What Happened or What Happened: Understanding Grammar and Usage (2023)

"Happen" is a regular and overused verb that most English learners will discover early on in their language journey. It is an active, intransitive verb and knowing how to use it in all its tenses is important to speak it fluently.

When we ask what happened in the past, we say, "What happened?" If we were to ask what will happen in the future, we would say, "What will happen?" And if we wanted to know what's going on in the present moment, we would ask, "What's going on?" It's never proper grammar to say, "What happened?"

Let's explore where the word "pass" came from and how to use it in all tenses. We will also look at other intransitive verbs and how verbs behave when they only have an active form.

Etymology and use of bite

The word "happen' was assimilated into Middle English in the late 14th century and meant 'to come or happen'. The word "hap" was formerly more common, but became "happen" in late Middle English (Those).

Definition of "to happen"

The meaning of "to happen" hasn't changed fundamentally over the years, but there are some nuances in its definition. In its most common usage, it means "to exist" or "to take place", as in the following examples:

My car has a scratch but I'm not sure howhappened.

a funny thinghappenedthis morning on the way to work.

accidents oftenbiteon this busy road.

It can also suggest an element of chance, as in something that happens by accident or coincidence (Those). Check out the examples below to understand this.

Himit happensI like to drive, so he doesn't mind taking me with him.

ifhappened, I had time to help her.

EUbiteI think he's right this time.

We create other meanings when we add other words to "pass". When something "happens" to someone or something, that something has an effect on that person or thing. Read the following examples to illustrate this usage.

I would be so sad if something bad happenedhappenedto her.

Washappenedfor your car? There is a dent in the trunk.

Washappenedto my passport? It was on my desk when I left.

When something or someone "happens" to you, you encounter something unexpected, as shown in the following examples.

EUhappenedabout the perfect quote for my speech.

Is it over therehappenedin my secret hiding place while I look for something else.

conjugate happen

Knowing whether to ask "what happened" versus "what happened" or "when did that happen" versus "when did that happen" requires knowledge of the verb and how to use it in each tense.

There are three basic tenses in English: present, past and future. Each of them has four forms - simple, continuous, perfect and perfectly continuous. Let's see how “Happening” is combined in each of them.


The present tense describes a current action or state of being.

Present tense: happen/happen

storms oftenbiteduring the summer months.

Wasit happensWhen do you skip training?


  • Add an "s" for the third person singular.
  • There is no auxiliary verb - "That often happens" is wrong.

Present Continuous: to be + to happen

looks like something specialit happensnow.

Wasit happensnot laughed?

Present Perfect: has/have +aconteceu

Washad happenedfor Jack? He used to be friendlier.

So many thingsIt happenedsince I last spoke to you!


  • Always use the auxiliary verb "had".
  • Always use "happened".

Present perfect continuous: is/is + happened

Washad happenedsince i was gone

floodshad happenedhere since April.


The future tense describes a future action or state of being.

Simple future: will + happen

stormsWille biteoften in the summer months.

WasWille biteWhen do you skip training?

Future Continuous: will be + will + happen

I wonder whatwill happenThis time next year.

which eventswill happennext semester at school?

Future Perfect: will have + have + happened

I wonder whatwill have happenedNext year around this time.

So many thingsWille It happenedwhen you return.

Future Perfect Continuous: will have + have + happened

When I arrive, her partywill have happenedfor a while.

their campaignwill have happenedtwo weeks until then.


The past tense describes an action or state of affairs that took place in the past.

Simple Past: happened

storms oftenhappenedduring the summer months.

WashappenedWhen did you miss training?


  • There is no auxiliary verb - "It happened" is wrong.

Past tense: was/were + happened

it looked like something specialhappenedthen.

Washappenednot laughed?

floodshappenedmore often.

Perfect: was + happened

I wondered whatit happenedMaking Jack so hostile.

I told you somethingit happenedlast time i talked to you

Past Perfect Continuous: war + passiert

It was obvious how littlehappenedin my absence.

floodshappenedthere for years.

To read more about tenses and how we use them in English, read our articleeaten or eaten, which examines the past tense and past participles.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Verbs are either transitive or intransitive. Transitive verbs have a direct object that performs the action that the verb describes, as in the examples below.

Jack drives the car.

Maria feeds her baby.

The car and the baby are the objects of the verbs "drive" and "feed" here.

Intransitive verbs are the opposite and have no direct object. This means that the action they describe remains with the subject (Those), as shown below.

Jack is a fast learner.

Mary slept well.

Other parts of speech can follow intransitive verbs, e.g. B. an adverb or a prepositional phrase, but an object cannot follow them. Nothing in the sentence indicates who or what received the promotion.

Active and passive voice

It is important to note that transitive verbs can be active or passive. Intransitive verbs can only be active. Consider the sentences above. We can turn the first two into passive sentences by swapping subject and object like this:

The car was driven by Jack.

The baby was fed by Mary.

However, we cannot do the same with the other sentences because the verb is intransitive and has only one active voice.

When depends on the context

Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on how we use them. Here are some examples.

she hasgrownso fast. (Intransitiv)

EUgrowCarrots and broccoli in my garden.(transitive)

Boys always preferToqueFor a.(Intransitiv)

Is it over thereplaythe Violin.(transitive)

If you're not sure whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, check your dictionary. Most dictionaries indicate whether a verb, including alternative definitions, is transitive or intransitive.

The New Essential Oxford DictionaryeDreyer's Englishare excellent resources available on Amazon that can help you deepen your knowledge.

Happen as an intransitive verb

It follows that aconcerir is an intransitive verb because when used alone it has no direct object to receive an action, as in the examples below.

the firehappenedso fast

accidentsbitewhen the streets are wet.

We cannot turn it into a passive sentence because there is no object to act on.

Synonyms for happen

There are many synonyms for "pass" depending on the context of your sentence. When referring to something that exists or is happening, we can use one of the following synonyms:

  • Happen
  • Occur
  • Come
  • Will
  • consequences
  • sweat
  • Develop
  • Pop up
  • introduce yourself

See the following sentences to illustrate this.

My car has a scratch but I'm not sure howhappened.

My car has a scratch but I'm not sure howpopped up.

a funny thinghappenedthis morning on the way to work.

a funny thingit happenedthis morning on the way to work.

accidents oftenbiteon this busy road.

accidents oftenhappenon this busy road.

I wonder what will bebiteafter she left.

I wonder what will besweatafter she left.

happened or happened

When we use "to happen to something or someone," the following synonyms are appropriate:

  • will be off
  • be the destiny of
  • be visited
  • happen

I would be so sad if something bad happenedhappenedto her.

I would be so sad if something bad happenedit happenedyour.

Washappenedfor your car? There is a dent in the trunk.

Waswas the fate ofyour car? There is a dent in the trunk.

Washappenedto my passport? It was on my desk when I left.

Wasbecame offmy passport? It was on my desk when I left.

Happen like chance

When we use "happen" to indicate an element of chance, we can replace it with words like the following:

  • Chance
  • good luck/bad luck

EUhappenedabout the perfect quote for my speech.

EUChanceabout the perfect quote for my speech.

Is it over therehappenedto be near the hospital when she fell.

Is it over therehad luckto be near the hospital when she fell.

Other words with bite

Because it is such a common and widespread word, we will form other words from the root "happen". The most common of these is the noun "happening". We use it to describe something that happened or an event as shown in the examples below.

She called the police to investigate several suspectseventsat home.

Recentlyeventsat school caused some inconvenience.

"Happening" can also function as an adjective. In this context, it means "fashionable" or "stimulating," as the following sentences show.

Courtney is so nice; she knows everythingoccurrencecity ​​clubs.

They wanted to move somewhere else.occurrenceNeighborhood.

Another noun formed from "happen" is "happenstance" or "happenchace". Both words have the same meaning and refer to a random situation, especially one with a positive outcome. Look at the following sentences to understand this word. The former is the most common expression, and "event" is usually more informal.

VonChance, were both in New York this weekend.

We met through purelyChance.

What Happened or What Happened: Understanding Grammar and Usage (1)

Common expressions with "to happen"

Because it's such a common word, many commonly used phrases include "to happen." Here are some of the most famous.

that things happen.

We often say this to reassure someone when something unpleasant has happened and to let them know that the event is beyond their control.

Things happen.

Similar to the example above, this adds a random element to the match. Many people use it with an expletive instead of the word "things".

This is an accident waiting to happen.

This refers to something that is likely to cause a hazard, usually because it is in poor condition or because it is behaving unpredictably.

cool and happening

"Happening" means fashion here and combined with "cool" means trend.

Strange things happened.

This means that while a particular event may seem strange or surprising, it is not impossible.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

It's a popular slogan - superseding Vegas from any other location - to say that any scandalous activities that take place while you're in Vegas (or anywhere else) should not be discussed with others afterwards. This article was written for Strategyforparents.com.

What's the worst that can happen?

This is usually asked to show that the downside risks of doing something are not too great and that when you consider the worst outcome, it's still not that bad.

final thoughts

"Happen" is a common and useful verb, but one that is often misused. It's important to understand how to use it in all the different tenses and what it means in the context of a sentence. It's also useful to understand whether verbs are active or not because it helps you know how they behave in a sentence.

Knowing that it's correct to ask, "What happened?" It's important so you always know what happened when you weren't looking.


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