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I recently spent a bit of time studying Portuguese verb conjugations. I was using this site that focuses on Brazilian Portuguese verb forms.

That got me thinking about verbs and how different they are across different languages. It also got me thinking about the different parts to verb conjugations – time, aspect, mood, transivity, voice, modality, etc. Let’s look briefly at each part and then at how verbs across several languages work.

Firstly, what does it mean to conjugate a verb? Generally, at its most basic, there are two overall forms of a verb in every language – the infinite and the finite. Of course, there are usually a whole bunch of different finite forms. But these two overarching forms tell us how to use the verb. If you recall from grammar school, a verb is an action word. For example, a word like run. The infinite, or infinitive, form of a verb tells us that the verb is being used outside of a specific context. So if you just saw the words to run (which, of course, is the English infinitive form), there would be no context for understanding. A finite form gives us context. Using our example above, runs tells us more about the action – in this case, that it occurs in the present and that the doer of the action is not you, the person being spoken to, nor me, the person speaking, but a third person or animal. So then, to conjugate a verb means to change a verb from its infinite form into (one of) its finite form(s) in order to give us context for understanding.

Now, let’s look at one of the more common types of conjugations – time. This is also known as temporal conjugation, or much more commonly, tense. (According to Dictionary.com, tense comes to English from the Latin word tempus which means time.) Tense, then, tells us whether the verb occurred in the past, present, or future. Now, not all languages conjugate for all tenses. In fact, English doesn’t have a future tense. But how can this be? I can write something like “I will eat tomorrow”; isn’t that future tense? Well, as we shall see, English future tense falls under modality and is not actually a tense. I’ll explain this more further on, when we look at modality, but I’ve actually already given you the answer. It lies in the definition of conjugation.

Mood, as the name implies, is a type of conjugation that expresses the mood or attitude of the speaker. In this case, the moods being expressed are not emotional states such as sadness or happiness, but rather the attitude of the speaker toward what they are saying. For example, is the speaker sure about what they are saying (i.e., is it fact?), or are they expressing doubt, or are they ordering or commanding? Four common moods found in a lot of languages are: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and conditional.

The indicative mood indicates something is statement of fact. For example, when I say I read the book, that is an indicative sentence. It is a fact. And the sentence is considered an indicative sentence because the verb is in the indicative mood.

The imperative mood is used for orders and commands. Sentences such as let’s go or finish your homework are imperative sentences.

The conditional mood expresses a condition. In English, this is tricky to demonstrate because English uses an auxiliary (or secondary) verb, which will be explained further on. But the sentence I would like some ice cream is an example of a conditional sentence. In other languages (such as French), you would conjugate the main verb like to a particular form just for the conditional mood.

The subjunctive mood is a bit of a tricky mood. It can be used to show doubt, desire, wish, or hope. But it is tricky because the languages that have a subjunctive mood don’t always use it in the same manner. English has a subjunctive form that was used much more often in the past. Nowadays some people might still use it, but it is often being replaced by the indicative form. An example of English subjunctive is found in the sentence I wish it were raining today. The verb be changes to were instead of was because the speaker is expressing a wish. However, as I wrote, nowadays many would say I wish it was raining today.

If you know of any other moods, let me know in the comments below, including perhaps what languages uses that mood. Remember that not all languages will have any or all of these moods. Usually when a language has only a few moods, some of the moods will cover multiple attitudes. For example, Hittite has just an indicative and imperative mood.

It looks like I will have to break up this topic over several posts. In the next post, we’ll continue to look at the different types of conjugations there are.