Finite verb forms in English

Why should you care about finite verb forms?

Finite verb forms in English contain a lot of information. They mark number, person, tense, and mood, all of which contribute to meaning.

Finite verbs are also the the part of the verb phrase that has to agree with the subject (in person and number). In the example below, the subjects are green and the finite verbs are in bold.

If my neighbor’s stupid kids don’t turn down that awful music soon,   I   am going to lose my mind.

Subject-verb agreement is an important part of English grammar. When you make mistakes with subject-verb agreement, it makes it harder for people to understand what you mean. Unless the context is very clear, listeners don’t know if the mistake is in the verb form or in the subject. For example, where is the error in the sentence below?

The package you ordered have arrived. X

We don’t know for sure which is correct:
The package you ordered has arrived (one package).
The packages you ordered have arrived (more than one package).

Even if the meaning is clear from the context, subject-verb agreement errors tend to draw more than their fair share of attention, distracting and even annoying the listener. So it’s worth making the effort to get them right!

Finite verb forms

All English verbs have finite forms for present and past; for example, go vs.went, and stop vs. stopped. (NOTE: A few irregular verbs (put, set, cost, etc.) have present and past forms that are the same.)

All non-modal English verbs (except be) also change form for the third person singular in the present tense (he/she/it goes).

All of this might seem confusing, but the pattern is really pretty straightforward. Look at Table 1 below, and you’ll see it’s a lot simpler in table form.

Table 1. FINITE VERB FORMS
NUMBER PERSON PRESENT PAST
SINGULAR
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • I walk
  • you walk
  • he/she/it walks
  • I walked
  • you walked
  • he/she/it walked
PLURAL
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • we walk
  • you walk
  • they walk
  • we walked
  • you walked
  • they walked

Finite forms of be

The verb be is the naughty problem child of the finite verb family, because it doesn’t follow the regular pattern of most other verbs. (See Table 2 below.)

Table 2. BE
NUMBER PERSON PRESENT PAST
SINGULAR
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • I am
  • you are
  • he/she/it is
  • I was
  • you were
  • he/she/it was
PLURAL
  • FIRST
  • SECOND
  • THIRD
  • we are
  • you are
  • they are
  • we were
  • you were
  • they were

The two most frequent verbs in English – be and have

Be and have are extremely frequent in English — in fact, they are the two MOST FREQUENTLY OCCURRING verbs. It’s not just because being and having are generally common things to talk about. The finite forms of be and have used in many English tenses, for example: Continue reading…

Phrasal verbs – essential things to know

Josh Evans of Spoken phrasal verb english lesson

Josh Evans, online English teacher from the Spoken Language Learning Platform

There is one topic that English learners seem to ask about more than any other: phrasal verbs. These strange little verbs are a real challenge for learners!

In this English lesson from Josh Evans, you will learn the main reasons that phrasal verbs are difficult for English learners, and how you can make learning them easier.

Josh has taught English in many different settings — all across China, at a university in the USA, and now teaches English online with the Spoken language learning platform.

Take it away, Josh!

All You Need to Know about Phrasal Verbs! (Plus a Bonus Exercise for FB Messenger!)

by Josh Evans, Head of Instruction at Spoken.io

Phrasal verbs get their name from the fact that, unlike other verbs, they consist of more than one word. Here are three examples:

1. “I’m afraid I must turn down your offer.” (turn down = reject)
2. “I’d like to think over the plan before making a decision.” (think over = consider)
3. “You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.” (look up = search for)

Why are phrasal verbs so difficult to learn?

There are four main reasons why English phrasal verbs are such a challenge for English learners.

1. Phrasal verbs are deceptively familiar
Continue reading…

Narrative tenses in conversational English – past, present, and future

Telling stories is a huge part of conversational English, so being comfortable with narrative tenses is important for English fluency.

Most English lessons about narrative tenses in English focus on the following 4 tenses:

Past simple
Past perfect
Past continuous
Past perfect continuous

But did you know that you can use present tenses in English conversations even when you are telling a story about the past? This is often overlooked in ESL / EFL lessons about narrative tenses.

English teachers often say that when you tell a story about something that happened in the past, you should only use past tenses. That is generally true for formal narratives, such as fiction writing or telling structured stories/anecdotes. In more “formal” stories speakers tend to stick to past tense verb forms.

But what about informal conversations? Do you have to stick to past tenses when you, for example, tell your friend about the terrible accident you narrowly avoided while driving home from work a couple of days ago?

In conversational stories, you don’t have to stick to past tenses. You can shift between past, present and even future verb forms. Native speakers do this all the time.

But that doesn’t mean that anything goes! You can’t merrily shift between past and present with no rhyme or reason. Native speakers don’t randomly choose verb tenses when they telling their stories. There are solid grammatical principles driving their choice of verb forms.

While writing the transcript for one of the Better at English podcast episodes, I noticed some great examples of past-present narrative shifts. So let’s look at a few!

Most of the conversation is me telling my friend about an exciting experience I’d had earlier that day while shopping for office supplies. (Yes, I get excited about office supplies!).

Conversation extract 1

Lori: Something kind of funny happened SIMPLE PAST (1) to me when I was shopping PAST CONTINUOUS (2) for office supplies today.

The excerpt above is a good example of using the past continuous (2) to give background context for the important events that make up the story. The important events (1) are given in the simple past. You can see this relationship in the timeline below.

narrative tenses simple past and past continuous

(1) Past simple and (2) past continuous / progressive

So far the conversation is within the realm of standard narrative tenses. But have a look at this next example:

Conversation extract 2

L: My boss had given PAST PERFECT (3) me a list of office supplies to buy on my way home from a teaching gig, because I drive SIMPLE PRESENT (4) right past the office supply shop.

The first verb (3) is in the past perfect. It makes sense because when we tell stories in English we use the past perfect as “the past in the past,” to talk about events that happened before the events that make up our real story. In story time, I received the list BEFORE I did the shopping. You can see the relationship between (1), (2), and (3) in the timeline below.

Narrative tenses

(1) Simple past, (2) Past continuous, (3) Past perfect

But the above example also includes a simple present verb (4): “because I drive right past the office supply shop.

What grammar rule is behind that sudden shift to the simple present?

The answer might not be immediately obvious. Continue reading…