As with most areas of the English language, forming different tenses from verbs has some basic rules which can be frequently broken. With irregular verbs, there is often there is no easy way to know how a verb should be spelt in its present or past forms, or as a past participle. Even with regular verbs, things can be confusing! To help you identify certain patterns of spelling across the tenses, though, here are some tips for forming present and past verbs, and past and present participles.
Present Simple Spelling Rules
The present simple is formed by either using the root of a verb on its own, or by adding -s (or -es) to the root. The –s or –es is used for third person singular subjects (he, she, it, John, an object), so it is sometimes called the third person singular s. Plurals and first person subjects do not require the extra s.
- The cat walks (+s because it is third person singular)
- Cats walk silently. (no s because it is a plural)
- I like reading. (no s because it is first person)
Irregular present simple forms
Irregular verbs often have unique forms, but sometimes still have hints towards a third person singular s in their third person singular form.
- He has a guitar. but I have a banjo.
- She is a nurse. but They are
These irregular forms cannot be formed by adding s to the root of a verb, but it is useful to know that the third person singular form is usually one with an s, if you have a choice between two forms.
Past Tense Spelling Rules
To form the past tense, and regular past participles, regular verbs usually use the root of the verb +ed. For example:
- to walk – walked
- to play – played
- to book – booked
Many verbs ending with a vowel followed by a single consonant (e.g. prefer, con, tan) add a second consonant before +ed. These are still considered regular verbs.
- They preferred to eat cake. (to prefer)
- We manned the office. (to man)
- He plotted to overthrow the king. (to plot)
Verbs ending with “y”
For regular verbs ending in a consonant +y, we replace the y with +ied. Verbs ending +ied are usually considered regular verbs.
- She studied (to study)
- They married (to marry)
With short verbs ending in a vowel +y, we often replace y with +id. Verbs ending with the +id form are considered irregular.
- I paid my taxes. (to pay)
- He laid the table. (to lay)
Verbs ending with “e”
Regular verbs that end with e only add d. These are considered regular.
- I moved (to move)
- We settled the bill. (to settle)
Using “+t” instead of “+ed”
You may see a number of regular verbs that use +t instead of +ed. Many of these verbs have two past forms. Both forms are correct, and have the same meaning.
Common examples include:
- burned – burnt
- dreamed – dreamt
- earned – earnt
- leaped – leapt
- leaned – leant
- learned – learnt
- smelled – smelt
- spelled – spelt
- spoiled – spoilt
There are many rules that try to explain the differences, such as:
- American English uses the +ed form and British English uses +t.
- The +ed form is for the simple past and +t for the past participle (perfect past).
- The +ed form is used for ongoing actions and +t for complete actions.
These are not strict rules, though. You will find exceptions to all of them.
The truth is that +t forms are an old fashioned spelling, and in fact both the +ed and +t forms are correct. Using (or not using) each is a matter of style, and not grammar.
Beware though: the pronunciation of many past verbs may sound like +t, but only a select few verbs still have +t as an accepted spelling.
Rare regular verb rules
Additional spelling patterns may apply to other regular English verb groups, but are not always true. For example, many verbs ending consonant +c add +ked (panic becomes panicked). Some verbs follow this pattern, but some do not (arc becomes arced).
In many cases, it is necessary to learn individual regular verb spellings, as well as irregular verb spellings. This chaotic system of spelling comes from English’s long history of mixing different languages and lettering systems. It presents an ongoing challenge in learning English, even for native speakers.
Irregular past forms
There are over 200 irregular verbs in common use in the English language, and many hundreds more to learn as you continue to improve your vocabulary. Many lists of irregular verbs are available on the internet.
As with the rare regular verb rules, there are some rules for certain irregular verb types (for example, buy becomes bought and seek becomes sought). Also as with the rare regular verb rules, these rules cannot be applied consistently, and it is easier to learn the verbs individually.
When you know the verb forms, irregular verbs behave the same way as regular verbs. It is only the spellings that are different.
Irregular Past Participles
There is a huge number of irregular verbs in the English language, with no one rule to form the past participle. As with the Irregular forms, irregular past participles must be learnt individually.
- I had given my pen away.
We had broken the rules.
Spelling patterns for the present participle
The present participle is formed using the stem of the verb +ing. For instance read becomes reading.
The present participle remains the same for all subjects.
- I was reading.
- She was reading in the rain.
- They were reading too loud.
It is sometimes formed using two consonants before +ing, for instance plan becomes planning. This usually happens when a single consonant follows a short vowel sound.
- Our team was winn but The children were whining. (whine has a long vowel)
- We were running fast. but She was sending a letter. (send has two consonants)
Verbs ending –e often lose the –e before +ing:
- to excite – exciting
- to bake – baking
- to trade – trading