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Sarf – Variations of the Past Tense

February 27, 2007

Until now we have seen how to conjugate verbs using the simple past tense e.g. he ate, he helped, he did etc. Now we will see how we can couple some words to the past tense verb and make it either present perfect e.g. he has helped or past perfect e.g. he had helped.

Sticking the word قد in front of a past tense verb makes it present perfect. Thus, قد denotes actions which have just been completed e.g. he has helped, he has done, he has read etc. Note that قد is a حرف (i.e. a particle) so it does not change its form with the changing form of the verb. As an example, نَصَرَ means he helped and قد نَصَرَ means he has helped. The significance of this will become clear when we deal with the next section about making past perfect tense. One more thing to note is that you cannot attach a ما in front of قد to negate it: this construction is not allowed in Arabic.

If we add کان in front of a past tense verb the verb becomes past perfect. Thus, کان denotes actions which have been completed in distant past. However, کان is a verb, just like فَعَلَ , so it will also change its form when coupled with the past tense verb. The following table shows how this is done:

كان نَصَرَ He had helped
كانا نَصَرا They (2 males) had helped
كانوا نَصَروا They (many males) had helped
كانَتْ نَصَرَتْ She had helped
كانَتا نَصَرَتا They (2 females) had helped
كُنَّ نَصَرْنَ They (many females) had helped
كُنتَ نَصَرْتَ You (1 male)had helped
كُنتُما نَصَرْتُما You (2 males) had helped
كُنتُم نَصَرْتُم You (many males) had helped
كُنتِ نَصَرْتِ You (1 female) had helped
كُنتُما نَصَرْتُما You (2 females) had helped
كُنتُنَّ نَصَرْتُنَّ You (many females) had helped
كُنتُ نَصَرْتُ I had helped
كُنّا نَصَرْنا We had helped

The negation of this conjugation is constructed simply by adding a ما in front of it. Also, the passive voice for this conjugation is constructed the same way as before: dhamma on the first letter, kasraon the second last letter.

  1. Amal permalink

    Assalamu Alikum,
    I am Amal from Riyadh, KSA. I really like your blog. It is a great effort.

    I want to discuss one point, if possible. In school, we have learned that Arabic has only three tenses, namely, past, present, and future. I am wondering if it is true. Should the perfect tenses be included? I do need this piece of information because I am working on a paper that has to deal with the processes involved when Arab speakers acquire the English perfect structures. Feel free to e-mail me.
    Thanks in advance,

  2. I would say that the basic tenses are always three. This is directly linked to the concept of time which humans have:past time, present time, and future time.
    As for the other ‘sub’ tenses like past-perfect and present-perfect etc. the events defined in them are already happening in one of the defined times of past, present, or future. An example of this would be:
    He went jogging on Saturday. This is an example of simple past tense. However, if we say He used to go jogging on Saturdays this is still past tense, although we have just defined it a little more.
    Bottom line: there are always three tenses which can be further subdivided and refined.
    I hope this helps…

  3. faaza permalink

    Assalamu Alikum
    My name is Faaza Qanbar Ali Iam from Iraq ,I appreciate your a huge efforts ,I have a comment about your respons to Amal .In fact they are two tenses past and presentin English and in Arabic languages and three times past, present and futre .Tense is a grammatical category and time is a universial concept.
    I will be very thankul to you if send me a book ‘the verb in Literary and Colloquial Arabic ‘by Martine Haak 1997″ or any book concerning verbal aspct in arabic

  4. Ahsen permalink

    Actually, the three tenses in Arabic are Perfect, Imperfect, and Command.

    Perfect verbs are those that have already been done – thus, past. (At least in arabic, i’m not sure about english, i believe there’s present perfect, i.e. he’s gone, which if you think about it, is talking about either a present STATE, or a past ACTION. In the former, the verb is is – not a typo – and in the latter it is went. Actually, read over again and ignore the stuff between the brackets.)

    Imperfect is something that is on going or will be done in the future. Thus both present and future are sub categories of imperfect.

    And finally of course, the command verb.

    That at least, is how I understood it from Mufti Mullan’s first lecture on the subject.

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