Verb and Tenses in Learning Arabic

Arabic is relatively straightforward when it comes to tenses. Some languages have many tenses and are very specific about the time of an action and whether or not the action has been completed. Arabic grammar is vague about time and there are only two basic tenses:

The past (or perfect)   المَاضي 
The present (or imperfect)      ا لمضا رع 

The Past
In a simple regular verb, the basic past tense will look like this:
كَتَبَ(kataba): (he) wrote
شَرِبَ(shariba): (he) drank
حَمَلَ(Hamala): (he) carried

The three root letters are all followed by a vowel. In most cases this is all fatHas (kataba/Hamala), but sometimes the second vowel is a KaSra (shariba). (In rare cases, the second vowel is a Damma (u), but you can ignore these verbs since you are not likely to see or use them.)
If we take off the final vowel, this هُوَ (he/it) part of the verb (third
person masculine singular) becomes the base, or stem of the past tense.
Different endings can be added to this past stem depending on who is carrying out the action (the subject of the verb). So, كَتَبَ (kataba) is he
wrote and كَتَبْ (katab) is the past stem. If we add the ending oa (tu) to
the stem, it becomes كَتَبْتُ(katabtu) I wrote; if we add نَا (naa), it
becomes كَتَبْنَا(katabnaa) we wrote, etc. Here is a table showing all
the endings for the past tense:

  كَتَبْتُ (katabtu)
   أَنْتَyou (masc.*)
كَتَبْتَ (katabta)
    أَنْتِyou (fem.*)
َ         (a)

  أَنْتُمْyou (masc. pl)
كَتَتْتُمْ (katabtum)
   أَنْتُنَّyou (fem. pl)
   هُمْ they (masc.)
      هُنَّthey (fem.)
  نَ (na)

* For an explanation of masculine and feminine genders, see page 107.
** An extra alif (G) is written after the waaw (ƒ) but is silent.

Note that you will not meet or need the feminine plurals as often as the masculine plurals. This is because you only use the feminine plural if all the people in a group are female. If the group is mixed male and female, the masculine is used. Therefore, this form is the most important to learn and become familiar with in the first place. There are also different endings for two people (the dual). To make it easier to absorb the basics first, an explanation of the dual and its associated verb endings has been separated.
You do not have to use the personal pronouns (he, she, etc.) before the verb as you do in English. If you see an Arabic sentence like this:

(She) wrote a letter to her mother.كَتَبَتْ رِسَالة لِأُمِّهاَ

you can tell it is she because of the ending of the verb (katabat). The sentence could be more specific and say exactly who wrote the letter (the subject of the verb). Then you would see:

Fatma wrote a letter to her mother.  كَتَبَتْ فاطمة رِسَالَة لأُمِّهَا

Notice that in written Arabic the subject (Fatma) usually comes after the verb (wrote).

The Present
The present is used for an action (or state) which is still going on
(unfinished). Whereas the past is formed by adding endings to a stem,
the present adds letters on the beginning and end of a different present
stem to show the subject of the verb. Look first at the present verb
below. These letters on the beginning and end are underlined in the
third column. Can you identify the stem that appears throughout?
Regular verbs: the basic tenses 15


          اَنْتَyou (masc.)
            اَنْتِyou (fem.)

* The final ending (u) on some of the verbs above has been put in parentheses because it is not usually pronounced.

If you look at the table, you can see that the present stem which appears in all the examples is كْتٌبْ` (ktub): the three root letters k/t/b, with no vowel after the first letter and a Damma ( ُ ) after the second.

The different letters added on the beginning and end (prefixes and suffixes) are arranged around this present stem to show the subject of the verb. For example:

The present is used for both continuous and habitual actions or states, where in English we might use a different tense:

The children play football on Friday(s). يَلْعَبُ الأَطْفَال الكٌرَّةَ يَوْمُ الجُمْعَة 


Your friend is sitting in my chair! يَجْلِسُ صَدِيْقُكَ فِيْ مَقْعَدِيْ!  

As with the past, the vowel on the second root letter varies in the present. If the middle vowel on the past is a kasra, then it usually changes to a fatHa in the present:

Shariba         شَرِبَ                 (he drank)
yashrab         يَشْرَبُ                (he drinks)

However, the majority of verbs have fatHa as the middle vowel of the past and, for these verbs, there is no rule to follow in the present. If you need to know the vowel, you can look in a dictionary where you will find the middle vowel written after the entry

Remember that in most cases the middle vowel will not affect the meaning of the text or your understanding of it. Most Arabic is written without vowels and you will probably learn the more common middle vowels over time. Dont worry too much about this aspect. Native speakers will usually understand you as long as the root letters and the patterns are correct.

The Future
If you want to talk about the future in Arabic, you also use the present tense. Often the word (sawfa) or the prefix (sa) are added to the front of the verb to indicate the future.

سَنَذْهَبُ اِلى المَتْحفِ غَدَا
We are going to the Egyptian museum tomorrow.

سَوْفَ يَزْرَعْ الفَلَاحُ البَطَا طِسَ فِيْ الخَرِيْفِ
 The farmer will plant potatoes in the Fall.

Summary of basic tenses
There are only two basic tenses in Arabic:
-       the past
-       the present
The past stem is formed from the three root letters with a fatHa after the first root and a fatHa (or sometimes a kasra) after the second root letter (katab/sharib). Endings are added to the stem
to show the subject of the verb.
The present stem is formed from the three root letters with a vowel after the second (ktub/shrab/jlis). Prefixes, and sometimes also endings, are added to the stem to show the subject of the verb.
The future may be made by adding (sawfa) or (sa) to
the present.