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I want to know the number of inflectional forms of a verb.

I came to know from one of my colleagues that a verb has 13 inflectional forms ('conjugations,' that's what he named it). Is it true?

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  • 1
    This is a far better question than the previous version: simple, clear, direct and unambiguous. It would be even better if you could share what research you have done yourself (even if that research was ultimately fruitless).
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 28 '13 at 9:12
  • Okay I'll bite, here's a verb: love. Please do ask your colleague to come up with 13 inflectional forms for it. We'll wait. While we are waiting, perhaps you could explain what use the number is in the first place. What does it mean or why does it matter if English has 4 inflectional forms, or 14, or 42?
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 29 '13 at 12:08
  • @RegDwigнt does curiosity not suffice?
    – Dodgie
    Dec 6 '13 at 3:05
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There are six inflected forms for all verbs in English, but two of them are covert, meaning that they don't change the form of the verb.

Here they are for love:

  1. We love cats (Plain Present)
  2. John loves cats (3rd person sgl. present)
  3. We loved cats (simple past, or preterite
  4. We are loving cats (progressive aspect)
  5. We have loved cats (past participle)
  6. We should love cats (plain form)

Note that the past participle of love (loved) is the same form as the preterite but it is still a different conjugation. You can see this with other "strong" verbs, like give, which have different forms for preterite and past participle (in that case, gave, and given.)

Note also that the plain form in (6) is also covert, and looks like the plain present. But if you replace the verb with the to be verb, you can see the difference. Thus, "Max is a cat" (plain present), but "Max should be a cat" (plain form).

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  • I'd forgotten I'd written my answer. Have a +1 for this one.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 2 '17 at 20:59
  • Actually, the verb "be" has eight forms (although it's the only one to do so). There's also 1s present ("am") and a distinction between the past 3s and 1s form ("was") and the past form used for plurals, 2nd-person, and certain irrealis constructions ("were").
    – herisson
    Sep 3 '17 at 0:29
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Latinate intransitive verb: cogitate
Inflected forms are cogitate, cogitates, cogitating, cogitated.

Germanic transitive/intransitive verb: light
Inflected forms are light, lights, lighting, lighted, lit.

Old English common verb: go
Inflected forms are: go, goes, going, went, gone.

Old English irregular verb: be
Inflected forms are: be, am, are, is, being, was, were, been.

My descriptions here only serve to indicate the origin and relative age of the examples. The oldest verbs have the most inflected forms, in many cases (like went) because they have picked up parts of other verbs which are now at best archaic if not obsolete (wend).

Many of these forms are used with auxiliary verbs which may themselves be inflected. I am discounting those; as WS2 notes in his answer, calling those an “inflected form” yields more than thirteen anyway.

However, even if I have missed a few in each case, to get to thirteen will be very difficult and I would be interested in how your colleague identified that many.

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  • I checked out this page, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_conjugation. Seeing that many cases of conjugation in Spanish, I think that maybe I'm going to ..., I was going to ..., and so on, might be counted too. Nov 29 '13 at 8:36
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    Except that we're thinking about English, not Spanish. Things like I am lighting, I was lighting depend on the inflection of be, not light.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 29 '13 at 9:03
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I'd say that overall there are only six different inflectional forms that an English verb can take except for the verbs to be and to have which, due to English's linguistic heritage, are just two special cases. The verb to be has three present-tense forms (am, is and are) and two past-tense (past simple) forms (was and were). The to have verb's only difference is that it has two present-tense forms (has and have). Other than that, the rest of all English verbs follow a very simple pattern. Here are the six forms I'm talking about:

1. infinitive:            to see  She is yet to see her mother.
2. bare infinitive:       see     She will see her mother tomorrow.
3. third-person singular: sees    She sees her mother every year.
4. past simple:           saw     She saw her mother yesterday.
5. past participle:       seen    She has seen her mother two times this week.
6. present participle:    seeing  She is seeing her mother off right now.
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It depends on what you include as 'inflectional'. If you mean compound tenses then I suppose you could get close to that number. Let's try:

I eat, I am eating, I was eating, I ate, I have eaten, I had eaten, I will eat, I will have eaten, I could eat, I could have eaten, I would eat, I would have eaten, to eat (infinitive).

Well that's 13 but I can think of others e.g. having eaten, having been eating, was eaten etc.

There are also the different person endings such as he eats, thou eatest, etc, as well as the person differences in the compound tenses with 'were' replacing 'was' and 'has' replacing 'have' in some of them.

No doubt someone will think of more.

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  • ‘Having ate’? You mean using the simple past as the past participle as in some dialects? Nov 28 '13 at 10:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet If you are going to get into dialects there is no telling how many, or how few inflections you will get. In Norfolk, for example, 'eat' can be used as the past tense. 'I eat a whole apple pie yesterday'.
    – WS2
    Nov 28 '13 at 11:34
  • Well, yes, exactly—which is why ‘having ate’ seemed odd to me. Nov 28 '13 at 22:29
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Apologies, 'having ate' is a mistake. I have removed it.
    – WS2
    Nov 29 '13 at 7:20
  • And I thought for a minute you seen the light.
    – Phil Sweet
    Sep 3 '17 at 4:08
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8 distinct inflected forms (for be alone) is the maximum

The English verb with the greatest number of distinct inflected forms is be. It has the following 8 forms:

  1. be – "plain form" – used as the "bare infinitive", used after "to" in the "to-infinitive" construction, used to form imperatives, used for all persons and numbers in the "subjunctive"/"present subjunctive" construction
  2. were – used for 2nd-person, 1st-person plural, and 3rd-person plural in the past tense, and used for all persons and numbers in the "irrealis"/"past subjunctive" construction
  3. been – the "past participle" form, or "perfect participle" form, or "-en participle" form – used (along with a form of have) in the perfect construction
  4. is – used for 3rd-person singular in the in the present/non-past tense
  5. being – the "present participle" and "gerund" form, or "gerund-participle" form, or "-ing form" – used (along with another form of be) in the progressive/continuous construction, and used in various ways that more or less resemble the use of nouns
  6. am – used for 1st-person singular in the present/non-past tense
  7. are – used for 2nd-person, 1st-person plural, and 3rd-person plural in the present/non-past tense
  8. was – used for 1st-person singular and 3rd-person singular in the past tense

5 distinct inflected forms at most for any verb other than be

For all other verbs:

  • the plain form is used for (or is identical to the forms used for) the 1st-person singular, 1st-person plural, 2nd-person, and 3rd-person plural in the present/non-past tense.

  • the same form is used for all persons and numbers in the past tense and in the "irrealis"/"past subjunctive" construction.

Therefore, any English verb other than be will have at most 5 distinct inflected forms. An example is the irregular verb do:

  1. do – "plain form" – used as the "bare infinitive", used after "to" in the "to-infinitive" construction, used to form imperatives, used for the 1st-person singular, 1st-person plural, 2nd-person, and 3rd-person plural in the present/non-past tense, and used for all persons and numbers in the "subjunctive"/"present subjunctive" construction

  2. did – "past tense" form – used for all persons and numbers in the past tense and in the "irrealis"/"past subjunctive" construction

  3. done – the "past participle" form, or "perfect participle" form, or "passive participle" form, or "-en participle" form – used (along with a form of have) in the perfect construction; used (along with a form of be) in the passive construction

  4. does – used for 3rd-person singular in the in the present/non-past tense

  5. doing – the "present participle" and "gerund" form, or "gerund-participle" form, or "-ing form" – used (along with a form of be) in the progressive/continuous construction, and used in various ways that more or less resemble the use of nouns

4 distinct inflected forms for a regular verb

For a regular verb, the "past tense" and "past participle" forms are identical, both ending in -ed, which means there are only 4 distinct inflected forms for any regular verb.

English uses auxiliaries, rather than inflection, for many constructions

Many English constructions related to tense, aspect or mood involve the use of an auxiliary verb along with a non-finite form of the main verb. But it doesn't make much sense to count the constructions listed in resources like "Reverso Conjugation" and say that your result is the number of "conjugations" of a verb in English, because almost none of these resources is entirely comprehensive (e.g. the "future in the past" construction, as in "The city was small at the time, but it would become the capital of the country", is often left out when people present these kinds of constructions in a table or list, even though it seems to be the same kind of construction as the "future" used in the sentence "The city is small now, but it will become the capital of the country"). The number of constructions that someone chooses to put in a table is not an inherent part of English grammar.

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