You'll be very pleased to know that verb tenses in Arabic, when compared to other languages, are fairly straightforward. Basically, you only need to be concerned with two proper verb forms: the past and the present. A future verb tense exists, but it's a derivative of the present tense that you achieve by attaching a prefix to the present tense of the verb.
Digging up the past tense
The structural form of the past tense is one of the easiest grammatical structures in the Arabic language. Basically, every regular verb that's conjugated in the past tense follows a very strict pattern. First, you refer to all regular verbs in the past tense using the huwa (hoo-wah; he) personal pronoun. Second, the overwhelming majority of verbs in huwa form in the past tense have three consonants that are accompanied by the same vowel: the fatHa (fat-hah). The fatHa creates the "ah" sound.
For example, the verb "wrote" in the past tense is kataba (kah-tah-bah); its three consonants are "k," "t," and "b." Here are some common verbs you may use while speaking Arabic:
- 'akala (ah-kah-lah; ate)
- fa'ala (fah-ah-lah; did)
- dhahaba (zah-hah-bah; went)
- qara'a (kah-rah-ah; read)
- ra'a (rah-ah; saw)
The following table shows the verb kataba (kah-tah-bah; wrote) conjugated using all the personal pronouns. Note that the first part of the verb remains constant; only its suffix changes depending on the personal pronoun used.
Table 1: Kataba, Conjugated Using All the Personal Pronouns
You wrote (MS)
You wrote (FS)
You wrote (MP)
You wrote (FP)
They wrote (MP)
They wrote (FP)
You wrote (dual/MP/FP)
They wrote (dual/MP)
They wrote (dual/FP)
Every personal pronoun has a corresponding suffix used to conjugate and identify the verb form in its specific tense. Table 2 outlines these specific suffixes.
Table 2: Personal Pronoun Suffixes for Verbs in the Past Tense
Anytime you come across a regular verb you want to conjugate in the past tense, use these verb suffixes with the corresponding personal pronouns.
Not all regular verbs in the past tense have three consonants. Some regular verbs have more than three consonants, such as:
- tafarraja (tah-fah-rah-jah; watched)
- takallama (tah-kah-lah-mah; spoke)
Even though these verbs have more than three consonants, they're still considered regular verbs. To conjugate them, you keep the first part of the word constant and only change the last consonant of the word using the corresponding suffixes to match the personal pronouns.
When you know how to conjugate verbs in the past tense, your sentence-building options are endless. Here are some simple sentences that combine nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the past tense:
- 'al-walad dhahaba 'ilaa al-madrasa. (al-wah-lad zah-hah-bah ee-lah al-mad-rah-sah; The boy went to the school.)
- al-bint takallamat fii al-qism. (al-bee-net tah-kah-lah-mat fee al-kee-sem; The girl spoke in the classroom.)
- 'akalnaa Ta'aam ladhiidh. (ah-kal-nah tah-am lah-zeez; We ate delicious food.)
Examining the present tense
Conjugating verbs in the past tense is relatively straightforward, but conjugating verbs in the present tense is a bit trickier. Instead of changing only the ending of the verb, you must also alter its beginning. You need to be familiar not only with the suffix but also the prefix that corresponds to each personal pronoun.
To illustrate the difference between past and present tense, the verb kataba (wrote) is conjugated as yaktubu (yak-too-boo; to write), whereas the verb darasa (studied) is yadrusu (yad-roo-soo; to study).
Here's the verb yaktubu (to write) conjugated using all the personal pronouns. Notice how both the suffixes and prefixes change in the present tense.
Table 3: Yaktubu, Conjugated Using All the Personal Pronouns
I am writing
You are writing (MS)
You are writing (FS)
He is writing
She is writing
We are writing
You are writing (MP)
You are writing (FP)
They are writing (MP)
They are writing (FP)
You are writing (dual/MP/FP)
They are writing (dual/MP)
They are writing (dual/FP)
As you can see, you need to be familiar with both the prefixes and suffixes to conjugate verbs in the present tense. Table 4 includes every personal pronoun with its corresponding prefix and suffix for the present tense.
Table 4: Personal Pronoun Prefixes and Suffixes for Verbs in the Present Tense
Aside from prefixes and suffixes, another major difference between the past and present tenses in Arabic is that every verb in the present tense has a dominant vowel that's unique and distinctive. For example, the dominant vowel in yaktubu is a damma (dah-mah; "ooh" sound). However, in the verb yaf'alu (yaf-ah-loo; to do), the dominant vowel is the fatHa (fat-hah; "ah" sound). This means that when you conjugate the verb yaf'alu using the personal pronoun 'anaa, you say 'anaa 'af'alu and not 'anaa 'af'ulu.
The dominant vowel is always the middle vowel. Unfortunately, there's no hard rule you can use to determine which dominant vowel is associated with each verb. The best way to identify the dominant vowel is to look up the verb in the qaamuus (kah-moos; dictionary).
Peeking into the future tense
Although Arabic grammar has a future tense, you'll be glad to know that the tense has no outright verb structure. Rather, you achieve the future tense by adding the prefix sa- to the existing present tense form of the verb. For example, yaktubu means "to write." Add the prefix sa- to yaktubu and you get sayaktubu, which means "he will write."