Irregular verbs are the worst offenders in English grammar irregularities, but also the easiest to improve.  In general, past tense is denoted by adding “ed” to the end of the verb.  But there are so many irregular verbs that it is very difficult for learners of English to know when to follow this rule and when a special word is needed.  Imagine that you are a non-native speaker of English, and you are trying to learn which verbs make the past tense by adding “ed” or which verbs have a separate word to mark the past. Or, imagine that you are an English teacher trying to explain to non-native speakers why the verb infinitive form of “be” is divided into several different words: “I am, you are, he/she/it is.  I was, you were, he/she/it was.”  To remind yourself how difficult irregular verbs are for learners of English, take a moment to construct some sentences using irregular verbs in these phrases:

I want to _________  but yesterday I __________
begin – began                         break – broke                          bring – brought
build – built                            buy – bought                           come – came
do – did                                   drink – drank                           eat – ate
find – found                             fly – flew                                 get – got
give – gave                              go – went                                 have – had

keep – kept                              know – knew                           leave – left
make – made                           meet – met                              pay – paid
say – said                                 see – saw                                 sell – sold
send – sent                               speak – spoke                          spend – spent
take – took                               teach – taught                          tell – told
think – thought


One approach to grammar reform would be to make all irregular verbs regular. This would be the result for the most commonly used verbs:

begin – begined                      break – breaked                     bring – bringed
build – builded                       buy – buyed                            come – comed
do – doed                                 drink – drinked                                    eat – eated
find – finded                            fly – flyed                               get – geted
give – gived                             go – goed                                 have – haved

keep – keeped                          know – knowed                       leave – leaved
make – maked                        meet – meeted                                     pay – payed
say – sayed                              see – seed                                sell – selled
send – sended                          speak – speaked                      spend – spended
take – taked                             teach – teached                                    tell – telled
think – thinked

If the writers of dictionaries and grammar books would simply accept these spellings as one of the correct ways to make these common verbs past tense, then many problems of verb conjugation would be solved. In fact, many forms of pidgin language do exactly these forms. That is, pidgin is more consistent and logical than standard English! But when students in school are taught that these logical and consistent words are not “correct,” anyone who uses such words is stigmatized as uneducated and uncouth. A character in a novel might be characterized as a country bumpkin by having them say “I seed with my own eyes what I knowed to be true, and no matter what they teached in the school I thinked this is a good way to talk. I be going to ask dictionary writers to make these word choices acceptable.”

Making all irregular verbs regular, as is done in pidgin, would be an improvement of English, and would make it less difficult to learn. There is, however, an easier approach. This easy way is represented by some verbs that do not change at all between tenses: put, cost, cut, hurt, quit.  Why can’t we do with all verbs what we do with these verbs?

“Put paper here, because last week I put paper here as well.”

“I want to cut some paper, but yesterday I cut my finger.”

“Five packs of paper cost ten dollars, but a year ago they cost only eight dollars.”

“We hurt ourselves when we criticize others, but in past generations people hurt themselves even more. They finally quit criticizing others, and we should quit as well.”

Following this form, the same verb form can be used as the present tense instead of having to remember to say “I want to buy some paper, but yesterday I bought paper.”



Verb conjugation is needlessly complex and difficult to learn, even for regular verbs. Rather than just getting rid of irregular verbs, I propose a more drastic change that is an extremely simple solution to all these problems with verbs. This change is inspired by Bahasa Indonesia. When I first started learning this language, I did not see how Indonesians could communicate without doing verb conjugation. But actually, to my surprise, I found out that it is very easy. For example, the verb “go” in Bahasa Indonesia is “per-gi.” To say “I go” in the present tense, add the word “Saya” for I, it is “Saya pergi.” To say “I went” instead of having to learn a different word “went” for the past tense, Indonesians simply add the word “sudah” which means “in the past,” saying “Saya pergi sudah.” Any verb can be denoted as the past by adding the word “sudah” and any verb can be denoted in the future by adding another word that means “in the future.” Thus, there is no need to conjugate verbs in Bahasa Indonesia. That language is very easy to learn because only one verb name needs to be memorized.

How can this idea be adapted into English? Actually, English already uses the word “will” to indicate future tense. Once someone memorizes the verb “go” it is easy to remember that the future tense is always indicated by saying “I will go.” There is no need to memorize a separate verb form for the future of “go,” since it is the same verb form as the present tense of “go.” That logical pattern, though, does not apply to the past tense. A student must memorize a separate word “went” to use as the past tense of “go.” In English, past tense is the difficult part for students to remember.

What I propose is that English should use a word to indicate the past, in the exact same way that it uses “will” to indicate the future. After thinking about many different alternatives, I decided that the best word to use for the past is “did.”  While it may be a bit awkward for native English speakers to adjust to this slight change of meaning, the answer to the question “Did you go to Toronto?” could be answered “Yes, I did go to Toronto” instead of saying “Yes, I went to Toronto.” By using “did” with all verbs, the use of a separate word for the past can be avoided as easily as the future by saying “I will go to Toronto.”

By this means, verb conjugation becomes unnecessary. Even remembering to add the ending “ed” to a regular verb is not easy for students of English. “I want to go” for the past tense must add “I wanted to go” which is different. But for irregular verbs, the memorization required is much more difficult.  Whether a verb is regular or irregular, the most commonly used verbs adapt well to this plan. Instead of trying to remember all the following different words [inserted in brackets below] that mark the past tense of every one of these verbs, using the word “did” for the following actions makes English much more easy to learn:

PRESENT                           PAST TENSE                                FUTURE TENSE

I do                                      I did                                                 I will do.

I say                                     I did say  [said]                                I will say

I see                                     I did see  [saw]                                 I will see

I get                                      I did get  [got]                                 I will get

I think                                   I did think  [thought]                      I will think

I have                                   I did have  [had]                              I will have

I give                                    I did give  [gave]                            I will give

I look                                    I did look   [looked]                       I will look

I call                                     I did call  [called]                         I will call

I move                                  I did move  [moved]                    I will move

I find                                     I did find   [found]                       I will find

I change                                I did change [changed]                I will change

I know                                  I did know  [knew]                      I will know

I tell                                      I did tell  [told]                            I will tell

I run                                      I did run  [ran]                             I will run

I learn                                    I did learn  [learned]                   I will learn

I study                                   I did study [studied]                   I will study

I go                                       I did go  [went]                           I will go

I come                                   I did come  [came]                     I will come


By using these simple two words “did” and “will” verb conjugation can be completely eliminated. Then, it does not matter whether a verb is regular or irregular, because the verb itself never changes! And, as an added advantage, every one of these verbs’ actions can be negated by simply inserting the word “not” before the verb.

There are only two verbs where this solution sounds awkward. With the verb “can” it does not sound right to say, “I can. I did can, I will can.” The solution for this verb is simply to say, “I can, I did, I will,” and there is no need to say a past or future form of the word “can.” The other verb that does not work well with this plan is the verb “be.” It is awkward to say “I be, I did be, I will be.” The main way the verb “be” is used is in the present continuous tense, as in “I am going, you are learning, he is following, she is coming, we are saying, they are thinking.” None of these words are necessary, and these useless words should be dropped as archaic. For example, “I am going now” or “I will be going now” should be simply “I go.” “I am going soon” should be “I go soon” or “I will go soon”. “I will be going” should be “I will go.” For ongoing past to present actions (present continuous tense), as in “By May I will have been here for one year” should be “By May I will be here for one year”  And “They were going to go but did not go yet” should be “They did intend to go but did not go yet.”

When I first started learning Bahasa Indonesia, I was amazed to learn that in that language there is no verb “to be.” “How can a language operate without such a basic verb?” I thought to myself at first. But I was soon to understand that it is extremely easy for a language to exist without “am, is, are, was, were, be.” For example, instead of saying “Is he there?” an Indonesian speaker would simply say “He there?”

It is bad enough that English has so many verb tenses, but present styles of speaking make them much more complicated than they need to be. If just a few words (“did, will, now, until now, to the present”) are accepted as grammatically correct and become the standard way of speaking, then English verb use can be vastly simplified. Below are all the different verb tenses that are used in English, and the simple ways that they can be changed to avoid verb conjugation.


1.  Present Simple Tense requires no changes,

as in:  I go to work at 8:30am.

Where do you prefer to do your reading?

They don’t take the Metro at night, but I think it is very safe.

I often arrive late at meetings.


2.  Present Continuous Tense (happening at this time)

Use the word “now”

I am working on my homework now.

Should be           I work on my homework now.

I am not using that equipment.

Should be          I do not use that equipment now.

What are you doing?

Should be   What do you do now?


3.  Present Perfect Tense (happening up to the present)

Use the words “yet” or “until now” or “to the present.”

I haven’t taken a shower.

Should be       I do not take a shower yet.

Have you ever been to Amsterdam?

Should be        Did you go to Amsterdam yet?     Yes I did./  No I did not.

They have worked for their uncle for ten years.

Should be       They work for their uncle for ten years, until now.

I have never been late once on this payment.

Should be    I not late once on this payment, to the present.


4.  Present Perfect Continuous Tense (happening up to the present, same as present perfect)

Use the words “until now”

How long have you been waiting here?

Should be    How long do you wait here, until now?

We have been riding on the bus for four hours.

Should be   We ride on the bus for four hours, until now.


5.  Past Simple Tense (happened at a specific time in the past)

Use “did” as in : “Where did you go on vacation?”  [No change]

I relocated to Los Angeles in 1974.

Should be    I did relocate to Los Angeles in 1974.

We didn’t want to go to the concert, but felt pressured by his boss.

Should be    We didn’t want to go to the concert, but did feel pressure by his boss.


6.  Past Continuous Tense (is happening at a precise moment in the past)

Use “did” and “before” or “when”

What were you doing when they knocked on the door?

Should be   What did you do before they knock on the door?  [OR they did knock]

I was working on my homework when you called.

Should be     I did work on my homework when you call.  [OR you did call]


7.  Past Perfect Tense (an action that finishes before another action in the past)

Use “did” though the second “did” is optional, depending on the specific sentence.

Had you invested your money wisely before you bought the car?

Should be     Did you invest your money wisely before you did buy the car?

She hadn’t spoken two sentences before he rudely interrupted her.

Should be   She did not speak two sentences before he did rudely interrupt her.


8.  Past Perfect Continuous Tense (about the duration of an activity that happened in the past)

Use “did” though the second “did” is optional, depending on the specific sentence.

I had not been sleeping long when you called.

Should be  I did not sleep long when you did call. [OR  before your call]

They had been waiting for over an hour before Susan finally arrived.

Should be   They did wait for over an hour before Susan finally did arrive.


9.  Future Tense

Use “will” plus infinitive verb, instead of “going to” plus gerund [verb—ing ]

I will go get some soup for lunch.  I think it will rain tomorrow.   (no change)

They are going to waste their time in looking for me.

Should be   They will waste their time to look for me.

Who are you going to consult while studying?

Should be   Who will you go to consult when you study?


10.  Future Continuous Tense

Use “will” or “do”

I will be playing my guitar at 8pm at the coffeehouse.

Should be    I will play my guitar at 8pm at the coffeehouse.

What will you be doing when I come?

Should be   What do you do when I come?   OR   What will you do before I come?


11.  Future Perfect Tense (happening that will have been done in the future)

Use “will” or “hope to” or “be able to”

What will you have accomplished by the time you have completed your degree?

Should be    What will you accomplish by the time you will complete your degree?

OR     What do you hope to accomplish by the time you complete your degree?

I’m afraid I won’t have finished studying by the time of the test.

Should be       I am afraid I wont finish my study by the time of the test.

OR      Im afraid I wont be able to finish my study by the time of the test.




When two verbs are used together, the second verb is in the infinitive form, as in:

“She promised to help me.  We need to leave right away.  He decided to bet all his cash.”

But sometimes, with some verbs, the gerund form (–ing) is used instead of the infinitive, as in: “We go jogging every morning. I can’t stand driving in heavy traffic. I don’t mind calling to wake you. I suggest you should be enjoying your free time. He quit smoking last year. We discussed ending our relationship. I enjoy dancing every weekend.”

There is no grammar rule which governs which words use the infinitive and which use the gerund, and so this is another case of English being more difficult than it needs to be. The only way a learner of English can know the correct word to use is by rote memorization. As with other grammar inconsistencies, I suggest eliminating the use of gerunds, so that all verbs should use the infinitive as most verbs already do. Eliminating all the irregular words and the exceptions to the rules will make English much more easy to master. Therefore, the above sentences should be revised to read: : “We go to jog every morning. I can’t stand to drive in heavy traffic. I don’t mind to call to wake you. I suggest you should enjoy your free time. He quit to smoke last year. We did discuss to end our relationship. I enjoy to dance every weekend  OR  I like to dance every weekend.”

In short, there is absolutely no reason to add a gerund to the end of a verb. Get rid of it, stop it. Start teaching that this is an archaic form of speaking that is no longer grammatically correct [which should be: Start to teach that this is an archaic form to speak that is no longer grammatically correct]. It is as simple as that.

If just these two grammatical changes are made, to use “did” and “will” instead of conjugating verbs, and to eliminate gerunds, English will become immeasurably easier for both native speakers and for students of English as a second language. If teachers of English will teach these forms of verb use, their students will be able to express themselves clearly much more quickly than if they get bogged down in verb conjugation and gerunds.


About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
This entry was posted in Why English is Difficult to Learn, and what to do about it and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s