Mastering Irregular Verbs

The sneaky verbs you may not have learned about in English class…. but that you definitely learned in Spanish! Transferable knowledge regarding “to be” and “to have” on standardized tests


Buckle up, everybody. We’re talking grammar today: specifically, verbs. Oxford Languages defines verbs as “words used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of the sentence.” Here are some examples of verbs: resist, break, create. 

As nitty-gritty as grammar work might seem, it is absolutely key to success on standardized tests. The problem is that many American English classes don’t include this kind of instruction, at least not in your final years of high school, when you’re preparing for the ACT or SAT. But if you’ve been working on grammar in a foreign language class, especially Spanish or French, read on in order to learn how to transfer that knowledge!


The sneaky verbs to be and to have

Standardized tests can be tricky when it comes to sentence structure. The ACT English or SAT Writing sections often use verbs that “hide in plain sight” – verbs that you might not think of as verbs because they’re not “actiony”. It can be easy to pick out verbs like “ran” or “jumped,” but what about “were,” “have had,” or “had been”? Yes! These are verbs too, and often they perform a structural role in the sentence.

When a verb is truly “active” or “structural” in a sentence, we call it a conjugated verb. You may already know “conjugations” as the boring lists of verb forms you had to memorize in language class, but English uses conjugations too! A conjugated verb agrees with the subject of a sentence. For example, you would say “I am” instead of “I are.” In this example, “am” is a conjugated form of the verb “to be” and it agrees with the subject, “I.” In order to make a correct and complete sentence, the verb needs to agree with the subject: in other words, it needs to be conjugated.

Today, we’ll be looking for conjugated forms of to be and to have. Strangely enough, these super commonly-occurring verbs tend to be the most easily overlooked in the testing scenario.


Example 1.

For example, what about this question:

In 1917, the year our house was built. The city planners had an orderly scheme for the collection of trash.



  2. built the

  3. built, the

  4. built; the



To solve this one, you must realize that there is a mistake as written. The first sentence is a fragment. There is only one conjugated verb, and it’s not the seemingly more active built. In fact, the verb is a form of to have: “the city planners had an orderly scheme…”

You can fix the sentence by combining the two parts according to answer C: “In 1917, the year our house was built, the city planners had an orderly scheme for the collection of trash.”

This question features sentence structure/clauses as the main grammar point, and it is an extremely common question type. 


Example 2.

Now, what about this question?

In the twelfth century, the tale was illustrated with picture scrolls; in the seventeenth century, books of wood-block prints based on the tale was produced.



  2. is

  3. were

  4. are



To solve this question, you must notice that the underlined verb as written does not agree with its subject: books. Books were produced.

The answer will be C: “in the seventeenth century, books of wood-block prints based on the tale were produced.”

This question is an example of what we call subject-verb agreement, a commonly-tested grammar point on standardized tests. In other words, the verb conjugation is incorrect. Since the subject is so far from the verb, and the verb is a sneaky little to be, it can be difficult to spot the issue.


Shift your mindset, remember your foreign language instruction, and identify to be and to have every time!

It’s not surprising if you are having trouble identifying the verbs and their subjects in questions like these. American English classes don’t always include the kind of grammar instruction that would help. But you know what does help? Foreign language instruction!

In the USA, Spanish or French are the most commonly studied foreign languages. If you have taken these courses, or learned any language with conjugated verbs, then you will have already spent hours drilling this exact problem. You can probably spot a conjugated Spanish to be (or a Latin, German, or Arabic one) from a mile away!

The surprising fact which might help you with English grammar on standardized tests is that English conjugates to be and to have similarly to how other languages do.

If you can adjust your mindset to pay the same kind of attention to these particular verbs in English as you do in your foreign language class, then they will be much easier to spot and fix on the SAT or ACT!

For the sake of example, here’s a comparison with Spanish and French.


The English to be conjugation in comparison with Spanish and French

to be ser être

I am soy suis

you are eres es

he/she/it is es est

we are somos sommes

you all are son êtes

they are son sont


The English to have conjugation in comparison with Spanish and French

to have haber* avoir

I have he ai

you have has as

he/she/it has ha a

we have hemos avons

you all have habéis avez

they have han ont

*I am using haber here because it is more similar to the English “to have” in terms of its auxiliary uses with verb tenses. Ex. Closer to the usage in “I have eaten” (he comido) rather than the possessive meaning in “I have a question” (tengo una pregunta).


Notice that even though Spanish and French have more variation (almost every conjugation is different), English does also change according to the subject.

English verbs are less conjugated, but just as in your foreign language classroom, to be and to have are still totally verbs, usually very important to the sentence, and always worth paying extra attention to! Shifting your perspective to the more “grammatical” one you use when learning a foreign language might just help you spot these sneaky yet significant parts of the sentence.

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