What’s happening to the word “happen”?

What’s happening to the word happen? Well, things that shouldn’t be happening to it, it seems.

Happen is a regular verb and one that most learners probably recognise quite early on in their English studies. There shouldn’t be any difficulties with happen but I very often hear it used incorrectly. One of the problems could be that happen is an active verb only, i.e. it doesn’t have a passive form. Common mistakes include confusing the present participle (happening) and past participle (happened), and unnecessarily using an auxiliary (helping) verb.

So, if you need help with happen, here’s how to use it correctly, tense by tense:

Present simple

happen/happens (an ‘s’ in the third-person singular, no helping verb)
It happens very often.
Accidents happen very often on this road.
What happens when you heat water?
It is happen very often.

Present continuous

be + happening (always with the helping verb be)
Something weird is happening now – I can feel it.
In the present continuous happen often appears in questions:
What is happening over there?
What is happen?

Past simple

happened (always an -ed ending, no helping verb)
Someone stole your wallet in Rome? The same thing happened to me in Barcelona.
It all happened very quickly.
Remember what happened to your grandfather because he smoked too much!
What was happen?

Past continuous

was/were + happening (always with the helping verb be, always with an -ed ending)
What was happening when you arrived?
Something weird was happening when I arrived – I could feel it.
Something was happen.

Present perfect

has/have + happened (always with the helping verb have/has, always with an -ed ending)
What has happened to your face? Have you had an accident?
What’s (has) happened to Mike? I haven’t seen him for ages.
I’ve got a lot to tell you – many things have happened since I last saw you.
What has happen?

Past perfect

had + happened (always with the helping verb had, always with an -ed ending)
I saw that something had happened but I wasn’t sure what it was.
I told the police what had happened but they weren’t interested.

Future simple

will + happen (always with will, no -ed ending)
He can’t look after himself. What will happen to him when his wife dies?
I know what will happen.
What will be happen?

Future continuous

will + be + happening (always will, always be, always an -ing ending)
I wonder what will be happening this time next year?

Here are some other verbs which are used only in the active:
occur, rise, fall, exist, depend.

Do you know any more verbs that we use in the same way?

Feel free to comment below and perhaps write an example sentence with happen or with one of the other verbs above.

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.

1 Comment

  1. Elias_Montakis - March 22, 2015, 6:20 pm Reply

    Hallo Stuart!

    I got a question to ask.Why happen being a verb is stressed on the first syllable?

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