Verbs: More than Just Action Words! | Part 3: Changes in Verb Forms

Hello everyone! I’m Mr Ng Guo Liang, an English Language Curriculum Specialist and Teacher at Lil’ but Mighty.

We are back to learn more about verbs and verb form changes. If you have been following my previous posts, you would have already known that this is the third and last in a series of posts on verbs. What we have been exploring in these posts will definitely help you when you check your work for paper 1 or summary writing, or to spot verb-related errors in the editing section.

Verbs: More than Just Action Words!

We previously learnt about what verbs are and how they can change forms based on three conditions. Here’s a brief recap of it:

A verb is any word that can change its form based on three conditions:

  1. The number of subjects it has

  2. Tense

  3. Its position in a clause

In the last two posts, we focused on the first two conditions (this post builds on the previous two so do have a look at my previous two posts if you’ve not already done so!). In this post, we’ll explore how verbs can change forms based on their position in a clause.


3. The Verb’s Position in a Clause

A verb’s position in a clause is much more important than you think it is, and I do not say this lightly! Allow me to illustrate why.

At some point in our lives, we’ve all been asked that hateful question by our English teachers: ‘What tense is this in?’. Now, I would like you to consider the tense of the following phrases ‘I have eaten’ and ‘I have contributed’. What tense are these phrases in? Present? Past? The verb ‘have’ should be a present tense verb, but what about the verbs ‘eaten’ and ‘contributed’ which look like past tense verbs? How can we determine the tense when they contain verbs that look like both present and past tense verbs! This is why learning about verb positions is so important because it can help you to answer such questions.

Before we continue, let’s refresh our memory of what a clause is. In English, a clause is one unit of a subject and its verb. So the phrase ‘I like grammar’ is a clause because it has a subject (‘I’) and its verb (‘like’) to complete the pair. In a sentence therefore, we can have multiple clauses — each with their own subject and verb.

Now that we have refreshed our memories on what a clause is, let’s look at how verbs can change forms based on their position in a clause. In a clause, there can be more than one verb grouped together (e.g. I was eating apples’). When we have more than one verb appearing together in a clause as a group, we call them a verb group; where each individual verb appears in a verb group is

extremely important! Their position in a clause determines which form they should be in and the characteristics they will have. Let’s look at a few examples:

Verbs more than action words

In the clauses above, I have made annotations to make studying them a little easier for you. The numbers above each verb indicate its position in the verb group. Do you already notice a pattern that exists between a verb’s position and its tense? In all of the clauses above, the verb in position 1 is the first verb in the clause. And in English, only the first verb tells us the tense of the clause (the other verbs after the first have no tense at all). In this instance, all three clauses are in the present tense since ‘am’ and ‘have’ are present tense verbs.

This rule is extremely important as it allows us to determine the tense of clauses where there seems to be both a present tense verb and a past tense verb. Sounds impossible? Here are a couple of examples:

Verbs more than action words

In the examples above, even though ‘contributed’ and ‘said’ seemed to be in the past tense forms, the clauses are still in the present tense because the first verb ‘have’ is in present tense, and only the first verb carries tense for the whole clauses.

No matter how many verbs there are in a clause, all we have to do to determine the tense, is to look at the first verb! So whenever your teacher asks you that hateful ‘what tense is this in’ question, look out for the first verb you see in the clause – you’ll get it right all the time and impress your teacher! (Note that modal verbs are an exception to this rule, which could very well warrant a blog post on its own. Should you want me to write a post on it, do let us know!)

You might be wondering at this point: What then do we make of the verbs ‘contributed’ and ‘said’ in the examples above? How can they look like past tense verbs yet have no tense? What do we call them?

What do we call verbs that appear after the first verb?

This is actually (and surprisingly) simpler than most people think it is! Verbs that appear after the first verb are more often than not in either of the following two forms:

  • The past participle form (verbs that look like past tense verbs)

  • The continuous form (verbs that end with –ing)

None of the above two forms carry any tense. Here are some examples:

Verbs more than just action words

Verbs more than just action wordsIn some clauses, you might even see the participle and continuous forms used one after the other, like these examples below:

Verbs more than just action wordsIn all the sentences above, note that the past participle forms and the continuous forms can never appear in position 1 as the first verb. They can only occupy the positions after the first verb. Note also that past participles and continuous forms have no tense and can never carry any tense. These rules are absolute in the English Language.


How Verb Forms Change at Different Positions in a Clause

As we have already mentioned, a verb’s form can change depending on the position it appears in a clause.

Take for example, my favourite verb: the verb ‘eat’. ‘Eat’ has a few forms (eat, eats, ate, eaten, eating).

The forms ‘eat’, ‘eats’, and ‘ate’ can only appear in position 1 because they are specifically present and past tense verbs:

Verbs more than just action wordsThese forms cannot appear after position 1 (for example, I cannot say ‘they have eat/eats/ate the apples’) because those verbs carry tense and like we learned earlier, verbs after position 1 cannot carry tense. Once the verb ‘eat’ moves to position 2 or 3, eat/eats/ate can no longer be used, and the form must change to either the past participle (eaten) or continuous form (eating) as these verb forms carry no tense.

Verbs more than just action words

Verb more than just action words

Think you have a good sense of the things you’ve learnt today? Want to put your new knowledge and wisdom to the test? I’ll put down a few clauses below so that you can test your understanding of tenses, the verb positions, and the participle and continuous forms.

For each clause:

  • Underline the verb that shows the tense and label it with the correct tense.

  • Circle the past participle and/or box up the continuous form.

Here are two examples which have been done for you:

Verbs more than just action words

Your turn!

Verbs more than just action wordsLet’s now check your answers:

Verbs more than just action words

Did you manage to get all the answers right? If you did, great job! And if you got a few of them wrong, don’t be disheartened! Practice makes perfect! (It took me many years to understand verbs too). Study and revise the things you’ve learnt here, and apply them to your daily lives. You can practise these things when you are checking your work for verb form mistakes, or even identify the tenses and forms of the verbs in the verb groups you come across when reading. The more you practise these things, the better you’ll get at it, and soon, it will become second nature to you!

This brings us to the end of this post, and this series of blog posts on verbs. Have you gained a much better understanding of what verbs are and how they work in our language? I’ve had a lot of fun writing this series and hope that you’ve enjoyed learning about verbs as I much as I did writing about them. Although we have barely scratched the surface on verbs in the grammar of the English language, I hope that you now see and understand that verbs are so much more than just ‘action words’!

On behalf of the Lil’ but Mighty Family, stay happy, stay safe, and stay healthy!


2021 Secondary School Schedule

Mr. Ng

Mr Ng firmly believes that there is a strong correlation between effort and eventual success, and that finding success in English is something that is attainable by all of his students regardless of their background and starting point. He has a strong love and passion for the language and hopes to inspire that same passion in his students through his lessons. That being said, he looks forward to bringing out the best in his students and guiding them to fulfil the potential they all have.

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