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What Happen or What Happened: Understanding Grammar and Usage

“Happen” is a regular, much-used verb that most English students will discover early in their language journey. It is an active, intransitive verb, and knowing how to use it in all its tenses is important for fluency.

When asking what has occurred in the past, we say, “What happened?” If we were to ask what will occur in the future, we would say, “What will happen?” And if we wanted to know what is occurring at the present moment, then we’d ask, “What is happening?” It is never proper grammar to say “What happen?”

Let’s examine where the word “happen” originated as well as how to use it in all tenses. We’ll also consider other intransitive verbs and how verbs behave when they only have an active form.

Etymology and Use of Happen

The word “happenen” assimilated into Middle English in the late 14th century and meant “to come to pass or occur.” The word “hap” was more common at first, but it became “happen” in late Middle English (source).

Definition of “Happen”

The meaning of “happen” has not fundamentally changed over the years, but there are various nuances in its definition. In its most common usage, it means to “have existence” or to “take place,” as in the following examples:

There is a scratch on my car, but I’m not sure how it happened.

A funny thing happened on my way to work this morning.

Accidents often happen on this busy road.

It can also suggest an element of chance, as in something occurring by coincidence or accidentally (source). See the examples below to understand this.

He happens to like driving, so he won’t mind taking me.

As it happened, I had time to help her.

I happen to think he is right this time.

We create other meanings when we add other words to “happen.” If something “happens to” someone or something, then that something has an effect on that person or thing. Read the examples below to illustrate this use.

I would be so sad if anything bad happened to her.

What happened to your car? There’s a dent on the trunk.

What happened to my passport? It was on my desk when I left.

If you “happen on/upon” something or someone, then you find something unexpected, as shown in the following examples.

I happened upon the perfect quote to use in my speech.

She happened on my secret hiding place while searching for something else.

Conjugating Happen 

Knowing whether to ask “what had happened” vs. “what had happen” or to enquire “when did this happen” vs. “when did this happened” requires a 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 these has four forms — simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous. Let’s look at how “happen” conjugates in each of these.

Present tense

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

Present Simple: happen/happens 

Storms often happen during the summer months.

What happens when you skip training?


  • Add an “s” for third-person singular.
  • There is no helping verb — “It is happen often” is incorrect.

Present Continuous: be + happening

It feels like something special is happening now.

What is happening down at the river?

Present Perfect: has/have + happened

What has happened to Jack? He used to be more friendly.

So many things have happened since I last spoke to you!


  • Always use the helping verb “had.”
  • Always use “happened.”

Present Perfect Continuous: has/have + been happening

What has been happening since I’ve been away?

Floods have been happening here since April.

Future Tense

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

Future Simple: will + happen 

Storms will happen often during the summer months.

What will happen when you skip training?

Future Continuous: will + be + happening

I wonder what will be happening this time next year.

What events will be happening at school next semester?

Future Perfect: will + have + happened

I wonder what will have happened by this time next year.

So many things will have happened by the time you return.

Future Perfect Continuous: will + have + been happening

By the time I arrive, her party will have been happening for a while.

Her campaign will have been happening for two weeks by then.

Past Tense

The past tense describes an action or state of being that occurred in the past.

Past Simple: happened

Storms often happened during the summer months.

What happened when you skipped training?


  • There is no helping verb — “It was happen” is incorrect.

Past Continuous: was/were + happening

It felt like something special was happening then.

What was happening down at the river?

Floods were happening more often.

Past Perfect: had + happened

I wondered what had happened to make Jack so unfriendly.

I told you what had happened last time I spoke to you.

Past Perfect Continuous: had + been happening

It was obvious how little had been happening in my absence.

Floods had been happening there for years.

To read more about tenses and how we use them in English, consider our article Eaten or Ate, which delves into the past tense and past participles.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

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

Jack drives the car.

Mary feeds her baby.

Here, the car and the baby are the objects of the verbs “drive” and “feed.” 

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

Jack learns quickly.

Mary slept soundly.

Other parts of speech may follow intransitive verbs, such as an adverb or a prepositional phrase, but an object cannot follow them. Nothing in the sentence indicates who or what received the action.

Active and Passive Voice

Importantly, transitive verbs can be either active or passive. Intransitive verbs can only be active. Consider the sentences above. We can turn the first two into passive sentences by inverting the subject and the object as follows:

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 an active voice.

When It Depends on the Context

Some verbs are capable of being transitive or intransitive, depending on how we use them. Here are some examples of these.

She has grown so quickly. (Intransitive)

I grow carrots and broccoli in my garden. (Transitive)

The boys always prefer to play outside. (Intransitive) 

She plays the violin. (Transitive)

If you’re unsure about whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, check your dictionary. Most dictionaries indicate whether a verb, including alternative definitions, is transitive or intransitive.  

The Oxford New Essential Dictionary and Dreyer’s English are both excellent resources that are available on Amazon and will be able to help you deepen your knowledge. 

Happen as an Intransitive Verb

It, therefore, follows that “happen” is an intransitive verb because, when used by itself, it doesn’t have a direct object to receive action, as in the following examples.

The fire happened so quickly.

Accidents happen when roads are wet.

We cannot turn it around into a passive sentence because there is no object to receive the action. 

Synonyms for Happen

Depending on the context of your sentence, there are many synonyms for “happen.” When we are referring to something having existence or taking place, then we can use any of the following synonyms:

  • Occur
  • Take place
  • Come about
  • Come into being
  • Ensue
  • Transpire
  • Pan out
  • Emerge
  • Present itself

See the sentences below to illustrate this.

There is a scratch on my car, but I’m not sure how it happened.

There is a scratch on my car, but I’m not sure how it came about.

A funny thing happened on my way to work this morning.

A funny thing took place on my way to work this morning.

Accidents often happen on this busy road.

Accidents often occur on this busy road.

I wonder what will happen after she leaves.

I wonder what will transpire after she leaves.

Happen or Happened To

When we use “happen to” something or someone, then the following synonyms are appropriate:

  • Become of
  • Be the fate of
  • Be visited on
  • befall

I would be so sad if anything bad happened to her.

I would be so sad if anything bad befell her.

What happened to your car? There’s a dent on the trunk.

What was the fate of your car? There’s a dent on the trunk.

What happened to my passport? It was on my desk when I left.

What became of my passport? It was on my desk when I left. 

Happen as Chance

When we are using “happen” to suggest an element of chance, then we can substitute it for words such as the following:

  • Chance
  • Have the good/bad fortune

I happened upon the perfect quote to use in my speech.

I chanced upon the perfect quote to use in my speech.

She happened to be near the hospital when she fell. 

She had the good fortune to be near the hospital when she fell. 

Other Words Using Happen

As such a common and much-used word, it follows that we will create other words from the stem “happen.” The most common of these is the noun “happening.” We use this to describe something that has happened or an occurrence, as shown in the examples below.

She called the police to investigate numerous suspicious happenings at the house.

Recent happenings at school have caused some distress.

“Happening” can also function as an adjective. In this context, it means “fashionable” or “stimulating,” as evidenced in the sentences below.

Courtney is so cool; she knows all the happening clubs in town.

They wanted to move to a more happening neighborhood.

Another noun formed from “happen” is “happenstance” or “happenchace.” Both words have the same meaning and relate to a chance situation, particularly one that has a positive result. See the sentences below to understand this word. The former is the more common expression, and “happenchance” is typically more informal.

By happenstance, they were both in New York that weekend.

We met by pure happenchance

Image by Dustin Humes via Unsplash

Common Phrases Using “Happen”

Because it’s such a common word, many regularly used phrases contain “happen.” Here are some of the most familiar.

These things happen.

We often say this to placate someone when something unpleasant has happened and to communicate that the occurrence is out of their control.

Stuff happens.

Similar to the example above, this introduces an element of chance to the occurrence. Many people use it with an expletive in the place of the word “stuff.”

That’s an accident waiting to happen.

This refers to something that is likely to cause danger, usually because it is in poor condition or because it behaves unpredictably. 

Hip and happening

Here, “happening” means fashionable and, paired with “hip,” it means on-trend.

Stranger things have happened.

This means that, although a particular occurrence may seem strange or surprising, it isn’t impossible.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

This is a popular slogan — with Vegas being replaced by any other venue — to say that any scandalous activities that occur while you are in Vegas (or elsewhere) are not to be discussed with others afterward.This article was written for

What’s the worst that can happen?

This is often asked to show that the negative risks of doing something are not very high and that, if you consider the worst outcome, it’s still not very 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 various tenses as well as what it means in the context of a sentence. It’s also helpful to understand whether verbs are active or not because that helps to know how they behave in a sentence.

Knowing that it’s correct to ask “what happened?” is essential so that you’ll always be able to find out what went down when you weren’t looking.