What is a verb? Verbs are a class of words. Verbs tell you what a person is doing in a sentence, or what they are. They are either action verbs (like Modern English "do" or "make" as in "I do this" or "He makes cars") or stative verbs (like Modern English "be" or "become" as in "I will be a dog" and "You become angry").

Verb Agreement


Verbs have to agree with the subject of the sentence in number (singular when the subject of the verb is just one, and plural when the subject of the verb is more than one), and person (I, you, he/she/it). This is sometimes the case even in Modern English, but more so for Old English. An example of how verbs change to agree for number and person in Modern English is when we add "-s" to third person singular verb, as in "He sings well"; but we don't add "-s" for anything else, including third person plural, for example "They sing well".

Look at this example of how an Old English changed depending on the person and number it is used with, compared with how it is done to a lesser extent in Modern English:

Modern English (go) Old English (gān)
I go we go iċ gā ƿē gāþ
thou goest (archaic)/you alone go ye/you all go þu gǣst ġē gāþ
he/she/it goes/goeth (archaic) they go hē/hēo/hit gǣþ hīe gāþ

You can see that there are four different ways the word "gān" is changed for different people and numbers in Old English:

  1. First person singular (iċ gā - I go)
  2. Second person singular (þū gǣst - you alone go)
  3. Third person singular (hē/hēo/hit gǣþ - he/she/it goes)
  4. Plural (which is the same for all people) (ƿē/ġē/hīe gāþ - we/you all/they go).

Compare to Modern English, which is simpler and only has two forms:

  1. "Goes" (third person singular)
  2. "Go" (for everything else)

Example of a verb


Here is an example of the various parts of one Old English verb singan, "to sing".

Conjugation Pronoun "Singan" - "to sing"
Infinitives singan
tō singenne
Present participle singende
Present indicative
þū singst
hē/hit/hēo singþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe singaþ
Imperative Singular sing
Plural singaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo singe
ƿē/ġē/hīe singen
Past indicative sang
þū sunge
hē/hit/hēo sang
ƿē/ġē/hīe sungon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo sunge
ƿē/ġē/hīe sungen
Past participle (ġe)sungen

Not every verb is conjugated exactly like this: this, as it happens, is a Class III strong verb, and verbs are conjugated differently according to their class. More details of how verbs are conjugated will be supplied later. First, we should look at what the various parts of the verb are for.

You may realize there is no present-continuous tense, this is because there was no present-continuous tense in Old English, instead they would have used the simple-present tense which on the graph is the Present-Indicative

The infinitives


What is the infinitive form? Recall how in Modern English, we add -s to a verb when we are talking about he, she, or it: "he loves", "she sings", "it brings". This form ending in -s in Modern English, is limited, or finite to third person singular (he, she, it, particular people, places, things, etc). The infinitive form of the verb, is not specific to any person (so to speak, it is "infinite" - "not finitely limited to any particular person"); however, it is only used in specific situations. Just as in Modern English, where "be" is the infinitive form of "be", you cannot just say "he be", you must say "he is". You only say "be" in specific circumstances, such as when it follows a helping verb like "should": "he should be". Likewise in Old English, the infinitive is only used in specific circumstances; but when it is used, it maybe used for any person.

In Modern English, we really have two infinitives, as exemplified by the phrases: "I can sing" and "I want to sing". The choice of which to use is dictated by the role that the infinitive plays in the sentence.

In the same way, Old English has two infinitives for each verb: in the case of "to sing" they would be singan and tō singenne. The choice of which to use essentially follows the same rules as in Modern English. The plain infinitive is used after modal verbs such as "can" or "may" or "shall". The "tō" infinitive is used:

  • After verbs which require an infinitive but which are not modal, as in hīe ƿilniaþ tō singenne ("They want to sing").
  • After an adjective, as in ic eom gearu tō singenne ("I am ready to sing").
  • To indicate purpose, as in þū ārise tō singenne ("You got up to sing").

The present participle


The present participle form (in our example singende) is the equivalent of the Modern English present participle (in this case, "singing") It could be used as an adjective to show that someone was doing something, or usually did something, for example se singenda man - "the singing man". However, it was only rarely used to show a continuous or currently happening action, for example, iċ eom singende þone sang ("I am singing the song"); it would be much more normal for an Anglo-Saxon to simply say iċ singe þone sang, using the present indicative.

The present and past indicative


Old English really only has two tenses: the present and the past (or preterite). Each of these tenses therefore has to play several roles.

So a statement using the present tense, such as iċ singe can mean: "I sing", or "I am singing", or "I will sing", or "I will be singing". (The use of the present for the future is still acceptable in Modern English: for example, it is perfectly OK to say: "I take my driving test on Tuesday.")

Meanwhile a statement using the preterite, such as iċ sang, can mean "I sang" or "I was singing" or "I have sung".

You might, then, consider the Old English language as being primitive and inexpressive by contrast with Modern English. However, this is not really the case. After all, in almost every other respect Old English has more grammar than Modern English, and yet we seem to get by: for example, in Modern English we have no grammatical distinction between the second person singular and plural, and yet this never seems to cause any confusion, because context is almost always sufficient to resolve any confusion that might arise, by using other words with the pronoun (and some dialects, particularly in Northern England, still use "thou" and its forms).

The imperative


The imperative in Old English is just like that in Modern English: it is used for giving commands, so sing in Old English means the same as "sing!" in Modern English. The only difference is that as with the other parts of the verb, the imperative in Old English is inflected according to number, so that if you wanted to tell more than one person to sing, you would say singaþ. Unlike in some other languages, the imperative form can be negated directly, by prefixing it with ne as you would to negate any other verb: ne singaþ! "don't sing!"

The first-person plural imperative is usually formed with uton and the infinitive: uton singan! "Let's sing!"

The subjunctive


Old English has present and past subjunctives. The subjunctive is used in Old English to describe hypothetical or counter-factual situations.

The true Old English subjunctive does not occur often in Modern English; but it is sometimes used where no other phrase will do. For example, the National Enquirer, not noted for the excessive formality of its grammar, has this to say in an item of gossip about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie:

But the 48-year-old “Moneyball” star finally snapped when Angie, 37, insisted that he go to rehab to conquer his demons, insiders say.

There is really no substitute for "that he go". If we tried to substitute: "that he goes", then Ms. Jolie would be insisting that he does presently go to rehab, which he doesn't. If we tried to substitute: "that he went", then she'd be insisting that he used to go into rehab, which he didn't. If we substituted: "that he ought to go" or "that he should go", then this would say that she was insisting that this was the right thing for him to do, but not that she was insisting that he do it. Only the subjunctive form "that he go" properly expresses what Ms. Jolie was insisting; that she was presenting him with an ultimatum.

In Old English the usage is rather broader: it would include "that he ought to go", and "that he should go".

Here's another example of the true subjunctive in Modern English, in an article discussing the movie The Fly:

When David Cronenberg was hired as director, one condition was that he be able to extensively rewrite the script.

In this case, "that he was" would also be perfectly good Modern English.

We can see more uses of the subjunctive if we go back a few centuries, and look at Shakespeare or the King James Bible. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet exclaims:

If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Again, Juliet is discussing a hypothetical situation, so she uses the subjunctive. Nowadays, any English speaker would write: "If he is married".

In Modern English, then, we tend to use the subjunctive as the last resort. In Old English, however, the subjunctive is frequently used, and often mandatory. For example, consider the sentence:

Ġif messe-preost his āġen līf rīhtliċe fadie, þonne is rīht þæt his ƿurþscipe ƿexe."

If we translate this into Modern English, keeping the subjunctive mood, that would come out as:

"If a priest govern his own life rightly, it is right that his honor grow."

This seems strange and stilted in Modern English, and we would be more likely to drop all indication of the subjunctive and translate it into Modern English as follows:

"If a priest governs his own life rightly, it is right that his honor grows."

But if we tried to drop the subjunctive in the Old English, and rewrite the passage in the indicative, as:

Ġif messe-preost his āġen līf rīhtliċe fadaþ, þonne is rīht þæt his ƿurþscipe ƿexeþ."

... then this would not really be grammatical. We would use the indicative and say "fadaþ" and "ƿexeþ" if we wanted to assert of a particular priest that he is arranging his own life well, and that as a result his honor is growing. But instead the author wished to assert of a general and hypothetical priest that if he arranges his own life well, then his honor ought to grow as a consequence; therefore he had to use the subjunctive.

So we find, for example, subjunctive forms such as:

Ūs dafenaþ þæt ƿē ƿaċien.

This might be translated as "It is fitting that we be wakeful". We couldn't keep this meaning if we put it into the indicative and wrote:

Ūs dafenaþ þæt ƿē ƿaċiaþ.

... because if that was grammatical at all, it would mean "It is fitting that we are awake", which has a different meaning.

Past participle


The past participle works like the Modern English past participle, so that ġesungen just means "sung". As with the Modern English past participle, it can be used as an adjective, and it can also be used with the verb "to have" to form a perfect tense, as in Modern English "I have sung the song". However, in Old English the position of the past participle was flexible: it could go directly after the helping verb "habban" like in Modern English ("Iċ hæbbe ġesungen þā ƿord" - "I have sung the words"), or it could go right at the end of the clause like in Modern German ("Iċ hæbbe þā ƿord ġesungen" - literally "I have the words sung", more correctly "I have sung the words"). Placing the past participle right at the end of the clause, might be a way to draw attention to it, to emphasize it.

Verb Classes


There are several types of verbs in Old English, more than in Modern English, which has many weak (love/loved/loved), some strong (sing/sang/sung), and a few irregular verbs (be/was/been). Old English has four types of weak verbs, typically called Class 1a, Class 1b, Class 2, and Class 3. Strong verbs are typically arranged in seven classes, according to their vowel-changes (ablaut). All verbs do have the following in common: the infinitive ends in -an for nearly all verbs (a smaller portion end in -ian and -rian), the present participle ends in -ende (a smaller portion end in -iende), the present plural is always -aþ, and the inflected infinitive ends in -enne.

Weak Verbs


Weak verbs are often called regular verbs in most English texts, because they have a regular past tense in -ed, with very few exceptions. In Old English, these verbs were also the majority of verbs, most often derived from nouns, adjectives, and other verbs. While we can generalize across all classes, it will be easier to lay them out and allow the reader to see the similarities for themselves.

Weak Class 1 verbs


Class 1 weak verbs are traditionally divided into two subclasses.

In class 1a there are:

  • Verbs like fremman, where the stem has a short vowel followed by (in the infinitive) two consonants.
  • Verbs like nerian, where the stem has a short vowel followed by an r followed by (in the infinitive) an i.

In class 1b are verbs where the stem consists either of a long vowel followed by a single consonant, or a short vowel followed by two different consonants; both of these behave just the same.

In the table below, we give the complete conjugations of fremman and nerian, which are Class 1a verbs, and of hīeran, a Class 1b verb.

Conjugation Pronoun "do" "save" "hear"
Infinitives fremman nerian hīeran
tō fremmenne tō nerienne tō hīerenne
Present participle fremmende neriende hīerende
Present indicative
fremme nerie hīere
þū fremest nerest hīerst
hē/hit/hēo fremeþ nereþ hīerþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe fremmaþ neriaþ hīeraþ
Imperative Singular freme nere hīer
Plural fremmaþ neriaþ hīeraþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo fremme nerie hīere
ƿē/ġē/hīe fremmen nerien hīeren
Past indicative fremede nerede hīerde
þū fremedest neredest hīerdest
hē/hit/hēo fremede nerede hīerde
ƿē/ġē/hīe fremedon neredon hīerdon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo fremede nerede hīerde
ƿē/ġē/hīe fremeden nereden hīerden
Past participle (ġe)fremed (ġe)nered (ġe)hīered

There is a clear pattern here. The suffixes of the same parts of the different verbs are very similar across all the verbs. What is more, we can observe that where forms of fremman have a double m, forms of nerian have an i, and forms of hīeran have a suffix beginning with a vowel. Conversely, with one exception, where forms of fremman have a single m, forms of nerian have no i, and the suffix of the corresponding form of hīeran is like the suffix for fremman and nerian except for lacking the first e in the suffix. The one exception is the past participle, where this rule fails more often than not.

In Class 1b verbs, where the -d- in the suffix in the past tense is jammed right up against the final consonant of the stem, certain changes occur to make the resulting word easier to pronounce. After an unvoiced consonant (c, f, h, p, s, t) the d will become a t; moreover, if the unvoiced consonant is a c, it will become an h; so we get iċ tǣċe ("I teach") but iċ tǣhte ("I taught").

Another rule is that when the formation of the past tense of a Class 1b verb would put a double d or a double t after another consonant, it contracts to a single d or t. So with the verb myntan ("to intend"), "I intended" is not iċ myntde, nor yet iċ myntte, but rather iċ mynte.

Irregular Class 1 verbs


There are some common verbs which inflect like Class 1 weak verbs; indeed, they are, technically, Class 1 weak verbs. However, there are changes in the stem between the present tense, infinitive, and present participle forms on the one hand, and the stem in the past and past participle forms on the other.

Some of these verbs survive into Modern English; for example "sell"/"sold" and "buy"/"bought". Some verbs adopted more regular endings later in English development, such as "work"/"worked" where the archaic participle "wrought" is used only in specific contexts as an adjective (as it "wrought iron"; "wright", as in "shipwright" is also related to this word). However, other participles were simply utilized as a new verb outright. For instance, "stretch"/"straighte" becomes "stretch"/"stretched" and "straighten"/"straightened" (with "straight" becoming an adjective).

Since these are still Class 1 weak verbs, it is sufficient to give only two forms of the verb; the rest can be figured out with reference to the table showing the Class 1 conjugation. In the table we given the infinitive and 1st person singular past indicative.

These verbs can be divided into three categories:

  1. Verbs ending in -ellan, whose preterite becomes -ealde. For example, sellansealde.
  2. Verbs ending in -eċċan, whose preterite becomes -eahte. For example, streċċanstreahte.
  3. Other verbs ending in -ċan or -ngan. These are less predictable, but the vowel usually changes to o, which is followed by ht: sēċansōhte. The vowel in the preterite stem is the same length as in the present stem, except in the verbs þyncan, and bringan, where the n disappears and lengthens the preceding vowel: þūhte, brōhte. Ƿyrċan is another oddity, with the preterite form ƿorhte (also found as ƿrohte, as in modern English wrought).
Definition Infinitive 1 sg. past ind.
seem þynċan þūhte
think þenċan þōhte
bring bringan brōhte
care rēċan rōhte
seek sēċan sōhte
buy byċġan bohte
work ƿyrċan ƿorhte
stretch streċċan streahte
wake ƿeċċan ƿeahte
tell reċċan reahte
kill cƿellan cƿealde
give sellan sealde

Weak Class 2 verbs


Class II weak verbs have an infinitive ending in -ian, with the exception of almost all verbs which end in -rian, which conjugate like the Class 1 weak verb nerian as discussed above.

Here is the complete conjugation of the Class 2 weak verb lufian, "to love".

Conjugation Pronoun "love"
Infinitives lufian
tō lufienne
Present participle lufiende
Present indicative
þū lufast
hē/hit/hēo lufaþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe lufiaþ
Imperative Singular lufa
Plural lufiaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo lufie
ƿē/ġē/hīe lufien
Past indicative lufode
þū lufodest
hē/hit/hēo lufode
ƿē/ġē/hīe lufodon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo lufode
ƿē/ġē/hīe lufoden
Past participle (ġe)lufod

This is very like the way Class 1 weak verbs work. Note that lufian loses its i in just those cases where fremman loses one of its ms, nerian loses its i, and hīeran has no e at the start of its suffix.

There are differences, though. In the second and third person singular present indicative the vowel in the suffix is an a, not an e. This means that the third person singular present indicative ends in -, an ending which in every other conjugation is associated with the plural present indicative.

Note also the use of an o instead of an e in forming the past tense and past participle.

Weak Class 3 verbs


The third class of weak verbs contains only four verbs, but they are very common ones: habban, "to have"; libban, "to live"; seċġan, "to say"; and hyċġan, "to think". Each class 3 weak verb behaves oddly in its own particular way, and so it is probably best just to give each part of each verb.

Conjugation Pronoun "have" "live" "say" "think"
Infinitives habban libban seċġan hyċġan
tō hæbbenne tō libbenne tō seċġenne tō hyċġenne
Present participle hæbbende libbende seċġende hyċġende
Present indicative
hæbbe libbe seċġe hyċġe
þū hæfst / hafast leofast / lifast sæġst / seġ(e)st hyġst / hogast
hē/hit/hēo hæfþ / hafaþ leofaþ / lifaþ sæġþ / seġ(e)þ hyġþ, hogaþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe habbaþ libbaþ / leofaþ seċġaþ hyċġaþ
Imperative Singular hafa leofa sæġe/saga hyġe / hoga
Plural habbaþ leofaþ seċġaþ hyċġaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo hæbbe libbe seċġe hyċġe
ƿē/ġē/hīe hæbben libben seċġen hyċġen
Past indicative hæfde lifde / leofode sæġde hog(o)de
þū hæfdest lifdest sæġdest hog(o)dest
hē/hit/hēo hæfde lifde / leofode sæġde hog(o)de
ƿē/ġē/hīe hæfdon lifdon / leofodon sæġdon hog(o)don
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo hæfde lifde / leofode sæġde hog(o)de
ƿē/ġē/hīe hæfden leofoden sæġden hog(o)den
Past participle (ġe)hæfd (ġe)lifd / (ġe)leofod (ġe)sæġd (ġe)hogod

For habban we can see that its first vowel is always æ except when the second vowel is a, in which case the first vowel will also be a.

Strong verbs


In strong verbs, the vowel in the stem of the verb changes according to person, tense, and mood; this change is known as ablaut or gradation. Relics of this system survive in Modern English in such variations as "sing", "sang", "sung" or "write", "wrote", "written".

Although strong verbs are fewer in number than weak verbs, they include some very common verbs, and so you will come across them often.

Example of a strong verb


Below is an example of all the parts of the strong verb "dūfan" ("to dive").

Conjugation Pronoun "dive"
Infinitives dūfan
tō dūfenne
Present participle dūfende
Present indicative
þū dȳfst
hē/hit/hēo dȳfþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe dūfaþ
Imperative Singular dūf
Plural dūfaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo dūfe
ƿē/ġē/hīe dūfen
Past indicative dēaf
þū dufe
hē/hit/hēo dēaf
ƿē/ġē/hīe dufon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo dufe
ƿē/ġē/hīe dufen
Past participle (ġe)dofen

Gradation provides us with four variations on the vowel in the stem:

  • The infinitive vowel ū is used in the infinitives, present participle, present tense, and imperative.
  • The first preterite vowel ēa is used in the first and third person singular of the preterite.
  • The second preterite vowel u is used in all the other forms of the preterite: second person singular, plural, and subjunctive.
  • The past participle vowel o is used only in the past participle.

But the reader will notice that there are in fact five vowels appearing in the stem of the verb in this table: in the second and third person present indicative we have the vowel ȳ. This is not, technically, gradation, it is i-mutation: these parts of strong verbs undergo i-mutation whenever the vowel is one of the kind of vowel that undergoes i-mutation; this change is perfectly regular.

The seven classes of strong verbs


Strong verbs can be divided into classes according to the vowels in their ablaut systems. We can see relics of the classes in Modern English: write/wrote/written goes like drive/drove/driven; whereas sing/sang/sung goes like ring/rang/rung. These seven classes are standardized and come from Proto-Germanic; we divide a few of them further into subclasses for our own purposes.

In the table below we show the gradation series of the seven classes of strong verbs, using an example verb for each pattern. For each verb we give the infinitive, the third-person singular present, the first-person singular preterite, the plural preterite, and the past participle. Using these forms, all the other forms of the verb can be predicted.

Class Infinitive 3p. sg. pres. 1p. sg. pret. Pl. pret. Past part.
I īnan ī ān inon (ġe)sċinen
IIa ċēosan ċīest ċēas curon (ġe)coren
IIb dūfan dȳ dēaf dufon (ġe)dofen
IIIa berstan birst bærst burston (ġe)borsten
IIIb feohtan fieht feaht fuhton (ġe)fohten
IIIc helpan hilpþ healp hulpon (ġe)holpen
IIId ġieldan ġielt ġeald guldon (ġe)golden
IIIe bindan bint band bundon (ġe)bunden
IV beran bi bær bǣron (ġe)boren
V cƿeþan cƿiþþ cƿæþ cƿǣdon (ġe)cƿeden
VI standan stent stōd stōdon (ġe)standen
VIIa healdan hielt hēold hēoldon (ġe)healden
VIIb hātan hǣtt hēt hēton (ġe)hāten

The vowel in the infinitive and past participle of class VII verbs is highly variable; the subclasses are distinguished by their preterite forms. However, the vowel in the past participle will almost always be the same as the vowel in the infinitive for class VII verbs (ƿēpan being a notable exception, with its past participle (ġe)ƿōpen).

Some of these verbs exhibit consonant changes as well as vowel changes—notice, for instance, how the "n" in standan disappears in the preterite—but the vowel changes are what define the verb classes. Some of these consonant changes are discussed below.

Some strong verbs are irregular. For example, cuman is classified as a class IV verb, because it was a regular class IV verb in Proto-Germanic (*kwemaną), but it became irregular in Old English: cume, cymþ, c(ƿ)ōm, c(ƿ)ōmon, (ġe)cumen. Aside from the different vowels, however, it conjugates like any other strong verb. There are also a handful of verbs with contracted forms, with infinitives ending in -ēan, -ēon, or -ōn; more on those later.

What happened to Class III?


Class III verbs would originally have all conjugated the same way. However, the vowels in their stems then underwent changes according to the consonants adjacent to them.

Class IIIa represents the unaltered form of the verb.

In Class IIIb verbs, the vowel was followed by an h or r, and so underwent breaking to a diphthong in the infinitive and first preterite forms.

In Class IIIc verbs, breaking is caused in the first preterite by an l following the vowel.

In Class IIId, the vowel is preceded by ċ, ġ, or sċ, and undergoes what is known as palatal diphthongization.

In Class IIIe, the quality of the vowel was changed by being followed by a nasal consonant, that is m or n.

A further complication is that there are some Class IIIa verbs in which the vowel is followed by an r, and yet have not turned into Class IIIb verbs. An example is the verb berstan, meaning "to burst". What has happened here is that the word was originally brestan, then the sound changes occurred that produced class IIIb verbs, and then the word brestan underwent what is known as metathesis of r to produce berstan.

Stems ending in g


In the 2nd and 3rd person present singular indicative, the same cases in which i-mutation takes place, if the verb stem ends in g, this usually becomes an h. So for example in the verb belgan ("to be angry) we have þū bilhst and hē bilhþ.

Stems ending in s, t, or d


Also in the 2nd and 3rd person present singular indicative, certain changes take place to prevent awkwardness when the dental consonants in the suffix are stuck onto dental consonants at the end of the stem.

  • If the stem of the verb ends in s, then instead of the 2nd person ending in -sst, this becomes -st; and instead of the 3rd person ending in -sþ, this becomes -st.
  • If the stem of the verb ends in t, then instead of the 3rd person ending in -tþ, this becomes -tt.
  • If the stem of the verb ends in d, then instead of the 3rd person ending in -dþ, this becomes -tt, and instead of the 2nd person ending in -dst, this becomes -tst

Verner's law


There are certain consonants occurring at the end of the stem which change along with the vowel in gradation, having one consonant to go with the indicative and 1st preterite vowels, and another to go with the 2nd preterite and past participle vowels.

Inf. + 1st pret 2nd pret + p.p
s r
þ d
h g

So for example the table below shows the conjugation of the Class II verb sēoþan ("to boil"). Note that apart from this change in the consonant, it is a perfectly ordinary Class II verb.

Conjugation Pronoun "boil"
Infinitives sēoþan
tō sēoþenne
Present participle sēoþende
Present indicative
þū sīeþst
hē/hit/hēo sīeþþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe sēoþaþ
Imperative Singular sēoþ
Plural sēoþaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo sēoþe
ƿē/ġē/hīe sēoþen
Past indicative sēaþ
þū sude
hē/hit/hēo sēaþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe sudon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo sude
ƿē/ġē/hīe suden
Past participle (ġe)soden

Contracted verbs


Where a verb stem originally ended in an h, various things happened. First, the h caused breaking, turning the vowel into a diphthong; then when the h came between two vowels, it disappeared, lengthening the vowel it comes after, and then the second vowel disappeared.

So, for example, the Class VI verb lēan ("to blame") would originally have been lahan. Breaking turned this into leahan; loss of h and lengthening of the vowel would give us lēaan, and loss of the vowel that came after the h gives us lēan. By contrast, in the 3rd person singular present indicative, there is no vowel after the h, so only the breaking will occur, and we get hē liehþ.

Such verbs will also undergo the Verner's Law variation of the consonant, so the h will only appear with the infinitive vowel and the 1st pret. vowel.

Putting all this together, here is the complete conjugation of the verb lēan.

Conjugation Pronoun "blame"
Infinitives lēan
tō lēanne
Present participle lēande
Present indicative
þū liehst
hē/hit/hēo liehð
ƿē/ġē/hīe lēaþ
Imperative Singular lieh
Plural lēaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo lēa
ƿē/ġē/hīe lēan
Past indicative lōh
þū lōge
hē/hit/hēo lōh
ƿē/ġē/hīe lōgon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo lōge
ƿē/ġē/hīe lōgen
Past participle (ġe)lagen

Preterite-present verbs


In a preterite-present verb, the past (preterite) tense has taken on a present-tense meaning, and the verb has then acquired a weak past tense.

As an example, consider the verb ƿitan (to know). It is derived from what was once a perfectly ordinary verb meaning "to see" (cognate, as it happens, with the Latin verb "videre"). It is not hard to understand how the past tense could have taken on a present-tense meaning; if you saw something in the past, then you know about it in the present.

Hence we have forms such as iċ ƿāt ("I know") and ƿē ƿiton ("we know") which look like the past tense of a strong verb, specifically a class I strong verb, but which have a present-tense meaning. Then a weak past tense is formed with a dental suffix.

While the verb ƿitan has not survived into Modern English, a number of preterite-present verbs have, such as "can" and "shall"; it is because they are preterite-present verbs that the 3rd person present indicative is "he can" and "he shall" rather than "he cans" and "he shalls".

Preterite-present verbs can be learned with five principal parts; the rest of the forms can be predicted based on these. Old English has twelve of them, not counting compound forms:

infinitive iċ/hē þū subjunctive preterite meaning
āgan āh āhst āge āhte to own
cunnan cann canst cunne cūþe to know how to
dugan dēah dēaht duge dohte to be useful
durran dearr dearst durre dorste to dare
ġemunan ġeman ġemanst ġemune ġemunde to remember
ġenugan ġenēah ġenēaht ġenuge ġenohte to be enough
magan mæġ meaht mæġe meahte can; to be able to
mōtan mōt mōst mōte mōste to be allowed to
sċulan sċeal sċealt sċyle sċeolde should; must
þurfan þearf þearft þyrfe þorfte to need
unnan ann anst unne ūþe to grant
ƿitan ƿāt ƿāst ƿite ƿiste to know
  • To form the long infinitive, take the infinitive and replace the -an with -enne: tō āgenne
  • To form the indicative plural, take the infinitive and replace the -an with -on: āgon
  • As always, to form the subjunctive plural, add -n to the subjunctive singular: āgen
  • The preterite is conjugated as follows: iċ āhte, þū āhtest, hē āhte, ƿē āhton.
  • The past subjunctive uses the preterite stem and is conjugated as follows: iċ/þū/hē āhte, ƿē āhten.
  • The singular imperative is the same as the singular subjunctive: āge
  • For the plural imperative, take the singular imperative and replace the -e with -aþ: āgaþ
  • To form the past participle, take the infinitive and replace the -an with -en: āgen. The prefix ġe- may optionally be added as well, except in the case of ġemunan and ġenugan, which already have it.

Full conjugations for the preterite-present verbs are shown in the tables below. The only reason there are three tables is so that they fit on the page; there is no particular significance to a verb being in one table rather than another.

Conjugation Pronoun "own" "know" "be useful" "dare"
Infinitives āgan cunnan dugan durran
tō āgenne tō cunnenne tō dugenne tō durrenne
Present participle āgende cunnende dugende durrende
Present indicative
āh cann dēah dearr
þū āhst canst dēaht dearst
hē/hit/hēo āh cann dēah dearr
ƿē/ġē/hīe āgon cunnon dugon durron
Imperative Singular āge cunne duge durre
Plural āgaþ cunnaþ dugaþ durraþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo āge cunne duge durre
ƿē/ġē/hīe āgen cunnen dugen durren
Past indicative āhte cūþe dohte dorste
þū āhtest cūþest dohtest dorstest
hē/hit/hēo āhte cūþe dohte dorste
ƿē/ġē/hīe āhton cūþon dohton dorston
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo āhte cūþe dohte dorste
ƿē/ġē/hīe āhten cūþen dohten dorsten
Past participle (ġe)āgen cunnen / (ġe)cūþ dugen durren
Conjugation Pronoun "be able to" "be allowed to" "remember" "suffice"
Infinitives magan mōtan ġemunan ġenugan
tō magenne tō mōtenne tō ġemunenne tō ġenugenne
Present participle magende mōtende ġemunende ġenugende
Present indicative
mæġ mōt ġeman ġenēah
þū meaht, miht mōst ġemanst ġenēaht
hē/hit/hēo mæġ mōt ġeman ġenēah
ƿē/ġē/hīe magon mōton ġemunon ġenugon
Imperative Singular - mōte ġemune ġenuge
Plural - mōtaþ ġemunaþ ġenugaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo mæġe mōte ġemune ġenuge
ƿē/ġē/hīe mæġen mōten ġemunen ġenugen
Past indicative meahte / mihte mōste ġemunde ġenohte
þū meahtest / mihtest mōstest ġemundest ġenohtest
hē/hit/hēo meahte / mihte mōste ġemunde ġenohte
ƿē/ġē/hīe meahton / mihton mōston ġemundon ġenohton
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo meahte / mihte mōste ġemunde ġenohte
ƿē/ġē/hīe meahten / mihten mōsten ġemunden ġenohten
Past participle magen mōten munen nugen
Conjugation Pronoun "have to" "need" "grant" "know"
Infinitives sċulan þurfan unnan ƿitan
tō sċulenne tō þurfenne tō unnenne tō ƿitenne
Present participle sċulende þurfende unnende ƿitende
Present indicative
sċeal þearf ann ƿāt
þū sċealt þearft anst ƿāst
hē/hit/hēo sċeal þearf ann ƿāt
ƿē/ġē/hīe sċulon þurfon unnon ƿiton
Imperative Singular sċyle þyrfe unne ƿite
Plural sċylaþ þyrfaþ unnaþ ƿitaþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo sċyle þyrfe unne ƿite
ƿē/ġē/hīe sċylen þyrfen unnen ƿiten
Past indicative sċeolde þorfte ūþe ƿiste
þū sċeoldest þorftest ūþest ƿistest
hē/hit/hēo sċeolde þorfte ūþe ƿiste
ƿē/ġē/hīe sċeoldon þorfton ūþon ƿiston
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo sċeolde þorfte ūþe ƿiste
ƿē/ġē/hīe sċeolden þorften ūþen ƿisten
Past participle sċulen þurfen unnen (ġe)ƿiten

Some of the entries in the table are not actually attested in manuscripts, but are reconstructions of how the verb forms probably would have looked if they were.

Irregular Verbs


This class consists of four verbs which have little in common except that they are very difficult to classify. It is usual in any language that the most irregular verbs are also among the most common, and these are a case in point.

Bēon and ƿesan


There are two verbs in Old English for "to be", ƿesan, which is normally present or past tense, and bēon, which is normally future tense. The past tense uses forms from ƿesan, conjugating it as a Class V strong verb.

Conjugation Pronoun "be" "will be"
Infinitives ƿesan bēon
ƿesenne bēonne
Present participle ƿesende bēonde
Present indicative
eom bēo
þū eart bist
hē/hit/hēo is biþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe sind(on) / sint bēoþ
Imperative Singular ƿes bēo
Plural ƿesaþ bēoþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo sīe bēo
ƿē/ġē/hīe sīen bēon
Past indicative ƿæs
þū ƿǣre
hē/hit/hēo ƿæs
ƿē/ġē/hīe ƿǣron
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo ƿǣre
ƿē/ġē/hīe ƿǣren
Past participle (ġe)bēon

The verb bēon is also used to state timeless truths. For example, the poem known as Resignation ends with the lines:

Giet biþ þæt selast, þonne mon him sylf ne mæg
ƿyrd onƿendan, þæt he þonne ƿel þoliġe.

("Yet it is best, if a man cannot change his fate, that he bear it well.") Clearly the poet thinks that this is a general statement about the human condition, and so used biþ rather than is.

Dōn and gān


The verbs dōn ("to do") and gān (to go) don't inflect exactly the same, but there are certain similarities that justify putting them in the same table.

Conjugation Pronoun "do" "go"
Infinitives dōn gān
tō dōnne tō gānne
Present participle dōnde gāngende
Present indicative
þū dēst gǣst
hē/hit/hēo dēþ gǣþ
ƿē/ġē/hīe dōþ gāþ
Imperative Singular
Plural dōþ gāþ
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo
ƿē/ġē/hīe dōn gān
Past indicative dyde eode
þū dydest eodest
hē/hit/hēo dyde eode
ƿē/ġē/hīe dydon eodon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo dyde eode
ƿē/ġēhīe dyden eoden
Past participle (ġe)dōn (ġe)gān



Finally, the verb ƿillan, meaning "to want" or "to wish".

Conjugation Pronoun "want"
Infinitives ƿillan
Present participle ƿillende
Present indicative
þū ƿilt
hē/hit/hēo ƿile
ƿē/ġē/hīe ƿillaþ
Imperative Singular -
Plural -
Present subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo ƿille
ƿē/ġē/hīe ƿillen
Past indicative ƿolde
þū ƿoldest
hē/hit/hēo ƿolde
ƿē/ġē/hīe ƿoldon
Past subjunctive iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo ƿolde
ƿē/ġē/hīe ƿolden
Past participle -