Definition of Conjugation
Conjugation is the change that takes place in a verb to express tense, mood, person and so on. In English, verbs change as they are used, most notably with different people (you, I, we) and different time (now, later, before). Conjugating verbs essentially means altering them into different forms to provide context. If we regard verbs as the action part of the speech, conjugation alters verbs to tell us who is doing the action and when the action takes place. If we didn’t conjugate the verb, leaving it in what is called the infinitive form (to think, to laugh, to whisper), the context (tense, person, mood, etc.) might be unclear or lost all together.
Consider the verb to be and the examples of how it is conjugated into the present tense.
- I am 32 years old.
- You are a terrific foot player.
- Acoustics is the study of the properties of sound.
- The sheep is running across the field.
- The sheep are running across the field.
First of all, the conjugation of be into the present tense tells us that these actions are happening now. I am (currently) 32 years old. (Right now) you are a terrific football player. Secondly, while one could argue that the context of who is doing the action is already given by pronouns you and I, notice how the conjugated form is tells us that acoustics, which looks like a plural, is a singular word. The importance is really driven home in the last two examples, both of which are grammatically correct as sheep has the same spelling in the singular and plural forms. The first tells us that a (just one) sheep is running across the field, whereas the last tells us that multiple (more than one) sheep are running across the field. No other word in this sentence indicates how many sheep there are but the verb, thus the conjugation is critical to the meaning of the sentence.
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Of course, verbs are not just conjugated into the present tense and there are many reasons – some subtle, some explicit – for them to be altered into different variations. The overall term for this altering specific to verbs is called grammatical conjugation. We achieve conjugation by the process of inflection, which is a way of saying changing a word to provide different inflected, or adjusted, meaning. The way a verb is conjugated is determined by factors like number, person and tense. Look at the example below to see how the verb to go changes meaning (and spelling) when conjugated and how its change changes the meaning of the sentence.
- I go to work each day. This is something that still occurs.
- I went to work each day. This is something that no longer occurs.
- I will go to work each day. This is something that has not yet happened.
- I would go to work each day. This is something that might happen (if a condition is met).
- I am going to work each day. This is something that is presently occurring.
- I would have gone to work each day. This is something that might have happened in the past (if a condition had been met). I would have gone to work each day if they gave us yummy cookies means that if they offered us delicious cookies in the past, I would have gone (in the past).
- I will have gone to work each day. This is something that will have happened (when a future condition is met). For example, I will have gone to every game of the season by the championship means that in the future, when there is a championship, I can look back and see that I went to all the games. I will be looking backward from some time in the future.
The verb to go is conjugated in seven different ways to provide seven different meanings (tenses) to an otherwise identical sentence. Look at the next example that shows how the verb to dance is conjugated differently to express the number, people and tense of the action.
- I dance alone, yet I still love to dance. This is something that is presently occurring.
- Will you dance with me? This is something you hope will happen in the future.
- Jane danced with Bob, but she didn’t dance with me or Kevin. This happened in the past.
- I saw Kevin dancing alone, so I asked him if he would dance with me. This happened in the past, but I asked him if he would dance with me in the future.
- I soon learned that Kevin dances badly, so I let him dance alone again. This happened in the past.
- Next time, I will dance with Jane and Bob. Although, I am not sure if they will dance with me. This is something that will happen in the future.
All Types of Conjugations Exist
As you may have noticed, conjugation is inextricably tied to the idea of verb tenses. A verb cannot be conjugated without reflecting the tense, otherwise we would not know when the action of the verb takes place. There is actually some debate as to how many tenses there are in the English language, with as many as 12 to 16 cited. There is a bit of confusion as some tenses can go by two names: future simple or simple future, for example. The good news is that most of these tenses are formed by the use of auxiliary verbs, such as will, have, be, so it’s not as if you have to learn up to 16 different conjugations. In English, we can break the tenses down to five main areas: past, present, future, perfect and conditional.
Past tense conjugations:
- Simple past: Zoe went to the store.
- Past progressive: Zoe was going to the store.
Present tense conjugations:
- Simple present: Caren buys make-up.
- Present progressive: Caren is buying make-up.
Future tense conjugations:
- Future simple (I): Michael and Benjy will eat lunch at noon.
- Future simple (I) with going to: They are going to eat lunch at noon.
- Future perfect (II): Will they have eaten lunch by noon?
- Future progressive (I): They will be eating lunch at noon.
- Future perfect progressive (II): They will have been eating lunch for a few minutes by the time I arrive at 12:15.
Perfect tense conjugations:
- Present perfect simple: He has spoken about it.
- Present perfect progressive: He has been speaking about it.
- Past perfect progressive: He had been speaking about it.
- Past perfect simple: He had spoken about it.
Conditional tense conjugations:
- Conditional simple (I): We would consider your proposal.
- Conditional perfect (II): We would have considered your proposal.
- Conditional progressive (I): We would be considering your proposal.
- Conditional perfect progressive (II): We would have been considering your proposal.
Examples of Conjugation in English
As you can see from the examples above, most verbs are conjugated by the use of auxiliary, or helping, verbs and the addition of infinitives, gerunds and participles. We will provide some basic examples of fully conjugated verbs below. For context, the conjugation in the form of a question and negative will also be provided. With the verb to be, it changes form in the present: am, is, are. But with the verb to find in the past, there is no change in form except in the negative or when used as a question: found. And for both the verb to go in the future tense and the verb to think in the conditional tense, notice how they no longer display any of irregular properties when paired with the auxiliary verbs will and would:
The irregular verb to be conjugated into the (simple) present tense:
- I am.
- You (singular) are.
- He/she/it/John/Jane is.
- You (plural) are.
- They/John & Jane are.
- Are you?
- I am
The irregular verb to find conjugated into the (simple) past tense:
- I found.
- You (singular) found.
- He/she/it/John/Jane found.
- We found.
- You (plural) found.
- They/John & Jane
- Did he find it?
- We did not find
The irregular verb to go conjugated into the future tense:
- I will go.
- You (singular) will go.
- He/she/it/John/Jane will go.
- We will go.
- You (plural) will
- They/John & Jane will go.
- Will we go?
- You will not go.
The regular verb to think conjugated into the conditional tense:
- I would think.
- You would think.
- He/she/it/John/Jane would think
- We would think.
- You (plural) would think.
- They/John & Jane would think.
- Would we think?
- You would not think.