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What Are the Principal Parts of a Verb?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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The principal parts of a verb are its present tense, its present participle, its past tense, and its past participle. The present tense of a regular verb is also sometimes called its infinitive or base form. The present participle is generally used to describe actions that are ongoing. The past tense and past participle of a verb are sometimes spelled the same way; the difference with the past participle is that it includes a modifying word or an adjective that can slightly alter the precise meaning. An irregular verb is one that does not follow all of the same grammatical conjunction rules when it comes to its principal parts, and these exceptions can often require additional practice and memorization.

A standard regular verb follows a set of rules for its principal parts that is often fairly straightforward. Forming the past tense of one of these verbs usually involves adding "-ed" or sometimes just "-d" to the end of its present tense. The past tense of the word "walk" would be "walked" according to this rule. Applying the present participle rule would normally entail adding "-ing" to the end of the present tense, creating the word "walking" as the present participle of "walk." A modifying word is necessary to create the past participle out of the past tense of this same word; two possible examples could be "has walked" or "have walked" depending on the singular or plural tense of the subject.

Irregular verbs frequently need extra attention when it comes to learning the correct usage of their principal parts. These verbs include those with different words rather than just different spellings used for their past tenses or past participles. An example would be the past tense "ate" for the present tense of the word "eat", and the past participle of this word simply adds "-en" to the end of the present tense to create "eaten."

Successful language learning requires a good foundation in grammar concepts such as the principal parts of verbs because these are essential for accurately communicating past happenings and present circumstances to others. Correctly formulating these tenses and participles of different words in written work can also demonstrate the writer's credibility. Some second-language learners can easily confuse the past tense and past participle of some verbs at first; they may say or write "I seen" when they mean "I saw," for example. Consistent study of the sometimes subtle distinctions between these grammatical conjugations generally leads to fewer of such mistakes over time.

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Discussion Comments

By EdRick — On Jul 25, 2011

@MissDaphne - That's really interesting! I studied Latin in school, so I'm more familiar with Latin principal parts and haven't really thought about them in English.

Latin teachers will often make their students memorize all the principal parts of a verb when they learn the vocabulary. (To use an English analogy, you wouldn't just say "write," you would say "write-writing-wrote-written.") That way, you don't just know what the verb means, but you know how to create all the forms of it and don't write the Latin equivalent of "writed."

It's also important to know the principal parts because it helps you recognize other forms of the verb. To use another English example, if you don't know that "wrote" is the past tense of "write," you could spend a lot of time looking it up in the dictionary!

By MissDaphne — On Jul 25, 2011

As an English teacher, here's what I suggest for people trying to lern the principal parts of irregular verbs: learn them in groups. For instance, there's a whole group in which the past tense is made by changing a vowel sound and then the past participle has -en. (Two examples are eat, ate, eaten and write, wrote, written.) Learn those all at once!

All languages have irregular verbs as far as I know, but English has a unique situation because so many languages went into making our language. Latin-based languages change tense by changing a verb's endings, like dance and danced, but Anglo-Saxon (I think) made past tense by changing an internal vowel sound, like sit-sat and run-ran.

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