We previously discussed that a vocabulary consisting only of nouns does not make a fluent speaker. There are many more parts of speech to consider: adverbs, adjectives, gender, voice, and most importantly verbs.
Verbs are the most complicated part of any sentence. The very mention of verbs can turn people off learning another language. This should not be the case, and with a realistic study plan the obstacle of verbs can be overcome.
As agreed in the previous article, I have adopted a slower pace in my explanation of verbs and I have missed out the more technical aspects of verbs.
No one becomes a master of English overnight, and if your study time is well planned out, then you will soon be on your way to a good understanding of verbs.
In the first part of this article we discussed ‘conjugation’. This means to change a verb due to the person doing the action, and when the action took place. This is demonstrated in the following two examples:
- I talk to myself when studying.
- He walks while talking on his mobile phone.
Conjugation is the inflection of verbs. Inflection is a very broad term which means to modify a word to express many different categories of grammar such as aspect, case, gender, mood, number, person, voice, and tense. The inflection of other parts of speech including adjectives, nouns, and pronouns is known as ‘declension’.
The present continuous
This tense is used for actions that are happening in the present tense but are not endless or routine. You may venture out with a friend to a restaurant and there is a sudden change in the weather, and you say to your friend:
- It is snowing.
Unless you live in Antarctica, the snow will not be permanent and will change with the seasons, for this reason you are describing the snow using the present continuous.
To form the present continuous we must use what is known as the ‘present participle’. This is the verb in its infinitive form, and with ‘-ing’ at the end. Please see the following examples:
- Do you mind? We’re talking.
- I’m at home, sitting at my computer.
- She’s out walking her dog.
The present continuous can also be considered irregular as it can also describe an action that will take place in the future:
- I’m travelling to South Korea next week.
- Next year, I will be teaching English in Singapore.
The present perfect
If you are referring to an event that took place at a time you have not specified, then you would use what is known as the present perfect.
For instance, let’s say you had been to a hotel in Shanghai but could not remember when. You may refer to the event as in the following example:
- I have stayed in the Baolong Hotel in Shanghai.
Notice that the conjugation of the verb does not change for the second person singular, third person singular, first person plural, second person plural, or third person plural:
- You have stayed in the Baolong Hotel in Shanghai.
- He/She/It has stayed in the Baolong Hotel in Shanghai.
- We have stayed in the Baolong Hotel in Shanghai.
- You (plural) have stayed in the Baolong Hotel in Shanghai.
- They have stayed in the Baolong Hotel in Shanghai.
The construction of the present perfect is clear from the above examples: the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ is needed together with the simple past form of the main verb ending ‘stayed’.
The present perfect continuous
When describing an action that started in the past and is still ongoing, you must use what is known as the present perfect continuous. Please consider the following sentences:
- I have been driving through Malaysia since yesterday.
- I have been talking to him since this morning.
- He has been studying karate since last year.
As you can guess from its name, the present perfect continuous tense is a combination of the continuous and the perfect.
The simple past tense
Unlike the present perfect tense, the simple past tense is used to describe an action that took place at a specific time, such as the following:
- I travelled to India in April of 2008.
- I walked to the store this morning.
- He talked to my mother on Tuesday.
- On Wednesday they talked to my brother.
The past continuous
If you are describing an event in the past which was interrupted by a shorter event, you can use the past continuous.
As an example, you may say either of the following sentences:
- I was travelling home to Delhi when it started to rain.
- I was running home when I dropped my mobile phone.
In the above sentences ‘when it started to rain’ and ‘I dropped my mobile phone’ are both in the simple past as they are interruptions. The longer event in the sentences such as ‘travelling’ and ‘running’ are in a tense which is the same as the present continuous.
Although they follow the rules in regard to general tense, irregular verbs have inflections (alterations to their form) that do not comply with regular verbs. Please take a look at the following regular Japanese verbs:
- Nom-anai - doesn’t drink
- Ik-anai - doesn’t go
- Wakar-anai - doesn’t understand
- Hanas-anai - doesn’t speak
You can see a clear pattern to the above verbs, which would allow us to refer to them as regular verbs. Now look at the following three irregular Japanese verbs:
- Konai - doesn’t come
- Shinai - doesn’t do
- Nai - there isn’t
The changes are small, and subtle, but their differences to a large list of regular verbs can make them tricky to memorise.
Just like the Japanese language, English also has many irregular verbs. You may remember the following sentence from the first part of this article:
- We was walking our dog.
Of course, it should be ‘We were walking our dog’ but it is also a reminder that the word ‘was’ is an irregular verb. See the following sentences and notice how the irregular verb sticks out:
- I was walking my dog.
- You were walking your dog.
- He/She/It was walking his/her/its dog.
- We were walking our dog.
- You (plural) were walking your dog.
- They were walking their dog.
Developing an ear for verbs
If you were to stop an English native speaker on the street and ask what a ‘past continuous’ verb is, you may get a look of bewilderment.
As with your own native language, verbs are very complex and most people will not be able to explain how they are formed. Most English native speakers can use very complicated verb forms without thinking about them. This is due to constant use of the verbs without fully understanding how they work.
Practice makes perfect, and a native language is absorbed subconsciously as a young child and recalled easily at will. This form of learning is simple mimicking without really grasping why a verb needs to be simple perfect or past continuous.
This skill may seem to be something only a native speaker of English can master. It seems an unfair advantage when you consider the English speaker was born into their language. However, you too can develop an ear for English verbs and it needn’t be painful.
Similarly, while I was learning Japanese, I studied a range of everyday verb forms over and over for a few days. I then watched a Japanese movie, or listened to a Japanese radio station to see how many times I can pick up the form of the verb I have learned.
Please feel free to try this method and see if it works for you when it comes to learning English verbs. Remember that there are great musicians who can play from sheet music, but also great musicians who have nothing but a well trained ear.
Hero image by Seth Doyle (CC0 1.0)