Rules for Conjugating Verbs

Updated July 1, 2013
student at library studying verbs
    student at library studying verbs
    Rubberball/Mike Kemp / Brand X Pictures / Getty

Verb conjugation tells the reader when an action is occurring and who is performing it. Keeping your verb conjugation consistent results in fewer misunderstandings and miscommunications. You’ll never have to worry about making verb mistakes in your writing if you can master a few important verb conjugation rules.

English Conjugation Rules

Conjugating a verb takes it from the infinitive form (“to” + verb) and gives it a subject and a tense. However, verbs also have aspect, voice and mood. Some verbs are also irregular, which makes their conjugation a bit more complicated. When you learn new verbs, you should learn all forms of that verb so that when you are working in different tenses, you've already done half the work.


Use the Right Verb Tense

The first rule in conjugating verbs correctly is to indicate when the action is occurring. This is known as the verb tense. Verbs can occur in the past, present and future, but they must be consistent throughout the sentence.

The three verb tenses are:

  • present tense - You look at me. I ask you a question. We ride the train together.
  • past tense - You looked at me. I asked you a question. We rode the train together.
  • future tense - You will look at me. I will ask you a question. We will ride the train together.

Switching verb tenses within a sentence or paragraph is a common grammar mistake. But if your reader knows when an action is happening, they can more easily picture what you are writing about.

Verify Verb Aspect

Past, present and future tenses all occur in the simple verb aspect. Verb aspect describes the state of action of a verb; in other words, whether a verb has already happened, is still happening, or was happening but now isn’t.

The four verb aspects are:

  • simple aspect - The action is happening at the moment the story is told.
  • progressive (or continuous) aspect - The action is ongoing.
  • perfect aspect - The action is no longer happening.
  • perfect progressive (or continuous) aspect - The action was ongoing, but is no longer happening at the time the story is told.

As you can see, “perfect” means “finished,” while “progressive” or “continuous” means “ongoing.” There are 12 tenses in all, with each of these four aspects having a present, past and future element.

Examples of these tenses include:

  • simple present tense - I study Latin in college.
  • present progressive tense - I am studying Latin in college.
  • present perfect tense - I have studied Latin in college.
  • present perfect progressive - I have been studying Latin in college.
  • simple past tense - Kyle bought a car.
  • past progressive tense - Kyle was buying a car.
  • past perfect tense - Kyle had bought a car.
  • past perfect progressive - Kyle had been buying a car.
  • simple future tense - The cat will sleep.
  • future progressive tense - The cat will be sleeping.
  • future perfect tense - The cat will have slept.
  • future perfect progressive tense - The cat will have been sleeping.

Some of these verbs require additional helping verbs, including forms of “to have” and “to be.” Understanding whether an action is still happening at the present time is important when conjugating a verb correctly. These verb aspects provide more accurate time frames for your writing than staying in the simple tenses.


Check for Subject-Verb Agreement

The next most important verb conjugation rule is making sure that your subject and verb agree in number. Subjects can be singular or plural, but their verbs need to match. They also need to match the person, who can be one of six people.

  • I - first person singular
  • we - first person plural
  • you - second person singular
  • you or you all - second person plural (multiple people)
  • he, she, it - third person singular
  • they - third person plural

The way you conjugate the verb depends on who’s performing it. For example, the verb “to be” would look like this with each person:

  • I am a student.
  • We are students.
  • You are a student.
  • You all are students.
  • He is a student.
  • They are students.

Both regular and irregular verbs need to match the subject in person and number. It’s a good idea to double check your writing for subject-verb agreement in every sentence.


Use Regular or Irregular Conjugation

Not every verb uses the same conjugation. Regular verbs typically use “-ed” at the end of the word in past tense, but irregular verbs take all kinds of different forms in every tense.

  • regular verb - trim, trimmed, have trimmed
  • irregular verb - swim, swam, have swum

You can follow the pattern for most regular verbs in different tenses. However, it takes a bit more work to memorize how to properly conjugate irregular verbs. Reading different types of books can help you internalize which verbs require irregular conjugation.

Write in Active Voice

Once you’ve got the right tense, subject-verb agreement, and regular or irregular conjugation, check your verb’s voice. There are two voices in writing: active voice and passive voice. Subjects perform active voice verbs, but in passive voice, verbs are far from their subjects or might not have a subject at all.

  • active voice - Joshua presented the speech to the class.
  • passive voice - The speech was presented to the class.
  • active voice - Kate is fixing her computer.
  • passive voice - The computer is being fixed by Kate.
  • active voice - I have finished my new book.
  • passive voice - My book has been finished.

Notice that each example of passive voice includes an extra helping verb, usually a form of “to be.” Passive voice tends to hide your intention and make writing more difficult to understand. When conjugating verbs, make sure that the subject is performing them within the sentence.


Make the Verb Match the Mood

Did you know that sentences have moods? Depending on the type of sentence and what the speaker wants, the verb can help establish the sentence’s correct mood. The five moods that a sentence can have are:

  • stative (or indicative) mood - makes a statement
  • interrogative mood - asks a question
  • imperative mood - makes a request or command
  • conditional mood - makes a statement or request based on a possible event (using “could” or “would”)
  • subjunctive mood - makes a statement based on a hypothetical or wishful situation

Choosing the correct conjugation establishes your sentence’s mood. There’s a big difference between asking a question and making a hypothetical statement, and the way you conjugate a verb can make your message your message more clear and convincing.


Mastering Conjugation Rules

Until you learn the rules for conjugating verbs perfectly, the best way to make yourself understood is to speak slowly and clearly. Define precisely who and when you are talking about, and your reader is likely to understand you. For more detailed practice, check out these fun grammar games to master both basic and sophisticated English grammar rules.