Verbs: Identifying the Five Forms


Every verb has five forms: infinitive, past tense, present tense, past participle, present participle. Students will go through a series of short exercises to learn to identify all verb forms for any verb. Knowing this will turn out to be really useful in
- identifying passive
- making tenses consistent in writing
- distinguishing main verbs from other (modal) verbs
- effecting the feel of your writing
- confronting subject-verb agreement
- self-empowerment!

Grade Level: 
Grades 3-5
Grades 6-8
Grades 9-12
Class Time Needed: 
Under 30 minutes
Lesson Plan: 

Please see the attached documents for a version where the formatting is maintained.

Here are the five forms for the verb talk, sing, and take.

infinitive: (to) talk
past tense: talked
present tense: (he/she/it) talks, (I/you/we/they) talk
past participle: (has/have) talked
present participle: (am/is/are) talking

infinitive: to sing
past tense: sang
present tense: (he/she/it) sings, (I/you/we/they) sing
past participle: (has/have) sung
present participle: (am/is/are) singing

infinitive: to take
present tense: (he/she/it) takes, (I/you/we/they) take
past tense: took
present participle: (am/is/are) taking
past participle: (has/have) taken

Exercise: Come up with verbs and put them into the frames below to come up with the five forms for each verb. Where is there overlap?

infinitive: I really want to ___________ today.
present tense: She __________ on most days.
past tense: He __________ yesterday.
present participle: They are/were ___________ at noon.
past participle: We have/had already ___________ before they arrived.

See the verb form chart with examples.

The Infinitive. The infinitival form of the verb expresses no tense. It is the bare form of the verb and is preceded by to: to coerce, to dance, to chow down.

Exercise: What is the connection in meaning between the words infinity and infinitive? After hypothesizing, look them up!

Present Tense: Although we don't have any problem using present tense, it can be a bit hard to identify because of the lack of present tense suffixes in English. You can conjugate a verb with all of the subject pronouns to see this lack of tense marking:

I sing
you sing
he/she sings
we sing
you (all) sing
they sing

So it's only with he/she that there is a different form: sings. In many other languages, and in older forms of English too, there is a different ending to go with each subject pronoun. Here's the conjugation of sing in Old English, where there were four different endings. I'll use the modern version of the pronouns:

I singe, you singest, he or she singeth, we singath, you all singath, they singath

So although the language has simplified over time the endings used to mark present tense, there is still a present tense form of the verb. It just happens to look like the infinitive in most cases. We know as speakers, though, when it is tensed.

Past Tense. The past tense form of the verb is typically affixed with -ed, and there are some other irregular patterns.

What are some verbs that form their past tense by adding -t, such as swept?
What are some verbs that form their past tense by changing the vowel, such as sang?
What are some verbs that form their past tense by changing nothing, such as cut?

Past and Present Participles
The past and present participles of the verb typically occur with an auxiliary verb have or be (which we'll return to).

The present participle form is the -ing form of the verb. In fact, you can call it that, if you want. These occur with a form of be: am, is, are, was, were.
The koala is eating the eucalyptus.
The kangaroos were hopping over the fence.

The past participle occurs with a form of have: has, have, or had:
A fox has spotted a rabbit.
The hawk had eaten a rabbit.

The present participle is easy to identify; it always has the -ing. The past tense form is a little trickier to identify since it sometimes looks exactly like the past tense. The difference, though, is that the past tense always occurs alone and the past participle has to occur with has, have, or had.

past tense past participle
talked had talked
understood have understood
brought had bought
sang have sung
saw seen

Activity - Past and present participle: Come up with at least eight verbs and write their past tense and past participial forms. Compare with others and discuss.

Activity - present vs. present participle/progressive. Find examples of the present tense in a book or other text. Write them down and discuss your findings.

Is the present ever used to describe something not happening right now? If so, why do you think that is? Are there other ways besides using the present tense verb form to convey that something is happening now? It may be tempting to want to say that examples like the following are in present tense.

She is running a race today.
We are eating sitting at a caf\&\#233;.

However, so far we have only discussed the forms of individual verbs. So in this first example above, is is present tense and running is the present participle. The two words together express what is called the progressive aspect - we'll get to that - but they don't express the present tense.

Dialectal Variation in Past Participial Forms

There has always been some overlap in past tense and past participle forms in English, and probably because of this overlap in forms, there has long been variation. For example, what would you say in these examples?

I have already ____________ (insert past participle of verb swim) across the lake.
You should have ___________ (insert past participle of verb mow) the lawn.
He should have ____________ (insert past participle of verb prove) he could do it.

More than one form is possible in all of these. Language is always changing, and which form of any of these words is considered more standard is determined only be what the majority of speakers end up using.