Verb conjugation and identifying verbs

Verb conjugation

Conjugation is a very long word, isn't it? In grammar, when you conjugate a verb, it just means that you change the verb in order for a sentence to make sense.

Correctly conjugated verbs communicate to a reader or a listener the meaning behind the the sentence clearly.

Verbs are conjugated in English all the time to convey different meanings. A good example of how conjugation of verbs is important is conjugating the verb to be in the present tense:

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

You can see that in English, the verb to be changes depending on who is the subject.

In Irish, there are different endings for verbs depending on who or what is the subject - who is doing the action in the sentence.

For example, in the present tense in Irish, you couldn't say éistim sé le ceol. The ending -im is used when talking about ourselves, and not other people - that's why you need to use the ending -eann in this case - éisteann sé le ceol (he listens to music).

But what has this got to do with conjugation? Well, in Irish, regular verbs are categorised into two types - 1st conjugation and 2nd conjugation. When using different tenses and adding endings to the verbs, verbs are treated differently depending on what conjugation they are in.

In the above example, éist is a 1st conjugation verb - so in the present tense, the endings are -im or -aim when talking about ourselves, and -eann or -ann when talking about others. The verb éist is also a slender verb, so in this case the ending must be éisteann sé le ceol.

If you know what conjugation a verb exists in, you are more likely to work out how the verb is spelt or pronounced in different tenses, even if it is one you have not come across before.

Short, long, or syncopated

In practice, most 1st conjugation verbs are only one syllable long, which is why they are described as short. 2nd conjugation verbs are usually two or more syllables in length, so these are usually either long verbs or syncopated verbs.

For the rest of this guide and in other guides about Irish, we won't refer to conjugation as it can be a complex thing to understand. Instead, we will focus on identifying whether verbs are short, long or syncopated, and whether they have broad or slender endings.

Identifying verbs

As you come across new verbs when learning Irish, you may need to work out what type of verb they are, in order to use them correctly in speech or in writing.

To identify verbs, you need to work out two important things:

  1. Is the verb short, long or syncopated?

  2. Does the verb have a broad or slender ending?

Knowing these things, helps when working out how the spelling of the verb changes in certain tenses, like the present tense link and the future tense link. You don't have to worry about identifying verbs in the past tense link.

Short, long and syncopated verbs

First, let's look at what is meant by short, long and syncopated verbs.

In Irish, verbs are categorises into short verbs, long verbs and syncopated verbs. The amount of syllables in a verb and its endings decides what type of verb it is.

As a reminder, words are made up of different parts. These are called syllables.

The word toy in English has one syllable. The word apple in English has two syllables.

In Irish verbs...

  • a short verb has one syllable, for example cuir, glan or rith
  • a long verb has more than one syllable, and ends with -igh or -aigh, for example ceannaigh and éirigh
  • a syncopated verb also has more than one syllable, but doesn't have the -igh or -aigh endings, for example muscail, oscail or imir

It helps to say the verb out loud to work out how many syllables it has, and then to look at how its ending is spelt.

Caol le caol, leathan le leathan

Slender with slender, broad with broad

Next, let's look at broad and slender vowels. But what even is a broad or a slender vowel?

In Irish, some vowels are categorised as broad - these are a, o and u

Some vowels are categorised as slender - these are e and i

Remembering this is important because it helps with spelling and verb endings in Irish. The saying caol le caol, leathan le leathan in Irish can help you remember this. It means that when spelling things, or working out verb endings, slender vowels like e and i will stick with each other, and broad vowels like a, o and u will stick with each other.

To decide if a verb is broad or slender, do four things:

  1. If there is an ending such as -aigh, -igh, ai or i, remove it.
  2. Look at the last vowel in the verb after removing the ending.
  3. If the last vowel in the verb is a, o or u, the verb is a broad verb.
  4. If the last vowel in the verb is e or i, the verb is a slender verb.