If you are learning a new language, most likely you have to deal with verb conjugations. So, what is a conjugation? And why are they important, anyway? In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know.
What is a conjugation?
First, the basics. When you conjugate a verb, that means that you list all its forms. Note that we only conjugate verbs. Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, on the other hand, are declined. (You can read all about what a declension is here.)
We have a lot to cover, but before we move on, I have a grammar joke for you. What did the verb say to the noun?
“I’d ask you to conjugate, but you’d decline.”
Get it? “Decline” can mean both “list noun forms” and “refuse”, and conjugate can have sexual undertones. Okay, okay, moving on.
Conjugation in a general sense is a blanket term for any and all changes that a verb undergoes. So, for instance, a student could complain that “verb conjugation in Latin is hard.” Or a scholar might write a paper on the intricacies of Spanish conjugation.
But what is A conjugation? If your teacher tells you to write out the conjugation of a particular verb, what does s/he mean?
There are actually two more specific definitions of conjugation.
- Conjugation = a list of all the forms of a specific verb (also called a verb paradigm)
- Conjugation = a category or group of verbs
We will spend most of this post talking about definition #1, but we will also get to #2 at the end.
Definition #1: A conjugation is a list of verb forms
You have been conjugating verbs your whole life – you have just never stopped to think about it. For instance, let’s look at the conjugation of the English verb “shout” in the present indicative active. (If you don’t know what those two last words meant, that’s okay. We’ll get to it!)
|1||I am shouting||we are shouting|
|2||you are shouting||you are shouting|
|3||he / she / it is shouting||they are shouting|
This chart shows us that we say “I am shouting”, not “I is shouting”. It tells us to say “they are shouting”, not “they am shouting”. If you were learning English, this would be valuable information. It would help you to know how to speak correctly and make yourself understood. As it is, you probably use the correct forms instinctively.
Presenting verb forms in such charts, or conjugations, is very useful as a learning aid. This is especially true for languages that have more variety in their verb endings than English.
Now that you have a vague idea of what a conjugation is, and what it looks like written out, it is time to discuss how we know what to put in a conjugation.
In the previous section, I said that conjugating a verb involves listing all its forms. But you may be wondering, what do I even mean by verb forms?
I’m glad you asked. There are five main properties that influence our verb charts, and we will cover them all in the next section.
Verbal properties that affect conjugation
Each and every conjugated verb has a person, a number, a tense, a voice, and a mood. No exceptions. A verb’s form will depend on its value for each of these five grammatical properties.
In English and most of the languages that you are likely to be learning, there are three grammatical persons: first, second, and third. You have probably come across these terms in the past. For instance, your literature teacher might have discussed the distinction between first person and third person narrators in books.
- First person refers to the speaker: I or we.
- Second person refers to the addressee or the person spoken to: you.
- And third person refers to everything else, that is, people and things spoken about: he, she, it, they, the cat, houses, beauty, etc.
Why is this relevant for verbs? Well, verbal forms or endings often change based on the person. For example, we saw up above that you say “I am shouting”. We only use “am” for the first person singular.
Verbs also have number. The two most common grammatical numbers are singular and plural. These mean exactly what you might think: singular number applies if you are dealing with one person or thing, and plural number applies if you have two or more people or things.
So, I is a first person singular pronoun, whereas we is a first person plural pronoun. He and she are third person singular pronouns, while they is a third person plural pronoun.
Clearly number also affects our verb conjugation, since we say “I am“, but “we are.”
Our next grammatical property is tense. Tense refers to the time that the action of the verb occurred. Different languages have different tenses, but three common distinctions are present, past, and future.
Present: I shout.
Past: I shouted.
Future: I will shout.
Tense is also important for conjugation, because we signal time difference by changing the ending of the verb or adding a helping verb. So, we add –ed in English to indicate action in the past, and we add the helping verb will to indicate action in the future.
Some languages have different verb endings for each person and number within each tense. So the charts can get a bit complicated.
There are two main grammatical voices: active and passive. A verb is active if the subject performs the action, while a verb is passive if the subject receives the action.
|he heard||he was heard|
|it is shouting||it is being shouted|
|the cats will eat||the cats will be eaten|
|we were seeing||we were being seen|
In the sentence “he heard”, the subject (“he”) performs the action of hearing. But if we say “he was heard”, the subject (“he”) isn’t performing the action. Rather, someone else is hearing him. He is receiving the action of the verb.
As you can see from the examples, we can have active and passive voice in any tense, person, or number. Some languages (like Ancient Greek) also have a middle voice. The use depends a bit on the language, but usually it involves the subject performing an action on him- or herself.
Mood refers to how the action of the verb is viewed or conceptualized. Questions you can ask yourself are: How does the action relate to reality? Does the verb express a fact, a command, a suggestion, or a possibility?
Here are a few examples of moods that we have in English.
- The indicative is used to describe facts or things that we view as facts. It indicates what is going on in reality (or in what the speaker perceives to be reality). For example, in the sentence “The cat sits on the fence”, “sits” is in the indicative mood. Similarly, if you say “The moon is made of green cheese”, “is made” is in the indicative. It doesn’t matter that this statement is false; it is still in the indicative, because it is stated as a fact.
- The imperative is used to give commands. “Run!”, “Behave!”, and “Don’t drive!” are all orders, and thus they are in the imperative.
- The conditional is used to express possibility or potential. “I would eat dinner” has a conditional verb – “would eat”. You aren’t saying that you will eat – that would be a statement of fact, and thus indicative. Rather, you are saying that you would eat (if some condition were to be met).
There are many other moods as well (for example, the subjunctive and the optative). For more about English specifically, you can read this explanation about English moods.
This post just skims the surface of the topic. My goal is simply to give you an idea of what a mood is and how it affects the verbal form. “I shout”, “shout!”, and “I would shout” (indicative, imperative, and conditional) obviously look a bit different. So moods clearly influence conjugation.
Moods are highly language-specific and tend to be some of the most challenging and advanced grammar concepts. So if you are confused, that’s okay. Moods will make more sense with time, and for now, you can focus on the basic definition of a conjugation: a list of verb forms.
Examples of Conjugations in Different Languages
So far we have learned two things:
- a conjugation is a list of all the forms of a verb
- there are five verbal properties that affect conjugation: person, number, tense, voice, and mood
Every conjugated verb form can be fully described, or parsed, by listing its properties. So, “I shouted” is 1) first person, 2) singular, 3) past, 4) active, and 5) indicative.
If you were going to fully conjugate a verb, you would have to write out all its forms for every person, number, tense, voice, and mood. This could take a while! For instance, Latin has 3 persons, 2 numbers, 6 tenses, 2 voices, and 2 fully conjugatable moods. That’s 144 forms right there. Yikes!
But we can also conjugate verbs in specific tenses, and this is what you will see most frequently in textbooks. We just specify that it is a conjugation in X tense, Y mood, and Z voice. We always give all the persons and numbers, which means that generally we are looking at a chart with 6 forms: first, second, and third person in the singular and plural.
Now let’s look at some quick examples from Spanish and Latin.
In Spanish, verb endings change more than they do in English. They change to reflect each person and number; in the paradigm below, I have highlighted the endings so you can see how the verb transforms.
Here is the future indicative active of the verb bailar, “to dance”. Note that we have our three persons and two numbers indicated, just like in the English conjugation up above.
I will dance
we will dance
you will dance
you will dance
he/she/it will dance
they will dance
We don’t have to use pronouns with verbs in Spanish, because the verb ending itself tells us if it is “I”, “you”, “he”, etc. performing the action.
This is part of why conjugations are so important. These charts tell us which ending signals which person, number, and tense – and this in turn allows us to communicate and understand each other.
Latin is another highly inflected language where verb endings vary immensely. Our example paradigm is the pluperfect subjunctive active of the verb mittō, “I send.” I have bolded the verb endings.
I might have sent
we might have sent
you might have sent
you might have sent
he/she/it might have sent
they might have sent
And there you go. Now you understand the first definition of “conjugation”, and you have seen a few examples of such lists of verbs.
Of course, moving forward you will need to learn about the conjugations in your chosen target language. But now you know what a conjugation is, and that is a great start!
Definition #2: A conjugation is a category of verbs
Remember how I said that there are two definitions of conjugation? Well, now it’s time to turn to that second meaning.
A conjugation can also refer to a category or group of verbs. For instance, Latin has four verb conjugations: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Verbs of the 1st conjugation all have the same endings, whereas 2nd conjugation verbs also have their own unique endings, as do 3rd and 4th conjugation verbs.
(Are you learning Latin? Then you will love my guide to finding the conjugation of any Latin verb.)
Dividing verbs up into such groups is extremely helpful. Why? Well, it means that you only have to memorize the endings of four model verbs, rather than memorizing each and every verb’s forms individually.
All languages have such classes of verbs, although all languages may not call them conjugations. For instance, Spanish verbs are divided into -ar verbs, –er verbs, and -ir verbs. Spanish textbooks won’t typically talk about first, second, and third conjugation, but the principle is the same: -ar verbs are conjugated alike, as are -er verbs, and so on.
Final Thoughts on Verb Conjugation
This was a lot of material, so you may need to reread the post a few times. And, of course, this is only a general introduction to conjugation. As you continue studying your target language, you will delve deeper into specifics of that particular language.
I have kept this post general, so that it can benefit students of many different languages, but each language has its own unique complexities. For instance, in some languages aspect and gender will affect verb conjugations. I wish you every joy as you discover the mysteries of your target language!
If you have any questions or thoughts, please let me know in the comments.
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