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Tenses in the Arabic Language: All You Need to Know

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What is a verb? 

Along with nouns, verbs are the most important part of any sentence. They are the words we use to describe an action (يُغَنّي [yuġannī] – he sings), a state of being (يوجَد [yūǧad] – he exists), or an occurrence (يُطَوِّر [yuṭawwir] – he develops), and they usually agree with the subject, which is who or what performs the action described. 

Basically, every sentence needs a verb to be complete—and this is why it’s so important to get them right when learning a foreign language! This includes using the right tenses, hence this article on tenses in the Arabic language. 

A Woman in Deep Thought about Something

We’ll admit that Arabic verbs are one of the most challenging aspects of learning this beautiful and complex language, but don’t worry. In this article, we’ll have a look at the main points you need to learn in order to use Arabic verbs with no problems! 

We’ll look at the Arabic root system, which is useful for learning verbs and gaining a better understanding of the language itself. In addition, we’ll show you how to build the different verb forms and tenses using the two verb aspects in Arabic.

Don’t worry if this all sounds too complicated and grammar-heavy (it’s normal to feel that way!). We’ll explain each concept thoroughly in the following paragraphs, simplifying them as much as possible so you can grasp them quickly and put them to good use throughout your Arabic language-learning journey!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Arabic Table of Contents
  1. The Root System
  2. The Root System in Verbs
  3. The Tenses
  4. Arabic Verbs: A Summary

1. The Root System

To understand Arabic verbs, one must first look at the verb root system. Like other Semitic languages, Arabic has a complex and unusual way of building words from a basic root. In fact, most Arabic words are constructed from a three-letter (trilateral) root.

According to this system, a pattern of three letters serves as the foundation for all words in the same semantic field (i.e. related in meaning). 

Let’s take for example ‘k-t-b’ (كتب), which is a trilateral root for words that have to do with “writing“:

  • kitāb كِتَاب – “book”
  • kātib كاتِب – “writer”
  • maktab مَكتَب – “desk” or “office”
  • maktabah مَكتَبة – “library” or “bookshop”

A Tree with Many Roots

2. The Root System in Verbs

When it comes to Arabic verb roots, the most important thing to keep in mind is that each trilateral root can take up to fifteen possible verb forms. However, there are ten forms that are most common and those are what language learners usually focus on. 

One can create different verbs from these forms by adding prefixes, suffixes, and different signs to the root consonants, though all are related to the general meaning of the root. Let’s have a look at the ten different forms of the verb فعل (to do):

  • Form 1: فَعَلَ (faʿala)
    This is the basic and general meaning of the root verb.
  • Form 2: فَعَّلَ (faʿʿala) [with the doubling of the sound of the letter ع]
    The second form makes the verb transitive, with an added meaning that the action is done to someone or something. It’s built by doubling the middle letter of the root.
  • Form 3: فاعَلَ (fāʿala)
    This form also makes the verb transitive, and it also means that the action is done with someone or something else.
  • Form 4: أفْعَلَ (ʾafʿala)
    This is a causative and transitive form (requires an object).
  • Form 5: تَفَعَّلَ (tafaʿala)
    Form five is the reflexive, which means that the subject and the direct object are the same.
  • Form 6: تَفاعَلَ (tafāʿala)
    The sixth form is the reflexive or passive version of form 3.
  • Form 7: اِنْفَعَلَ (infaʿala)
    This is the passive version of form 1.
  • Form 8: اِفْتَعَلَ (iftaʿala)
    This is often a reflexive version of form 1, with different nuances. It’s the equivalent of “make up” in English, as in “make up lies.”
  • Form 9: اِفْعَلَّ (ifʿalaّ) [with the doubling of the sound of the letter ل]
    This verb form is quite rare, but it conveys the meaning of acquiring a color or a physical defect.
  • Form 10: اِسْتَفْعَلَ (istafʿala)
    This verb is generally used to mean “to consider something to be ___”

Keep in mind that the forms introduced here are in the third person past tense. This system, although complex, can be extremely helpful when learning Arabic. Understanding the system well will allow you to correctly guess the meaning of words you don’t know by recognizing their roots and structure! 

Also remember that not all forms are used as frequently, so you can first focus on the ones that are commonly used and then advance to other ones as you go on. 

Another thing: Not all verbs use all of the forms. Certain verbs are used with certain forms much more commonly than others, so it suffices to understand the meaning of the form; the rest will make sense as you study.

3. The Tenses 

Verb tenses are used to express when an action takes place. In Arabic, there are two main tenses: the past tense and the present simple. Then there’s the imperative mood, which is considered to be the third tense in Arabic grammar.

Now, let’s have a closer look at Arabic tenses and how to form them.

A Dream-like Image Featuring a Clock

A- The Present Tense

First we have the present tense. In Arabic, this tense is used to express both habitual and ongoing actions. The only way to emphasize the difference is by using adverbs like:

  • الآن (al-ʾān) – “now”
    [for ongoing actions]
  • كُلَّ يَوم (kulla yawm) – “every day”
    [for habitual actions]

For example:

أَذهَبُ إلى الجامِعَة كُلَّ يَوم.
ʾaḏhabu ʾilā al-ǧāmiʿah kulla yawm.
“I go to the university every day.”

أَتَحَدَّثُ مَع أُمي الآن.
ʾataḥaddaṯu maʿ ʾumī al-ʾān
“I am talking to my mom now.”

Have a look at the table below for an example of conjugation for the verb فَعَلَ (to do). You can form a negative of this tense by adding the prefix لا before mentioning your verb. 


Present tenseNegated present tense
أَنا (ana) – “I”أَفعَل (ʾafʿal)لا أَفعَل (la ʾafʿal)
أَنتَ (anta) – “you” masc.تَفعَل (tafʿal)لا تَفعَل (la tafʿal)
أنتِ (anti) – “you” fem.تَفعَلين (tafʿalīn)لا تَفعَلين (la tafʿalīn)
هُوَ (huwa) – “he”يَفعَل ( yafʿal)لا يَفعَل (la  yafʿal)
هِيَ (hiya) – “she”تَفعَل ( tafʿal)لا تَفعَل (la  tafʿal)
نَحنُ (naḥnu) – “we”نَفعَل (nafʿal)لا نَفعَل (la nafʿal)
أَنتُم (ʾantum) – “you” pl. masc.تَفعَلون (tafʿalūn)لا تَفعَلون (la tafʿalūn)
أَنتُما (ʾantuma) – “you” dual masc.تَفعَلان (tafʿalān)لا تَفعَلان (la tafʿalān)
(ʾantunna) أَنتُنَّ- “you” pl. fem.تَفعَلنَ (tafʿalna)لا تَفعَلنَ (la tafʿalna)
هُم (hum) – “they”يَفعَلون (yafʿalūn)لا يَفعَلون (la yafʿalūn)
هُما (huma) – “them” dual يَفعَلان (yafʿalān)لا يَفعَلان (la yafʿalān)

Adding the prefix سَـ to the beginning of the present tense form changes the verb to the future tense.

People Talking at an Arab Market

B- The Past Tense

The use of the past tense in Arabic is pretty straight-forward: just use it as you would the English simple past! In Arabic, the third person form of the past tense is the standard (or dictionary) form of a verb. This is the form you use to look a verb up in a dictionary.

    ★ ذَهَبنا إلى الإسكَندَرِيَّة في السَنَةِ الماضِيَة
    ḏahabnā ʾilā al-ʾiskandariyyah fī al-sanaẗi al-māḍiyah
    “Last year we went to Alexandria.”

To negate the Arabic past tense, you can use the prefix لم before the present tense verb, with some changes. Have a look at the table below for an example using the same verb, فَعَلَ (to do).

 Past tenseNegated past tense
أَنا (ana) – “I”فَعَلتُ (faʿaltu)لَم أَفعَل (lam ʾafʿal)
أَنتَ (anta) – “you” masc.فَعَلتَ (faʿalta)لَم تَفعَل (lam tafʿal)
أنتِ (anti) – “you” fem.فَعَلت (ifaʿalta)لَم تَفعَلي (lam tafʿalī)
هُوَ (huwa) – “he”فَعَلَ (faʿala)لَم يَفعَل (lam yafʿal)
هِيَ (hiya) – “she”(faʿalat) فَعَلَتلَم تَفعَل (lam tafʿal)
نَحنُ (naḥnu) – “we”فَعَلنا (faʿalna)لَم نَفعَل (lam nafʿal)
أَنتُم (ʾantum) – “you” pl. masc.فَعَلتُما (faʿaltuma)لَم تَفعَلوا (lam tafʿalū)
أَنتُما (ʾantuma) – “you” dual masc.فَعَلتُم (faʿaltum)لَم تَفعَلا (lam tafʿalā)
– (ʾantunna) أَنتُنَّ”you” pl. fem.فَعَلتُنَّ (faʿaltunna)لَم تَفعَلن (lam tafʿaln)
هُم (hum) – “they”فَعَلوا (faʿalu)لَم يَفعَلوا (lam yafʿalū)
هُما (huma) – “them”dualفَعَلا (faʿala)لَم يَفعَلا (lam yafʿalā)

4. Arabic Verbs: A Summary

As you’ve seen, learning how to use verbs and verb tenses in Arabic can be quite tricky, but it’s certainly one of the most important aspects of learning this beautiful and interesting language

We hope that with this short guide to Arabic verb tenses, you were able to gain some insight into how the root system works in Arabic as well as how to form and use the four main verb tenses. 

If you want to learn more about grammar, conjugations, and more while having access to some great Arabic learning material and info, visit ArabicPod101.com. Here you’ll find lessons for learners at all levels, podcasts, grammar material, word lists, dictionaries, and all the right tools you need to learn Arabic—whether you’re a beginner who wants a full course or an advanced learner who just needs to refine your skills

So what are you waiting for? Start learning and practicing Arabic with us every day, and you’ll be able to master the use of Arabic verbs in no time at all! 

Before you go, don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any questions about this, or if something in the article wasn’t clear. We look forward to hearing from you!

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