What is conjugation?
Conjugation refers to the way we inflect (change the form of) verbs to create particular meanings.
We’ll very briefly look at the ways verbs are conjugated below. Continue on to the individual sections in this chapter to learn more about each.
Grammatical tense refers to the conjugation of a verb to reflect its place in time—that is, when the action occurred.
English has no future tense in the strict sense (there is no unique verb form to denote future action). Nevertheless, we commonly refer to several structures that are used for future meaning as belonging to the future tense.
We’ll look at a couple of examples of each verb tense below, but each section has more information on how they are formed and used.
- “I go to work every day.”
- “He works in finance.”
- “I don’t go out very often.”
- “Do you eat breakfast every morning?”
- “They are hungry.”
- “John is sleeping at the moment.”
- “Am I wearing the right uniform?”
- “Jack isn’t coming to the movie with us.”
- “Are you still reading that book?”
- “We’re flying to Spain tomorrow.”
- “I have lived in Italy for many years.”
- “She has been here since 8 o’clock.”
- “Have you been here since this morning?”
- “We haven’t been to the movies in a long time.”
- “Have you seen my jacket anywhere?”
- “I’ve been writing for over an hour.”
- “How long have you been writing?”
- “They haven’t been living in Spain for very long.”
- “She’s tired because she’s been working a lot.”
- “That bag looks new. Have you been shopping?”
- “She worked in finance before this job.”
- “We lived in China for six years after I graduated from college.”
- “They didn’t watch the movie last night.”
- “I went to the park yesterday.”
- “I was their accountant at the time.”
- “I was reading a book when they arrived.”
- “What were you talking about when I arrived?”
- “She was worrying we wouldn’t be able to afford the wedding.”
- “I wasn’t feeling well.”
- “Were you sleeping when I called?”
- “The movie had already ended when I turned on the TV.”
- “I was sad to leave the house I had lived in for so many years.”
- “Until this morning, I had never been on a plane.”
- “Had you ever been on a tractor before working on our farm?”
- “I hadn’t eaten Parmesan cheese before going to Italy.”
- “When I arrived at the bus stop, the other people there had been waiting for nearly an hour.”
- “We hadn’t been talking for very long before she had to leave.”
- “My eyes were tired because I had been working on the computer.”
- “Had she been living in Italy for a long time?”
- “He had been feeling unwell, so he went to lie down.”
The most common constructions of the future tenses use the modal auxiliary verb will or the verb phrase be going to. We can also use the modal verb shall to create the future tense, but this is generally reserved for more formal or polite English, and it is not very common in everyday speech and writing, especially in American English.
- “The Queen will be in Rome tomorrow.”
- “She won’t do her homework.”
- “Will they be late?”
- “I am going to wash my hair after dinner.”
- “Are you going to mow the lawn today?”
- “I’ll be flying to Boston tomorrow, so I can’t come to lunch.”
- “People are going to be consuming even more natural resources by the year 2030.”
- “Is she going to be working from home now?”
- “I’m not going to be living in New York for much longer.”
- “You shouldn’t call their house now; they will be sleeping.”
- “By October we will have lived in this house for 20 years.”
- “After this next race, I will have completed 10 triathlons.”
- “You will have heard by now that the company is going bankrupt.”
- “Will they have read the memo ahead of the meeting?”
- “Why are you going to the airport so early? Her flight will not have arrived yet.”
- “She’ll have been waiting for nearly an hour by the time we arrive.”
- “I will have been living in this country for 10 years this November.”
- “Will they have been looking through our tax returns for the last few years?”
- “How will he have been coping on his own for all these years?”
- “He won’t have been sleeping for very long, but I have to wake him up.”
Grammatical aspect is often confused with tense. While tense is concerned with when an action, state of being, or event occurs (past, present, or future), aspect is concerned with how it occurs in time.
We use aspect with tense to reflect each construction of a verb in relation to time. When we form the present continuous tense, for instance, we are actually using a specific aspect of the present tense. It is through aspect that we understand whether an action takes place at a single point in time, during a continuous range of time, or repetitively.
The perfective aspect is used when we draw attention to an action as a whole, summarizing it. The perfective aspect may occur in past, present, or future actions and events. For example:
- “I ate dinner.”
- “I swim like a fish.”
- “We will help you tomorrow.”
The imperfective aspect, on the other hand, is used to draw attention to the action as having an internal structure (rather than as a whole, complete action)—for example, an action that is in progress at the moment of speaking or which happened habitually in the past, as in:
- “I was washing dishes when she came through the door.”
- “We used to go traveling a lot.”
Aspects of verb tenses
Each verb tense has four aspects, or temporal structures: the simple, the perfect, the continuous, and the perfect continuous. These coincide with the different verb tenses we looked at above.
Subject + present verb
“I go shopping on Tuesdays.”
“She runs fast.”
Subject + have/has + past participle
“I have eaten here before.”
“She has lived here for a long time.”
Subject + is/are + present participle
“We are cooking dinner.”
“He is singing a song.”
Subject + have/has + been + present participle
“He has been thinking about it.”
“I have been taking an art class.”
Subject + past verb
“I went shopping on Tuesday.”
“She ran fast.”
Subject + had + past participle
“I had eaten there before.”
“She had lived here for a long time.”
Subject + was/were + present participle
“We were cooking dinner.”
“He was singing a song.”
Subject + had + been + present participle
“He had been thinking about it.”
“I had been taking an art class.”
Subject + will/be going to + infinitive
“I will go shopping on Tuesday.”
“She is going to run fast.”
Subject + will have + past participle
“I will have eaten before arriving.”
“She will have lived here for a long time.”
Subject + will/be going to + be + present participle
“We are going to be cooking dinner.”
“He will be singing a song.”
Subject + will/would + have + been + present participle
“He’ll have been thinking about it.”
“I would have been taking an art class.”
Grammatical mood refers to the way in which a verb is used to express certain meaning by the speaker or writer—that is, to express what is actually the case or what is unreal or hypothetical, or to command or request something to be done in the future.
There are three main grammatical moods: the indicative mood, the subjunctive mood, and the imperative mood.
The indicative mood expresses facts, statements, opinions, or questions. It is used to form declarative sentences (i.e., statements or declarations) or interrogative sentences (i.e., questions). For example:
- “She graduated last year with a doctorate in neuroscience.”
- “He isn’t taking his exam at the new testing center.”
- “Are you going to give your speech tomorrow?”
The subjunctive mood uses specific verb constructions to describe hypothetical or non-real actions, events, or situations, such as wishes, suggestions, or possible outcomes that depend on certain conditions.
- “I wish I didn’t have to go to work.” (wish)
- “I recommend that she study harder next time.” (suggestion)
- “If I had been more prepared, I would have passed that test.”
We use the imperative mood when we form imperative sentences, such as direct orders, commands, or general instructions.
When we make an imperative sentence, we use the infinitive form of the verb (without to), and, uniquely, we omit the subject of the verb.
- “Turn off the light before you leave.”
- “Go to bed!”
- “Please close the door.”
- “Pay attention!”
Grammatical voice describes the relationship between the verb and the subject (also known as the agent) in a sentence.
A verb is in the active voice when the agent of the verb (the person or thing that performs the action specified by the verb) is also the subject of the sentence.
- “The boy sang a song.” (the boy is the agent of the verb sang)
- “I am watching a movie.” (I is the agent of the verb am watching)
- “Vivian writes well.” (Vivian is the agent of the verb writes)
A sentence uses the passive voice when the subject is acted upon by the verb. The object of the verb’s action becomes the subject of the sentence, while the agent of the action (if there is one) is identified by the preposition by. For example:
- “A famous piano piece will be performed by Angie tomorrow night.”
- “His new book has already been read by thousands of people.”
- “The light bulb was patented in 1880.” (no agent)
The “middle” voice describes a type of voice in which the agent performs the verb’s action on itself. Verbs in the middle voice are often followed by reflexive pronouns. For example:
- “My girlfriend always checks herself in the mirror before we go out.”
- “The dog bit itself on the tail.”
“Middle” voice can also be used to describe some intransitive verbs that act upon their agents. For example:
- “The lasagna cooked in the oven for several hours.”
- “The bicycle broke without warning.”
Grammatical person refers to the degree of involvement of a participant in an action, event, or circumstance. There are three degrees of grammatical person: first person (the speaker), second person (someone being spoken to), and third person (anyone/anything not being directly addressed).
The vast majority of verbs only conjugate for third-person singular subjects (e.g., he, she, and it) by taking the suffix “-s” or “-es,” as in:
- “I eat pasta.” (first-person singular)
- “We eat pasta.” (first-person plural)
- “You eat pasta.” (second-person singular/plural)
- “She/he/it eats pasta.” (third-person singular)
- “They eat pasta.” (third-person singular)
However, the verb be is unique in that it has five different conjugations according to the grammatical person of its subject and the tense of the verb.
- “I am happy.” (first-person singular, present tense)
- “I was happy.” (first-person singular, past tense)
- “We are happy.” (first-person plural, present tense)
- “We were happy.” (first-person plural, past tense)
- “You are happy.” (second-person singular/plural, present tense)
- “You were happy.” (second-person singular/plural, past tense)
- “She/he/it is happy.” (third-person singular, present tense)
- “She/he/it was happy.” (third-person singular, past tense)
- “They are happy.” (third-person plural, present tense)
- “They were happy.” (third-person plural, past tense)
To learn more about the way that other verbs conjugate for the third-person singular, go to the section on Grammatical Person
Grammatical speech refers to how we report what another person said, which affects the conjugation of the verbs that are used. We almost always use reporting verbs (such as say, tell, or ask) to form grammatical speech.
There are two primary types of speech: direct speech and reported speech (also known as indirect speech). There are also two other sub-categories, known as free indirect speech and silent speech.
Direct speech, sometimes known as quoted speech, refers to the direct quotation of something that someone else said.
Because the quotation happened in the past, we put the reporting verb into the past simple tense, but we don’t change the verbs used within the quotation.
When used in writing, we indicate the quoted speech with quotation marks ( “ ” ), and we usually set it apart with one or two commas (unless we are quoting a fragment that blends in with the overall sentence). For example:
- John said, “I’ll never live in this city again.”
- Mary told him, “I want to have another baby,” which took him by surprise.
- John said he feels “really bad” about what happened.
(There are a number of other nuances surrounding punctuating that occur when we use direct speech in certain circumstances, as well as if we are writing in American English or British English. Continue on to the section dealing with Speech to learn more.)
Reported (Indirect) Speech
In many instances, we merely paraphrase (or restate) what someone said, rather than directly quoting them. This is known as reported or indirect speech.
In reported speech, we do not use quotation marks. According to conventional rules, we must also shift the paraphrased information one degree into the past. If a statement was originally made in the present simple tense, for instance, we would shift it to the past simple tense. For example:
I live in Germany.
He said he lived in Germany.
I was a carpenter before I moved here.
She said that she had been a carpenter before she moved here.
He is writing a letter to our friend.
present continuous tense shifts to past continuous tense
She told us he was writing a letter to our friend.
She was sleeping when you called.
He told me you had been sleeping when I called.
However, in modern English, this rule is not always observed, and the meaning of your sentence would usually not be affected if you didn’t shift the tense. To learn more about how we change (or do not change) the tense and wording of sentences, go to the section on Reported Speech.
Free Indirect and Silent Speech
Free indirect speech is used to indicate the thoughts or mental processes of a character, usually in the form of a rhetorical question. We do not use reporting verbs or quotation marks. For example:
- He had no money, no job, and no friends. How had his life arrived to such a desperate point?
Silent speech refers to something that is said internally (i.e., silently) by someone to him- or herself. We still use reporting verbs, but we can use either quotation marks or italics to indicate the silent speech, or nothing at all—it is up to the writer’s preference. For example:
- “I’m never coming back to this town again,” he murmured to himself.
- She thought, What a beautiful country.
- It will be quiet around here when the kids go to college, Dan thought.
Conjugation vs. Declension
Remember that conjugation is the specific term used for the inflection of verbs—no other part of speech is conjugated. For any other kind of word that goes through inflection (nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs), we use the term declension. Head to that section to learn more.