A crash course in verbs

They power every sentence we say and write, but how much do you remember or know about these action-packed parts of speech? Prepare for a refresher.

Anyone remember the six primary verb tenses? How about the difference between infinitives and gerunds? Can you name the two forms of verbs?

Verbs power our sentences. They show action or state of being or indicate the time of that action or state. As professional writers and editors, we sometimes focus so much on choosing the right verbs that we forget the very basics of these powerful and sometimes troublesome parts of speech.

Here’s a brief refresher:

Regular and irregular verbs

Verbs are classified according to form as regular or irregular. A regular verb forms its principal parts by adding d or ed to the present tense to form the past tense and past participle:

• edit, edited, edited.

An irregular verb forms the past tense and past participle by changing the form of the present tense:

• write, wrote, written.


Tense indicates something about the verb’s time frame.

Present tense:

I write 500 words per day.

Past tense:

I wrote 2,000 words over the weekend.

Future tense:

I will write that article next month.

Present perfect tense—the action is complete but still important at the present time:

I have missed three deadlines this week.

Past perfect tense—past action occurred before some other past action. (A happened before B happened):

I had missed several deadlines before that.

Future perfect tense—the action will occur by the time another future action has occurred:

I will have finished the book before he arrives.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs are added to the main verb to create a verb phrase. The last word in the verb phrase is the main verb; all preceding words in the phrase are called auxiliaries:

is burning;

did stand;

has been grown;

could have watched.

Person and number

A verb must always agree with its subject in person and number. Number refers to singular or plural. Person refers to whether the subject of the verb is speaking, spoken to, or spoken about:

First person—I and we;

Second person—you;

Third person—includes all nouns and pronouns except I, we, and you.


The mood of a verb is the manner in which the action or state of being is stated. There are three moods in English.

The indicative mood states a fact or asks a question:

I never miss a deadline.

What time is lunch?

The imperative mood is used to give commands:

Stand aside.

Look that word up in the dictionary.

The subjunctive mood—largely the use of were for was and would for will—has limited use. Use subjunctive mood to express something that is contrary to fact or that is highly improbable. It can also be a variation on the conditional, offering a premise for a given set of circumstances:

If she were my friend, I would tell her the truth.

Had he been there, he’d have laughed out loud.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot …


In the active voice, the subject acts or controls the actions of the verb:

We all make mistakes.

In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:

Mistakes were made.

Verbals: participles, infinitives, and gerunds

A verbal is a verb form used as another part of speech. The participle is used as an adjective; the gerund is used as a noun, and the infinitive is used as a noun, adjective, or adverb.

The present participle is formed by adding ing to the simple form of a verb: writing, reading, editing. The past participle is the third principal part of the verb: written, fallen, seen. The perfect participle consists of having or having been plus the past participle: having written, having fallen, having been seen.

Infinitives are the to forms of verbs and can be used as a noun, adjective or adverb:

To fight was foolish. (noun)

This is the way to fight him. (adjective)

He is ready to fight. (adverb)

Gerunds are present participles (writing, reading, editing) functioning as nouns:

Reading might help you sleep.

John’s favorite activity is complaining.

Verbs have been described as the most troublesome part of speech in the English language. After reviewing these verb basics, do you agree?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more of her work at www.impertinentremarks.com.

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