Conjugating verbs in English: A beginner’s guide

For students that are learning English and people training to be ESL teachers, conjugating verbs in English is something that often causes confusion, but it is usually in two different ways. For the non-native learner of English the problem lies with the irregularity of the way verbs conjugate. Take “drink” for example, the main conjugations there are drink, drank, drunk, so a learner of English might then mistakenly think conjugating “think” is think, thank, thunk. The reality is when learning English there are many situations that you just have to know what is correct, you can’t always rely on rules to let you know.

Native Speakers

A native speaker won’t have any problem conjugating verbs in English, unless they have had a very poor education. They don’t have to think whether it is “I have already eaten” versus “I have already ate” for example. If, though, someone wants to become an ESL teacher, they will have to know the why as well as the how.

Conjugating Verbs

Conjugating verbs in English can be separated into five groups, the base verb, the present verb, the past verb, the past participle and the present participle. In some countries, notably in Asia, they use a simple numbering system instead of the above words, they use V0, V1, V2, V3, Ving respectively. I can see the thinking behind this as the former names can cause some confusion for learners of English as a “present” participle can be used in a past or a future tense. This often catches students out and causes confusion.
Below you can see two simple images taken from a video I put together that shows how to recognize which verb is which.
 Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 3.27.09 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-26 at 3.26.35 PM

Difficult Verbs to Conjugate

There are a number of verbs which are quite tricky to conjugate for anyone. “Hang”, for example. Is this a regular verb or an irregular verb? As a regular verb, the past verb (V2) and the past participle (V3) would just add “ed”. If it were an irregular verb it’s conjugation would be hang , hung, hung. This is an example of a verb for which you have to know the meaning  before you conjugate it. Hang, meaning “to suspend by the neck until dead” is a regular verb, but hang as in “to attach or place something so that it is held up without support from below” is an irregular verb. You hear a lot of people misuse this. They will say, ” The cowboy was hung at noon.” for example.
Other verbs that cause all sorts of problems when conjugating are lie and lay. People always confuse these two as the past tense of lie is lay which students then confuse with lay. The easy way to remember is that lie means to recline and never takes an object, but lay means to place something, or to place something on something. As you can see from the definition lay is a verb that always has to have an object.
So you lie down, not lay down and you  lay the mat on the floor. An easy way to remember is to just write out the conjugations next to each other and you should never mix them up again, like so.

lie, lay, lain

lay, laid, laid

Now here’s a clip about conjugating verbs from one of my videos that accompany the grammar section of the Gold TEFL teacher training course. It can also be found in the Grammar Refresher Course too.

So, if you would like to become an ESL teacher and travel to teach your way around the world, one of the areas you’ll have to focus on is conjugating verbs in English. It’s important unto itself, but will be even more important once you start to learn about English tenses.
Good Luck!
April 26, 2015

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