Am I using the right verb form?

Verbs, along with subjects, are the most important words in any sentence because together they carry most of the meaning. Error with verbs have decreased over the two decades between the dates of the national studies of the twenty most common errors in undergraduate writing, reduced from 4 types or errors to just one. However, the error of wrong/missing inflected ending, coupled with wrong/missing auxiliary, does appear as #17 in the similar, though much smaller, study by Thus it’s useful to review verbs and some of the issues writers face.

This post will look at verb forms – those in the Standard English variety, as well as the variations in other versions or vernaculars of English, especially the Black English variety. There is considerable linguistic variation within all racial groups in the U.S., with Standard English being the version that is in power and used in academia and the professions. Despite common prejudice, other versions are not “sub-standard,” but have their own consistent syntax and rules for usage, including verb forms (“Black English”).

All English verbs have 5 forms (except for the verb be).




















Some errors in using the standard verb forms occur when the verb endings are not clearly pronounced. In addition, some varieties of English have different endings than those in standard academic English (Everyday Writer 15, 106).

Verbs have a special characteristic: they are the only words that can show by a change in their spelling whether they mean present or past time: talk, talked; adore, adored; see, saw; speak, spoke.

These changes in spelling are called inflections. Many languages, such as Latin and German, are more highly inflected than English. Most native English speakers will recognize the verb (and the tense) in this nonsense sentence because of the inflection ~ed: The rumfrums prattly biggled the poohba. (Even without knowing the meanings of the words, because of the word order and the other inflections [~s on the end of rumfrum and the ~ly on the end of pratt], you can infer that some things called rumfrums did something to a pooba:  They biggled it . . . in a prattly way.)

The last two examples of verbs under the discussion of special characteristics, or changes in spelling to show tense, are see/saw and speak/spoke. These are also examples of irregular verbs. Most verbs in English have a past tense and past participle formed with –ed. Errors in verb form often involve verbs with irregular forms, such as begin, began, begun or break, broke, broken. For instance, some years ago, a newscaster declared, “The ship sunk. It just sunk.” He used the past participle form sunk, instead of the past tense form sank. Most English irregular verbs come from Old English or derive from strong Germanic words, and some 200 are in normal use. (As discussed in the previous post, these irregular forms can result in spelling errors.)

The most irregular verb is be, which has eight forms: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being.

Verbs can be expanded with auxiliary or helping verbs, one of which is the verb be. As Kolln points out (Rhetorical Grammar 10), auxiliary verbs provide “variations in meaning related to tense (time) and such conditions as probability, possibility, obligation, and necessity (mood).” Here are the primary auxiliaries:

Forms of be:

Be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being

Forms of have:

have, has had


can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must, ought to

Some varieties of English use the verbs be and have in ways that differ significantly from the usage in Standard English. Because of this, these uses may be labeled as errors (The Everyday Writer 19). However, these varieties have valid linguistic patterns; they are just different from those preferred in academic and professional English. For instance, not only are the Black English stems of verbs different from Standard English, but the use of the auxiliary be is different.

In Standard English (SE), be is used as a linking verb, but not so in Black English (BE):

SE: If you are interested

BE: If you interested

Black English uses the verb be to mark action that is habitual or continuous, but it does not change its grammatical form:

He be goin’ marks action as continuous so that the absence of be indicates discontinuous action: He goin’ (which marks action which may be either a present or past event).

When deciding on the use of the right verb forms, it’s important as with all usage rules to consider the setting and audience, as well as the English variety (vernacular, dialect) of the writing. What may be marked as errors in verb form in Standard English may be preferred or required forms in another variety. Since academia and most other professions require Standard English, it’s important to know the rules in order to meet those conventions.

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