker’s belief):

  • I’m sure the meeting will end soon.
  • He probably won’t stay past midnight.

The be going to form is another way of referring to the future in English. It expresses:

– intention (planned):

  • We are going to take a few days off in March to visit my parents.
  • I’m going to exercise more next year.

– prediction (based on certainty):

  • Look at those clouds! It is going to rain soon.
  • Peggy is going to have her baby any day now. Her due date is next Monday.

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The Future Progressive Tense


The future progressive uses the auxiliary will + the auxiliary be + the present participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I will be walking Will I be walking? I will not be walking
You will be walking Will you be walking? You will not be walking
He/she/it will be walking Will he/she/it be walking? He/she it will not be walking
We will be walking Will we be walking? We will not be walking
You will be walking Will you be walking? You will not be walking
They will be walking Will they be walking? They will not be walking

The future progressive tense indicates continuing action that will be happening at some point or for some time in the future.

  • By this time tomorrow, I will be sleeping in my own bed.
  • For the next two weeks, we’ll be lying on the beach drinking cocktails.

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The Future Perfect Tense


The future perfect uses the auxiliary will + the auxiliary have + the past participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I will have walked Will I have walked? I will not have walked
You will have walked Will you have walked? You will not have walked
He/she/it will have walked Will he/she/it have walked? He/she/it will not have walked
We will have walked Will we have walked? We will not have walked
You will have walked Will you have walked? You will not have walked
They will have walked Will they have walked? They will not have walked

The future perfect tense indicates that an action will be completed by a certain time in the future.

  • Before he sees his publisher next Monday, Charles will have finished four chapters in his new novel.
  • By the time my roommates wake up, I will have run 10 kilometers.

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The Future Perfect Progressive Tense


The future perfect progressive uses the auxiliary will + the present perfect of the auxiliary be (have been) + the present participle of the main verb.

Affirmative

Interrogative

Negative

I will have been walking Will I have been walking? I will not have been walking
You will have been walking Will you have been walking? You will not have been walking
He/she/it will have been walking Will he/she/it have been walking? He/she/it will not have been walking
We will have been walking Will we have been walking? We will not have been walking
You will have been walking Will you have been walking? You will not have been walking
They will have been walking Will they have been walking? They will not have been walking

The future perfect progressive tense indicates a continuous action that will be completed by a certain time in the future.

  • By the time he finishes this semester, Gesualdo will have been studying French for four years.
  • When the mountaineers get to the summit, they will have been climbing for five days.

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The Sequence of Tenses


When a sentence has more that one verb and more than one aspect of time, verb tenses need to follow a logical and grammatically correct sequence.

The rule governing the sequence of tenses in compound sentences is straightforward. Since compound sentences contain two independent clauses, the order of verb tenses in compound sentences is restricted only by the basic rules of temporal logic. For example, it is correct to say:

  • My taxi had had a flat tire on the way to the airport, so I missed my flight. (The accident preceded the missing of the flight.)

However, exchanging the two past tenses in the same sentence will result in an incorrect tense sequence:

  • My taxi had a flat tire on the way to the airport, so I had missed my flight. (The missing of the flight couldn’t have happened before the flat tire on the way to the airport.)

There are more restrictions on the possible sequence variations in complex sentences where the subordinate clause depends on the independent clause not only for its meaning but also for its tense. The following tense combinations are possible in complex sentences:

Tense in Independent Clause Possible Tenses in Dependent Clause Examples
Present (Progressive) Tense Present (Progressive) Tense I‘m cooking pasta again because I love Italian food.
Present Perfect (Progressive) Tense Although her husband has been cheating on her for ten years, she still loves him.
Past (Progressive) Tense I‘m driving so fast because last week I was late for the meeting.
Future (Progressive) Tense I‘m nervous because I‘ll be presenting my essay outline in class today.
Present Perfect (Progressive) Tense Past Tense The dog has been barking since that fire truck passed the house an hour ago.
Present Perfect (Progressive) Tense Although I have been complaining about the barking for months, the neighbour has done nothing about it so far.
Past (Progressive) Tense Present Tense (to express a general truth) Even though my brother is a better athlete, I finished first at the annual marathon this year.
Past (Progressive) Tense Were you not paying attention when he was explaining how the parachute works?
Past Perfect (Progressive) Tense At 10 p.m. last night, I was watching the last episode of a TV show that had been playing for eight years.
Past Perfect (Progressive) Tense Past Tense Judy had worked in Japan for five years before she moved back to Canada in March.
Future (Progressive) Tense Present (Progressive) Tense I‘ll be seeing Maria at work tomorrow unless she is moving into her new office.
Present Perfect (Progressive) Tense I will not be getting a new puppy until all my chores have been done.
Past (Progressive) Tense Since last year I did not get around to doing it, I will be working on the roof of the cottage this summer.
Future Perfect (Progressive) Tense Present (Progressive) Tense If I take three courses in the summer, I will have finished my studies by the end of August.

For help with the backshift of tenses in indirect speech, refer to Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

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Helping and Modal Auxiliaries

Definition


Helping verbs or auxiliary verbs such as be, do, have, shall and will are used in conjunction with main verbs to express shades of time and mood. The combination of helping verbs with main verbs creates what are called verb phrases. In the following sentence, will have been are helping or auxiliary verbs and studying is the main verb:

  • As of next August, I will have been studying chemistry for ten years.

Students should remember that adverbs and contracted forms are not, technically, part of the verb. In the sentence, “He has already started.” the adverb already modifies the verb, but it is not really part of the verb. The same is true of the ‘nt in “He hasn’t started yet” (the adverb not, represented by the contracted n’t, is not part of the verb, has started).

Shall, will and forms of have, do and be combine with main verbs to indicate time and voice. As auxiliaries, the verbs be, have and do can change form to indicate changes in subject and time.

  • I shall go now.
  • He had won the election.
  • They did write that novel together.
  • I am going now.
  • He was winning the election.
  • They have been writing that novel for a long time.

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Uses of Shall

Shall is used to:

  • Ask questions politely:
    • Shall we take a cab?
  • Convey a sense of obligation or necessity:
    • Students shall submit their exercises every Monday.
  • Express the future (in British English):
    • It shall be sunny tomorrow.

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Uses of Do, Does and Did*

In the simple present tense, do will function as an auxiliary to express the negative and to ask questions. Does, however, is substituted for third-person, singular subjects in the present tense. The past tense did works with all persons, singular and plural.

  • I don’t study at night.
  • She doesn’t work here anymore.
  • Do you attend this school?
  • Does he work here?

These verbs also work as “short answers,” with the main verb omitted.

  • Does she work here? No, she doesn’t .

With “yes-no” questions, the form of do goes in front of the subject and the main verb comes after the subject:

  • Did your grandmother know Lester B. Pearson?
  • Do wildflowers grow in your back yard?

Forms of do are useful in expressing similarity and differences in conjunction with so and neither.

  • My wife hates spinach and so does my son.
  • My wife doesn’t like spinach; neither do I.

Do is also helpful because it means you don’t have to repeat the verb:

  • Larry excelled in language studies; so did his brother.
  • Raoul studies as hard as his sister does.

The so-called emphatic do has many uses in English.

  • To add emphasis to an entire sentence: “He does like spinach. He really does!”
  • To add emphasis to an imperative: “Do come in.” (It actually softens the command.)
  • To add emphasis to a frequency adverb: “He never did understand his father.” “She always does manage to hurt her mother’s feelings.”
  • To contradict a negative statement: “You didn’t do your homework, did you?” “Oh, but I did finish it.”
  • To ask a clarifying question about a previous negative statement: “Ridwell didn’t take the tools.” “Then who did take the tools?”
  • To indicate a strong concession: “Although the managers denied any wrong-doing, they did return some of the gifts.”

In the absence of other modal auxiliaries, a form of do is used in question and negative constructions known as the get passive:

  • Did Rinaldo get selected by the committee?
  • The audience didn’t get riled up by the politician.

* Based on descriptions in Grammar Dimensions: Form, Meaning, and Use 2nd Ed. by Jan Frodesen and Janet Eyring. Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997. Examples our own.

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Uses of Have, Has and Had*


Forms of the verb to have are used to create the perfect tenses (present perfect and past perfect). See the section on verb tenses for further explanation.

To have is also in combination with other modal verbs to express probability and possibility in the past.

  • As an affirmative statement, to have can express how certain you are that something happened (when combined with an appropriate modal + have + a past participle): “Georgia must have left already.” “Kelly might have known about the gifts.” “They may have voted already.”
  • As a negative statement, a modal is combined with not + have + a past participle to express how certain you are that something did not happen: “Kelly might not have known about the gifts.” “I may not have been there at the time of the crime.”
  • To ask about possibility or probability in the past, a modal is combined with the subject + have + past participle: “Could Kelly have known about the gifts?”
  • For short answers, a modal is combined with have: “Did Kelly know about this?” “I don’t know. He may have.” “The evidence is pretty positive. He must have.”

To have (sometimes combined with to get) is used to express a logical inference:

  • It’s been raining all week; the basement has to be flooded by now.
  • He hit his head on the doorway. He has got to be over seven feet tall!

Have is often combined with an infinitive to form an auxiliary whose meaning is similar to “must.”

  • I have to have a car like that!
  • She has to pay her own tuition at college.
  • He has to have been the first student to try that.

* Based on the analysis in Grammar Dimensions: Form, Meaning, and Use 2nd Ed. by Jan Frodesen and Janet Eyring. Heinle & Heinle: Boston. 1997. Examples our own.

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Modal Auxiliaries

Other helping verbs, called modal auxiliaries or modals, such as can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would, do not change form for different subjects.

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Uses of Can and Could


The modal auxiliary can is used:

  • To express ability (in the sense of being able to do something or knowing how to do something), for example: He can speak Spanish but he can’t write it very well.
  • To expression permission (in the sense of being allowed or permitted to do something), for example: Can I talk to my friends in the library waiting room? (Note that can is less formal than may. Whether can can be used to express permission or not — “Can I leave the room now?” [“I don’t know if you can, but you may.”] — depends on the level of formality of your text or situation.)
  • To express theoretical possibility, for example: American automobile makers can make better cars if they think there’s a profit in it.

The modal auxiliary could is used:

  • To express an ability in the past, for example: I could always beat you at tennis when we were kids.
  • To express past or future permission, for example: Could I bury my cat in your back yard?
  • To express present possibility, for example: We could always spend the afternoon just sitting around talking.
  • To express possibility or ability in contingent circumstances, for example: If he studied harder, he could pass this course.

In expressing ability, can and could frequently also imply willingness: Can you help me with my homework?

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Uses of May and Might


Two of the more troublesome modal auxiliaries are may and might. When used in the context of granting or seeking permission, might is the past tense of may.

  • May I leave class early?
  • He asked if he might leave class early.

In the context of expressing possibility, may and might are interchangeable present and future forms and might + have + past participle is the past form:

  • She might be my advisor next semester.
  • She may be my advisor next semester.
  • She might have advised me not to take biology.

Might is different from may in that might can imply that a hypothetical situation has not in fact occurred. For instance, let’s say there’s been a helicopter crash at the airport. Before all the facts are gathered, a newscaster could report that the pilot “may have been fatally injured.” After we discover that the pilot is in fact all right, the newscaster can now say that the pilot “might have been fatally injured” because it is a hypothetical situation that has not occurred. Another example: a body had been identified after much work by a detective. A news report would say: “Without this painstaking work, the body might have remained unidentified.” Since the body was, in fact, identified, might is clearly called for.

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Uses of Will and Would


In certain contexts, will and would are virtually interchangeable, but there are differences. Notice that the contracted form ‘ll is very frequently used for will.

Both will and would can be used to express willingness:

  • I’ll wash the dishes if you dry.
  • We’re going to the movies. Will you join us?

Will can also express intention (especially in the first person):

  • I’ll do my exercises later on.

and prediction:

  • specific: The meeting will be over soon.
  • timeless: Humidity will ruin my hairdo.
  • habitual: The river will overflow its banks every spring.

Would can express characteristic activity:

  • After work, he would walk to his home in New Edinburgh.
  • She would cause the whole family to be late, every time.

In a main clause, would can express a hypothetical meaning:

  • My cocker spaniel would weigh a ton if I let her eat what she wants.

Finally, would can express a sense of probability:

  • I hear a whistle. That would be the five o’clock train.

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Uses of Should


Should is usually replaced, nowadays, by would. It is still used, however, to mean ought to as in

  • You really shouldn’t do that.
  • If you think that was amazing, you should have seen it last night.

In British English, one is apt to hear or read should with the first-person pronouns in expressions of liking such as “I should prefer iced tea” and in tentative expressions of opinion such as “I should imagine they’ll vote Conservative.”

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Uses of Used to

The auxiliary verb construction used to is used to express an action that took place in the past customarily, but now that action no longer takes place:

  • We used to take long vacation trips with the whole family.

When used to is combined with did in the negative and interrogative forms, the past tense is carried by the new auxiliary and the -ed ending is dropped.

  • Didn’t you use to go jogging every morning before breakfast?
  • It didn’t use to be that way.

Combined with the auxiliary be, used to can also be used to convey the sense of being accustomed to or familiar with something:

  • The tire factory down the road really stinks, but we’re used to it by now.
  • I like these old sneakers; I’m used to them.

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Subject-Verb Agreement

Basic Principle


Singular subjects need singular verbs; plural subjects need plural verbs. For example:

  • My brother is a nutritionist.
  • My sisters are mathematicians.

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Rule 1


The indefinite pronouns anyone, everyone, someone, no one, and nobody are always singular and, therefore, require singular verbs.

  • Everyone has done his or her homework.
  • Somebody has left her purse.

Some indefinite pronouns — such as all, some — are singular or plural depending on what they’re referring to. (Is the thing referred to countable or not?)

  • Some of the beads are missing.
  • Some of the water is gone.

On the other hand, there is one indefinite pronoun, none, that can be either singular or plural; it often doesn’t matter whether you use a singular or a plural verb — unless something else in the sentence determines its number.

  • None of you claims responsibility for this incident?
  • None of you claim responsibility for this incident?
  • None of the students have done their homework. (In this last example, the word their precludes the use of the singular verb.)

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Rule 2


Some indefinite pronouns are particularly troublesome. Everyone and everybody (listed above, also) certainly feel like more than one person and, therefore, students are sometimes tempted to use a plural verb with them. They are always singular, though. Each is often followed by a prepositional phrase ending in a plural word (each of the cars). Nevertheless, each, too, is always singular and requires a singular verb.

  • Everyone has finished his or her homework.
  • Everybody is here.
  • Each of the students is responsible for doing his or her work in the library. (Don’t let the word students confuse you; the subject is each and each is always singular.)

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Rule 3


Phrases such as together with, as well as, and along with are not the same as and. The phrase introduced by as well as or along with will modify the earlier word (mayor in this case), but it does not change its number (as the word and would do).

  • The mayor as well as his brothers is going to prison.
  • The mayor and his brothers are going to jail.

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Rule 4


The pronouns neither and either are singular and require singular verbs even though they seem to be referring, in a sense, to two things.

  • Neither of the two traffic lights is working.
  • Which shirt do you want for Christmas? Either is fine with me.

In informal writing, neither and either sometimes take a plural verb when they are followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with of. This is particularly true of interrogative constructions:

  • Have either of you two clowns read the assignment?
  • Are either of you taking this seriously?

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Rule 5


The conjunction or does not conjoin (as and does): when nor or or is used, the subject closer to the verb determines the number of the verb. Whether the subject comes before or after the verb doesn’t matter; the proximity determines the number.

  • Either my father or my brothers are going to sell the house.
  • Neither my brothers nor my father is going to sell the house.
  • Are either my brothers or my father responsible?
  • Is either my father or my brothers responsible?

Because a sentence like “Neither my brothers nor my father is going to sell the house” sounds peculiar, it is probably a good idea to put the plural subject closer to the verb whenever that is possible.

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Rule 6


The words there and here are never subjects. With these constructions (called expletive constructions), the subject follows the verb but still determines the number of the verb.

  • There are two reasons [plural subject] for this.
  • There is no reason [singular subject] for this.

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Rule 7


Verbs in the present tense for third-person, singular subjects (he, she, it and anything those words can stand for) have s-endings. Other verbs do not add s-endings.

  • He loves and she loves but we love_and they love_

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Rule 8


Sometimes modifiers will get between a subject and its verb, but these modifiers must not confuse the agreement between the subject and its verb.

  • The mayor, who has been convicted along with his four brothers on four counts of various crimes but who also seems, like a cat, to have several political lives [modifier], is finally going to jail.

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Rule 9


Sometimes nouns take weird forms and can fool us into thinking they’re plural when they’re really singular and vice-versa. Consult the section on the plural forms of nouns and the section on categories of nouns (specifically collective nouns) for additional help. Words such as glasses, pants, pliers, and scissors are regarded as plural (and require plural verbs) unless they’re preceded by the phrase pair of (in which case the word pair becomes the subject).

  • My glasses were on the bed.
  • My pants were torn.
  • A pair of corduroy pants is in the closet.

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Rule 10


Some words end in –s and appear to be plural but are really singular and require singular verbs:

  • The news from the front is bad.
  • Measles is a dangerous disease for pregnant women.

On the other hand, some words ending in –s refer to a single thing but are nonetheless plural and require a plural verb:

  • My assets were wiped out in the depression.
  • The average worker’s earnings have gone up dramatically.

The names of sports teams that do not end in -s will take a plural verb:

  • The Miami Heat have been looking good this season.
  • The Connecticut Sun are looking for new talent.

See the section on plurals for help with this problem.

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Rule 11


Fractional expressions such as half of, a part of, a percentage of, a majority of are sometimes singular and sometimes plural, depending on the meaning. (The same is true, of course, when all, any, more, most and some act as subjects.) Sums and products of mathematical processes are expressed as singular and require singular verbs.

  • Some of the voters are still angry.
  • A large percentage of the older population is voting against her.
  • Two-fifths of the troops were lost in the battle.
  • Two-fifths of the vineyard was destroyed by fire.
  • Forty percent of the students are in favour of changing the policy.
  • Forty percent of the student body is in favour of changing the policy.
  • Two and two is four.
  • Four times four divided by two is eight.

The expression more than one (oddly enough) takes a singular verb: “More than one student has tried this.”

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Rule 12


If your sentence compounds a positive and a negative subject and one is plural, the other singular, the verb should agree with the positive subject.

  • The department members but not the chair have decided not to teach on Valentine’s Day.
  • It is not the faculty members but the president who decides this issue.

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Linking Verbs

A linking verb connects a subject and its complement. Sometimes called copulas, linking verbs are often forms of the verb to be, verbs related to the five senses (look, sound, smell, feel, taste) and verbs that somehow reflect a state of being (appear, seem, become, grow, turn, prove, remain). What follows the linking verb will be either a noun complement or an adjective complement:

  • Those people are all professors.
  • Those professors are brilliant.
  • This room smells bad.
  • I feel great.
  • A victory today seems unlikely.

A handful of verbs that reflect a change instate of being are sometimes called resulting copulas. They, too, link a subject to a predicate adjective:

  • His face turned purple.
  • She became older.
  • The dogs ran wild.
  • The milk has gone sour.
  • The crowd grew ugly.

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Verbals

Verbals are words (nouns or adjectives) that seem to carry the idea of action or being but do not function as a true verb. They are sometimes called nonfinite (unfinished or incomplete) verbs. There are three different types of verbals: the gerund, the participle, and the infinitive.

A gerund is a verb form, ending in –ing, which acts as a noun. “Running in the park after dark can be dangerous.” Gerunds are frequently accompanied by other associated words making up a gerund phrase (“running in the park after dark”).

Because gerunds and gerund phrases are nouns, they can be used in any way that a noun can be used:

  • As a subject: Being king can be dangerous for your health.
  • As an object of the verb: He didn’t particularly like being king.
  • As an object of a preposition: He wrote a book about being king.

An infinitive is the root of a verb plus the word to: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” A present infinitive describes a present condition: “I like to sleep.” The perfect infinitive describes a time earlier than that of the verb: “I would like to have won that game.”

A participle is a verb form acting as an adjective: “The running dog chased the fluttering moth.” A present participle (like running or fluttering) describes a present condition; a past participle describes something that has happened: “The completely rotted tooth finally fell out of his mouth.” The distinction can be important to the meaning of a sentence; there is a huge difference between a confusing student and a confused student.

An infinitive is the root of a verb plus the word to: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” A present infinitive describes a present condition: “I like to sleep.” The perfect infinitive describes a time earlier than that of the verb: “I would like to have won that game.”

A Note on Splitting Infinitives

It is very important to be aware of the split infinitive because this error is easily noticed by teachers. An infinitive is said to be split when a word (often an adverb) or phrase sneaks between the to of the infinitive and the root of the verb: to boldly go, being the most famous of its kind. The infinitive is a single unit and, therefore, should not be divided. Instead of writing “She expected her grandparents to not stay,” then, we could write “She expected her grandparents not to stay.”

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Common Irregular Verbs

The verb forms provided in the table below are as follows:

  • the base form, which you would find in the infinitive: to fly
  • the third-person, singular, present tense: he flies
  • the third-person past tense: he flew
  • and the past participle: he has flown

BASE FORM

PRESENT THIRD PERSON

PAST THIRD PERSON

PAST PARTICIPLE

arise arises arose arisen
be is was/were been
bear bears bore borne
begin begins began begun
bite bites bit bitten/bit
blow blows blew blown
break breaks broke broken
bring brings brought brought
buy buys bought bought
catch catches caught caught
choose chooses chose chosen
come comes came come
creep creeps crept crept
dive dives dived/dove dived
do does did done
drag drags dragged dragged
draw draws drew drawn
dream dreams dreamed/dreamt dreamt
drink drinks drank drunk
drive drives drove driven
drown drowns drowned drowned
eat eats ate eaten
fall falls fell fallen
fight fights fought fought
fly flies flew flown
forget forgets forgot forgotten
forgive forgives forgave forgiven
freeze freezes froze frozen
get gets got got/gotten
give gives gave given
go goes went gone
grow grows grew grown
hang hangs hung hung
hide hides hid hidden
know knows knew known
lay lays laid laid
lead leads led led
lie lies lay lain
light lights lit lit
lose loses lost lost
prove proves proved proved/proven
ride rides rode ridden
ring rings rang rung
rise rises rose risen
run runs ran run
see sees saw seen
seek seeks sought sought
set sets set set
shake shakes shook shaken
sing sings sang sung
sink sinks sank sunk
sit sits sat sat
speak speaks spoke spoken
spring springs sprang sprung
steal steals stole stolen
sting stings stung stung
strike strikes struck struck
swear swears swore sworn
swim swims swam swum
swing swings swung swung
take takes took taken
tear tears tore torn
throw throws threw thrown
uses used used used
wake wakes woke/waked woken/waked/woke
wear wears wore worn
write writes wrote written

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Exercises

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