The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Inflection (Accidence) > Conjugation > Grammatical Person
What is person in English grammar?
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 grammatical person of a clause’s subject (a noun or pronoun) will affect how we conjugate the verb of that clause.
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.”
However, the verb be is unique in that it has five conjugations according to the grammatical person of its subject and the tense of the verb.
When to conjugate for person
Every verb in English (except modal auxiliary verbs) conjugates for grammatical person. However, this conjugation only occurs in one specific instance: if the subject is singular and in the third person, and if the verb is in the present simple tense. If this is the case, we most often conjugate the verb by adding “-s” or “-es” to the end. In the first or second person in the present simple tense, we simply use the base form (bare infinitive) of the verb. For example:
- “I want a soda.” (first-person singular, present simple tense)
- “You want a soda.” (second-person singular, present simple tense)
- “She wants a soda.) (third-person singular, present simple tense)
- “They want a soda.) (third-person plural, present simple tense)
Auxiliary verbs combine with the main verb of a clause to create a unique, specific meaning. There are three primary auxiliary verbs that can all conjugate to reflect tense and person: do, have, and be.
We use the verb do as an auxiliary when we want to ask questions or to make verbs negative. In the present tense in the third-person singular, we conjugate do into does. For example:
- “Do you want any ice cream?” (second-person singular/plural)
- “Does he want any ice cream?” (third-person singular)
- “They don’t want any ice cream.” (third-person plural)
- “She doesn’t want any ice cream.” (third-person singular)
The auxiliary verbs have and be are used to create the perfect, continuous, and perfect continuous forms of the past and present tenses. The main verb in these tenses will not conjugate for person, but, in certain cases, the auxiliary verbs can.
- “I have been working a lot lately.” (first-person singular)
- “You have been working a lot lately.” (second-person singular/plural)
- “He has been working a lot lately.” (third-person singular)
- “They have been working a lot lately.” (third-person plural)
- “I have eaten too much food.” (first-person singular)
- “You have eaten too much food!” (second-person singular/plural)
- “The dog has eaten too much food!” (third-person singular)
- “The dogs have eaten too much food!” (third-person plural)
The present continuous and past continuous tenses, on the other hand, use the verb be as an auxiliary verb, and it conjugates in several ways according to person and tense:
Present Continuous Tense
- “I am running out of time.” (first-person singular)
- “We are running out of time.” (first-person plural)
- “You are running out of time.” (second-person singular/plural)
- “He is running out of time.” (third-person singular)
- “They are running out of time.” (third-person plural)
- “I was running out of time.” (first-person singular)
- “We were running out of time.” (first-person plural)
- “You were running out of time.” (second-person singular/plural)
- “He was running out of time.” (third-person singular)
- “They were running out of time.” (third-person plural)
We’ll examine all the ways be can conjugate a little bit later in this section.
Spelling conjugated verbs
As we’ve seen already, some verbs take “-s” or “-es” to conjugate for third-person singular subjects, depending on how they are spelled. Let’s look at the rules that guide which kinds of verbs take which endings.
The vast majority of verbs simply take the suffix “-s” onto the end of their base form, as in:
the author writes
my father bakes
There are some verbs that already end in a sibilant sound (a sound like a hiss or buzz) created by the endings “-ss,” “-z,” “-x,” “-sh,” “-ch,” or “-tch.” Adding “-s” to the end would just elongate that sound in an odd way, so we add the suffix “-es” instead so that the sound is distinguished. For example:
the teacher quizzes
We also usually add the “-es” suffix to verbs ending in a consonant + “-o,” as in:
Third Person Singular Present Tense
the committee vetoes
the rancher lassoes
However, verbs ending in a vowel + “-o” (such as moo, boo, woo, or radio) simply take the “-s” ending (moos, boos, woos, radios). Solo is unique in that it ends in a consonant + “o,” yet it also only takes “-s” for the third-person singular (solos).
Change “y” to “i” and add “-es”
If a verb ends in a consonant followed by “-y,” we conjugate by changing “y” to “i” and then adding “-es.” (Note that if “y” is preceded by a vowel, as in play, buy, stay, etc., then we simply add “-s” as usual.)
the dogs bury
the pilot flies
The verb be is known as a highly irregular verb due to the huge variation in how it conjugates for tense and person. Below are all the possible conjugations of the verb—eight forms in total!
Past Tense Singular
Past Tense Plural
Present Tense Singular
Present Tense Plural
Be, like the verbs have and do, can be both an auxiliary verb or the main verb of a clause. As we saw above, when be functions as an auxiliary, it is used to create the past continuous and present continuous tenses; when it functions as a main verb, it is called a linking verb, meaning it connects a subject to a description rather than expressing a dynamic action.
We’ve already seen examples of be functioning to create the continuous tenses; now let’s look at some examples of how it functions as a linking verb.
- “I am 32 years old.”
- “Were you cold last night?”
- “It was very rainy in Ireland.”
- “John is in the other room.”
- “She is a bully.”
- “They are a lost cause.”
Note that we don’t conjugate be into its past and present participles to reflect grammatical person; instead, they are used when be is functioning as the main verb in the perfect or continuous tenses. For example:
- “I have been unwell lately.” (present perfect tense)
- “You are being silly.” (present continuous tense)