top of page

Lesson 2.3: Verb Forms - Infinitive, Present, Past


Every verb has five forms: infinitive, past tense, present tense, past participle, present participle. Knowing this will turn out to be really useful in doing the following:

    • identifying passive

    • making tenses consistent in writing

    • distinguishing main verbs from other (modal) verbs

    • effecting the “feel” of your writing

    • confronting subject-verb agreement

    • self-empowerment!


This lesson deals with the infinitive, present tense, and past tense forms. Participles are introduced in Lesson 2.4. There is a chart here with some sample words conjugated in the five forms.


After briefly introducing these forms, you could have your students come up with verbs and put them into the frames below to come up with these three forms for each verb. Have them discuss where there is overlap in the forms.


infinitive: I really want to ___________ today.

present tense: She __________ on most days.

past tense: He __________ yesterday.


The Infinitive. The infinitival form of the verb expresses no tense. It is the bare form of the verb and is preceded by to: to coerce, to dance, to chow down.


Activity: What is the connection in meaning between the words infinity and infinitive? After hypothesizing, look them up!


Present Tense: Although we don’t have any problem using present tense, it can be a bit hard to identify because of the lack of present tense suffixes in English. You can conjugate a verb with all of the subject pronouns to see this lack of tense marking. In many dialects, it looks like this:

    I sing

    you sing

    he/she sings

    we sing

    you (all) sing

    they sing


So you can see that it's only with he/she that there is a different form: sings. Some English dialects have regularized this pattern so that the he/she form has no suffix. The inflectional markings are slowly disappearing; in many other languages, and in older forms of English too, there is a different ending to go with each subject pronoun. Here’s the conjugation of sing in Old English, where there were four different endings. (I’ll use the modern version of the pronouns.)

    I singe

    you singest

    he or she singeth

    we singath

    you all singath

    they singath


Although the language has reduced the endings used to mark present tense, there is still a present tense form of the verb in some dialects. It just happens to look like the infinitive in most cases. We know as speakers, though, when it is tensed.


Past Tense. The past tense form of the verb is typically affixed with -ed, and there are some other irregular patterns. In Lesson 2.2, students came up with other ways of forming past tense. What are some verbs that form their past tense by adding –t, such as swept? What are some verbs that form their past tense by changing the vowel, such as sang? What are some verbs that form their past tense by changing nothing, such as cut?

bottom of page