Verbs: Tense

Tense is a grammatical notion that refers to the way in which a language encodes the real world notion of time. Typically this is done through endings on verbs called inflections. Verbs are the only word class that can carry tense inflections (though they don't always do so). Verbs that carry a tense ending are called finite verbs.

To refer to a verb in general terms, we usually use its base form, as in ‘the verb travel’, ‘the verb sing’. We then add inflections to the base form as required.

  1. She travel+s to work by train.
  2. David sing+s in the choir.
  3. We walk+ed five miles to a garage.
  4. I cook+ed a meal for the whole family.

It's the inflections that indicate tense. The -s inflection marks present tense. The -ed inflection marks the past tense, which is typically used to talk about past time, as in these examples (though remember that the -ed inflection can also indicate the past participle).

Present tense verb endings also indicate agreement with person. There are three persons, each with a singular and a plural form. These are shown below. (Nouns like John or dogs also belong to the 3rd person.)

Person Singular Plural

1st
2nd
3rd

  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they

In sentence (1), She travels to work by train, we have a third person singular pronoun she, and the present tense ending -s. However, if we replace she with a plural pronoun, then the verb will change:

  • She travels to work by train. ~ They travel to work by train.

The verb travel in the example with they is still in the present tense, but its form has changed because the pronoun in front of it has changed. This correspondence between the pronoun (or noun) and the verb is called agreement.

Agreement applies only to verbs in the present tense. In the past tense, there is usually no distinction between verb forms: she travelled/they travelled. (The irregular verb be is an exception: compare she was/they were.) 

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