Introduction to Conjugation in English ; Apply It to Your Learning
Learning to conjugate in any language is a difficult task, especially when in your first foreign language. The best way to learn to conjugate in another language is to have a strong grasp on the concept of conjugation itself; why and how we use it in English and how it is used in the language you are learning.
[To preface this paragraph, conjugation in English is rather loose; many dialects will defy grammatical rules. Do not think of this of this as some sort of 'illegal' move, but simply how language evolves.]<h1>English Conjugation</h1>
English conjugation is quite simple - the difficulty comes in our numerous irregular verbs and verb tense usage, which we will return to.
Conjugation can simply be thought of as connections between a verb's endings or spellings and the verb's subject. I -> eat. You -> eat. He -> eats (note the s). I -> sing. You -> sing. We -> sing. It -> sings. When we think of a verb, we think of it in its infinitive form, as in "to eat," "to sing," or "to be." Most often, we will take the imperative and use it as a sort of stem to modify into grammatically correct phrases. The imperative in the case of "to eat" is "eat," and in the case of "to sing," it is "sing."
When we find the imperative, a conjugation table is used to conjugate the verb, for which English (and most other languages) has 6 different persons:
I (first person singular) | -#
you (second person singular) | -#
he/she/it (third person singular) | -s
we (first person plural) | -#
you (second person plural) | -#
they (third person plural) | -#
For regular verbs, this is the formula we follow for basic present-tense conjugations in which -# means no change and -s means add an 's' to the end. You may see a fairly noticeable pattern: almost all the conjugations except for third person singular are the same. Initially, this seems redundant; however, when conjugating tenses or irregular verbs, they are necessary and for the sake of uniformity - they are always used. When you learn languages other than English, the conjugations vary much more.
Let's conjugate "to sing;" Imperative: sing
I | sing
you | sing
he/she/it | sings
we | sing
you | sing
they | sing
"To sing" may seem like a fairly regular verb, doesn't it? It isn't - actually, it's a word many foreign language learners struggle with when using the many tenses of English. Conjugation does extend to which tense you are using, and in the case of "to sing" it is somewhat odd to English learners.
The trick with understanding English conjugation is knowing that there are multiple conjugation tables for each verb; in theory, there are 13 to 15 conjugation tables for any given verb of the English language. This will be covered further in verb tenses, but know that there are both compound forms which use auxiliary verbs and simple forms which do not.
There are an abundance of irregular verbs in English. Some may tell you that it's easier to find an irregular verb in English than to find a regular verb, and they have a point.
When we say "irregular verb" we mean a verb which, in any way, does not follow the generalized conjugation tables which were laid out above, but instead follow their own unique table. An example of such a verb is "to be."
"To be," Imperative: be
I | am
you | are
he/she/it | is
we | are
you | are
they | are
As you can see, none of the conjugations have anything to do with the imperative "be" or infinitive "to be," they are all unique and this is the mark of an irregular verb.
In other languages, it is important to find and conjugate the irregular verbs for yourself. No speakers will understand you otherwise, imagine someone speaking as such in English: "I are tired" or "we is angry." It's difficult to be taken seriously, isn't it?
A tense, when used in speaking about verbiage, defines a time at which the action took place or will take place. In the simple form, English uses two: Present and Preterite or Past. Further, we can break the verb into multiple forms: Infinitive, Imperative, Present Participle and Past Participle. Using these simple forms, we can basically combine them with other words to create any compound form.
Using a compound form, which English has many of, is something we do in our everyday lives incredibly often. So often, that we don't really notice it - and in writing, it's important to distinguish the meanings of these forms. Other languages don't usually have as many compound forms, but you will run into those that do frequently; such as Spanish.
As an English speaker learning a foreign language, it is your duty to use the correct forms without ever attempting a direct translation from English. It may works sometimes, but not very often: take German for example: "ich werde gegessen haben sein." "I will have been eating." Any German speaker will think the 'sein' at the end was the result of a strange speech impediment or perhaps a stroke, or simply understand that you are a learner.
Compound forms are used when you want to describe a time at which something was done or will be done; it is, again, found everywhere in English. Compound forms are called compound forms because they use multiple auxiliary verbs to form a verb phrase - think of it as putting together two or three pieces to make a whole.
I | eat
- Present tense of "to eat" for the first person singular. This is rarely used in every day speech, unless if you describing what you do from 5:00PM to 6:00PM.
I | am eating
- Present continuous tense of "to eat" for the first person singular. We use this much more often, generally in our need for small talk. You may be on the phone when you are asked "what are you doing?" by a friend, and this would be your response.
I | will have eaten
- The future perfect tense of "to eat" for the first person singular. You may use this in response to a question when making plans with your buddies; "will you be hungry at 2:30 for our hiking trip?" "No, I will have eaten by then."
There's a simple three forms of verb conjugation for "to eat." The verb "to eat" has six simple forms, two of which are conjugation tables and four are constructions - so to say.
Infinitive: To eat
Participle Past: eaten
Participle Present: eating
These constructions are used in the formation of the many compound tenses. In the compound tenses, when speaking of continuous you will generally use the present form. When speaking of perfect, you generally use the past form. When it is both, you use the present form. When speaking specifically in the future tense using the auxiliary "will," you use the imperative almost always.
This can be a struggle for learners to grasp, words such as "to sing" change from "I am singing a song" to "I sang a song," then finally to "I had sung a song." Picking up on irregularities is difficult with little exposure to a language.
English simply has so many forms because that's how it evolved and that's how people liked it. Artists took to the words and made their works, the language changed, and now we have ended up with what seems like a mess - but a beautiful mess. All languages go through this, and as language learners, we must all accept this.
Conjugation may seem like an archaic method to differentiate objects and subjects, past and present, but it's what we must learn in order to communicate effectively between each other and is simply one of the fundamentals of language. Conjugation must be understood in order to effectively learn a language.
I hope this was useful in explaining a bit about conjugation itself in English, and hopefully you can apply these concepts in learning other languages. I hope to do some more specifics with conjugation in the languages I know well.
Nice post. In English you could argue that conjugation is an unnecessary relic because it relies so heavily on word order now. Swedish for example uses the same verb endings in the present tense for first, second and third person, singular and plural (e.g. jag är, du är, hon är, vi är, ni är, de är = I am, you are etc).
Being a slave to grammatical tradition means it still annoys me when people get it intentionally wrong in English though :P (E.g. "When YOU boyfriend TRY to xyz..." as seen on facebook memes all the time).
With languages like Esperanto on the rise, I do believe conjugation is going to become less and less important in the future. I'd go so far as to say English may drop its cases or they will simply phase out in some generations. German is also experiencing this evolution, where word tenses are almost becoming obsolete outside of academic writing. It's definitely an interesting area of study!
Oh definitely. Sometimes grammar can become over simplified though. An example is the Bible. A lot of publishers are now choosing to use 'you' instead of 'thou' and 'thee', and 'your' instead of 'thy' and 'thine'. When interpretation is as critical as it can be with a text like the Bible (I'm not religious but a lot of people are so it makes a good point), I think in some ways it is worth preserving the archaic pronouns that give a more strict grammatical meaning.
Just a small factoid, the more commonly used a verb is the greater the likelihood of irregularity.
Yes that's true. I think it's a case of natural selection. Verbs which aren't used very often have to be 'regular' or no one would remember them. Whereas a verb as common as "to be" can be as irregular as it likes, because it is used so often that it will always be remembered anyway.
That's a very strong argument. Many words we seem to use frequently will undergo more nuance, and if you look at many irregular verbs they seem to have English roots where they may have been thought as more of a regular verb before significant changes took place. Regular verbs are new to English, or relatively new.
Other possible explanations are that regular verbs just coincidentally 'work' or perhaps in their original language they were regular - especially in Latin.