Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Ironically enough, one of the best ways to learn more about English is to learn a different language. English is heavily rooted in Latin-based and Germanic-based languages, so while you will undoubtedly find value in learning other languages of the world, those are the ones that will help the most with your English skills. In my case, I learned a fair bit about how English works — mostly about sentence structure and parts of speech — through the years of French classes I took during high school.

For the purposes of today’s Grammar 101 post, let’s stick only to the present tense for verb conjugations, as dealing with other verb tenses can complicate things very quickly. We don’t want to open up another can of past participle worms.

The Six-Sided Conjugation

When I was learning French, we were taught that every verb (for each tense) had to be conjugated into six different forms to accommodate six different types of subjects. With “regular” verbs, the conjugation pattern was reasonably predictable. Manger means to eat and the six conjugated forms look like this:

  • Je mange (I eat)
  • Tu manges (You eat)
  • Il mange (He eats)
  • Nous mangeons (We eat)
  • Vous mangez (You eat)
  • Ils mangent (They eat)

Tu and vous both mean you, but the former is singular while the latter is plural (or formal). The forms for “he” and “she” would be the same. While there are innumerable exceptions and irregular verbs, the “regular” ones would follow the typical pattern of -e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez and -ent for the present tense.

How Does This Apply to English?

This concept does roughly translate over to English too. When you are thinking about how to conjugate a verb to match the subject type, it’s useful to go through a similar kind of exercise with the same six types described above. Let’s look at the verb to have.

  • I have
  • You have
  • He has
  • We have
  • You have
  • They have

As you can see, English appears to be simpler, but people can still struggle with using the right verb form with each subject. If you have three singular subjects together as a group, the verb should match the “they” form.

  • Incorrect: John, Jane and Mary has a car.
  • Correct: John, Jane and Mary have a car.

And the conjugation can be more confusing when you look at irregular verbs like to be.

  • I am
  • You are
  • He is
  • We are
  • You are
  • They are

It’s important to note that verb conjugation goes much further than simply the difference between singular and plural. I, you and he are all singular, but they each have a different form of “to be.”

Be Careful of Interruptions

Conjugating the right verb to fit your subject seems relatively straightforward when the two are next to one another, but you could get distracted when you encounter an interrupted subject-verb pair. I encourage you to check out that older blog post for more discussion on that topic.

Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? Let me know by posting a comment below.