What Are Verbs?
What are verbs?

Verbs are doing words. A verb can express a physical action, a mental action, or a state of being.

What Are Verbs?

A verb is a "doing" word. A verb can express:
  • A physical action (e.g., to swim, to write, to climb).
  • A mental action (e.g., to think, to guess, to consider).
  • A state of being (e.g., to be, to exist, to appear).
The verbs that express a state of being take a little practice to spot, but, actually, they are the most common. The most common verb is the verb to be. Below is the verb to be in the different tenses:

Subject Verb to be in the past tense Verb to be in the present tense Verb to be in the future tense
I was am will be
You were are will be
He / She / It was is will be
We were are will be
You were are will be
They were are will be

If you're a native English speaker who's new to studying grammar, you probably know this table without even knowing you know it.

Lots of Verbs Express Physical Actions

Here are some sentences with the verbs highlighted. (These verbs express physical actions.)
  • She sells pegs and lucky heather.
  • (In this example, the word sells is a verb. It expresses the physical activity to sell.)
  • The doctor wrote the prescription.
  • (In this example, the word wrote is a verb. It expresses the physical activity to write.)
  • Alison bought a ticket.
  • (The word bought is a verb. It expresses the physical activity to buy.)

Verbs Express Mental Actions Too

Verbs do not necessarily express physical actions like the ones above. They can express mental actions too:

  • She considers the job done.
  • (The word considers is a verb. It expresses the mental activity to consider.)
  • Peter guessed the right number.
  • (The word guessed is a verb. It expresses the mental activity to guess.)
  • I thought the same thing.
  • (The word thought is a verb. It expresses the mental activity to think.)

Verbs Express a State of Being

A small but extremely important group of verbs do not express any activity at all. The most important verb in this group – arguably of all – is the verb to be. As shown in the table above, this is seen in forms like is, are, were, was, will be, etc.

Here are some real examples with the verb to be:
  • Edwina is the largest elephant in this area.
  • (The word is is a verb from the verb to be.)
  • It was a joke.
  • (The word was is a verb from the verb to be.)
  • I am.
  • (The word am is a verb from the verb to be.)
    (Point of interest: I am is the shortest sentence in English.)

The Types of Verbs

As we've covered, a verb can be categorized as a physical verb (e.g., to run), a mental verb (e.g., to think), or a state-of-being verb (e.g., to be). However, a verb will often be further categorized as one of the following:

Action Verb

An action verb expresses an activity that a person or thing can do. For example:
  • Lee eats cake.
  • (Eating is something Lee can do.)
  • The bear chased the salmon in the shallow rapids.
  • (Chasing is something the bear can do.)
Compare those verbs with these:
  • Lee likes cake.
  • (Liking is not an activity. It's a state.)
  • The bear is hungry.
  • (Being is not an activity. It's a state.)

Stative Verb

A stative verb expresses a state rather than an action. A stative verb typically relates to a state of being, a thought, or an emotion. For example:
  • I am at home.
  • She believes in fairies.
  • He feels elated.

Transitive Verb

A transitive verb is one that acts on something (i.e., it has a direct object). For example:
  • I saw the dog.
  • (the dog - direct object)
  • Lee ate the pie.
  • (the pie - direct object)
  • The postman will give Sarah the letter.
  • (the letter - direct object)
Note: The direct object of a transitive verb can be found by finding the verb and asking "what?" For example, "saw what?" (answer: the dog); "ate what?" (answer: the pie); "will give what?" (answer: the letter).

Read more about transitive verbs.

Intransitive Verb

An intransitive verb is one that does not act on something (i.e. there is no direct object). For example:
  • The rain fell.
  • My throat hurts.
  • The cat sneezed.
Read more about intransitive verbs.

Auxiliary Verb

An auxiliary verb (or helping verb) accompanies a main verb to help express tense, voice or mood. The most common auxiliary verbs are be, do, and have (in their various forms). Here are some examples of auxiliary verbs:
  • Lee has eaten all the pies.
  • (Here, the auxiliary verb has helps to express tense.)
  • The table has been prepared.
  • (Here, the auxiliary verbs has been help to express voice (in this case, the passive voice).)
  • If he were to arrive in the next 10 minutes, we would be on schedule.
  • (Here, the auxiliary verbs were and would help to express mood (in this case, the subjunctive mood).)
Read more about auxiliary verbs.

Modal Verb

A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb used to express ideas such as ability, possibility, permission, and obligation. The modal auxiliary verbs are can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would. For example:
  • Lee can eat a lot of pies.
  • (Here, the modal verb can helps to express the idea of ability.)
  • Lee might eat that pie before he gets home.
  • (Here, the modal verb might helps to express the idea of possibility.)
  • Lee may eat as many pies as he likes.
  • (Here, the modal verb may helps to express the idea of permission.)
  • Lee should give you some of that pie given you bought it.
  • (Here, the modal verb should helps to express the idea of obligation.)
Read more about auxiliary modal verbs.

Phrasal Verb

A phrasal verb is a verb made up of more than one word (usually two words). A phrasal verb has a main verb and another word (either a preposition or a particle). The phrasal verb usually has a meaning different to the main verb. For example:
  • A burglar will often break a window to break in.
  • (Here, the phrasal verb break in means to enter illegally, which is different to break.)
  • If you drop the baton the team will drop back to last place.
  • (Here, the phrasal verb drop back means to fall behind, which is different to drop.)
Read more about phrasal verbs.

Regular and Irregular Verbs

A regular verb is one that forms its simple past tense and its past participle by adding -ed or -d to the base form of the verb. (Note: There are spelling rules to consider too.) For example:

Regular VerbSimple Past TensePast Participle
lovelovedhas loved
hatehatedhas hated
movemovedhas moved

An irregular verb is one that does not conform to this ruling. For example:

Irregular VerbSimple Past TensePast Participle
telltoldhas told
bleedbledhas bled

Read more about regular and irregular verbs.

Verb Terminology

There is a lot of grammatical terminology associated with verbs. Below are explanations of the most commom terms. (There is a more comprehensive list in our Glossary of Terms.)


When a verb is preceded by the word to, it is said to be in its infinitive form (i.e., its most basic form).
  • I have to smoke that!
  • (to smoke - infinitive form of the verb)
Read more about the infinitive form of a verb.


Verbs that express actions in the past are said to be in the past tense.
  • He talked with more claret than clarity. (Susan Ertz)
  • (talked - past tense of the verb to talk)

  • I ran to the lake.
  • (ran - past tense of the verb to run)

  • They were all there.
  • (were - past tense of the verb to be)


Verbs that express present actions are said to be in the present tense.
  • John jumps out the window.
  • (jumps - present tense of the verb to jump)

  • Who is ill?
  • (is - present tense of the verb to be)

  • He is the kind of a guy who lights up a room just by flicking a switch.
  • (is - present tense of the verb to be)
    (lights up - present tense of the verb to light up)


Verbs that express actions in the future are said to be in the future tense. These are usually formed by preceding the verb with the word will.
  • I will take the blame.
  • (will take - future tense of the verb to take)

  • They will surrender.
  • (will surrender - future tense of the verb to surrender)

  • Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth. (Archimedes, 287-212 BC)
  • (will move - future tense of the verb to move)
Read more about verb tenses.

Take a test on verb tenses. (Warning: This is a test for advanced students!)


The person or thing performing the action of the verb is said to be the subject of the verb or the subject of the sentence.
  • Tony stole the boat.
  • (Tony - subject of the verb to steal)

  • The dog is guilty.
  • (The dog - subject of the verb to be)

  • Who was that?
  • (Who - subject of the verb to be, i.e., was)
Read more about the subject of a verb.


Many verbs perform an action on something. This is called the direct object of the verb.
  • Terry kissed her hand.
  • (her hand - direct object of the verb to kiss)

  • Beverly can eat a whole chicken.
  • (a whole chicken - direct object of the verb to eat)
Read more about direct objects.


Some verbs cannot have a direct object. These verbs are called intransitive verbs.
  • The rain fell heavily.
  • (The rain fell, but it did not perform an action on anything. In this example, the verb to fall is an intransitive verb.)

  • Jack protested in the street.
  • (Jack protested, but he did not perform an action on anything. In this example, the verb to protest is an intransitive verb.)
Read more about intransitive verbs.


Verbs that can have a direct object (most of them) are called transitive verbs.
  • Barney copied the answer.
  • (The verb copied is a transitive verb. The direct object of the verb is the answer.)

  • Terry saw a black fin cutting through the water.
  • (The verb saw is a transitive verb. The direct object of the verb is a black fin.)
Read more about transitive verbs.


Some verbs have two objects, a direct object and an indirect object. The indirect object is the person or thing for whom the action was performed.
  • Jamie read the children a story.
  • (a story - direct object; the children - indirect object)

  • I will bake him a cake.
  • (a cake - direct object; him - indirect object) 

  • The postman gives Anne a letter every day.
  • (a letter - direct object; Anne - indirect object)
Read more about indirect objects.


The subject of a sentence does not always do the action of the verb. Sometimes, the action is done to the subject. Such sentences are called passive sentences because the subjects are being passive, i.e., not doing anything. 
  • Carl was arrested.
  • (Carl is not doing anything, but he is the subject of the sentence.)
    (Note: Carl is the subject of the verb to be, i.e., was.)
Passive verbs always comprise two parts (was arrested in this example). The person doing the action of the verb in a passive sentence is usually shown with the word by.
  • Carl was arrested by PC Adams.
Passive verbs are said to be in the passive voice. Passive sentences can be quite useful:
  • The carpet was damaged.
  • (This is a passive sentence. No one is blamed for damaging the carpet.)
  • Mark damaged the carpet.
  • (A passive sentence contrasts with an active sentence (where the subject performs the verb). This example is an active sentence. It tells us that Mark damaged the carpet.)
Read more about passive sentences.


Active sentences are the opposite to passive sentences. In an active sentence, the subject of the verb performs the action.
  • We damaged the carpet.
  • (This is an active sentence. We is the subject.
    We damaged the carpet.)

  • Jamie read a story.
  • (This is an active sentence. Jamie is the subject.
    Jamie read a story.)
Read more about active sentences.


A verb will change its form a little depending on the subject. For example:
  • I write.
  • He writes.

  • The jackal laughs.
  • The jackals laugh.
When verbs change in this way, it is known as conjugation. A verb conjugates according to the subject. The subject of a verb can be in one of six forms:
  • I
  • You
  • He / She / It
  • We
  • You
  • They
The first three are the singular forms (known as first person singular, second person singular, and third person singular). The second three are the plural forms (known as first person plural, second person plural and third person plural).

All subjects fit into one of these categories. For example, jackal is like he (i.e., third person singular) and jackals is like they (i.e., third person plural). (This subject rarely causes problems for native English speakers, who conjugate verbs correctly without much thought.)

Interestingly, this is the origin of the insurance term third party (i.e., it's insurance covering actions by "them").

Read more about subject-verb agreement.


Participles are formed from verbs. There are two types: present participles and past participles. Present participles end -ing. Past participles have various endings (e.g., -ed, -en). Below is a table showing some participles:

Verb Present Participle Past Participle
to sing singing sung
to drive driving driven
to go going gone
to rise rising risen
to watch watching watched
to be being been

Participles are classified as adjectives. (Note: When a verb form (like a participle) functions as an adjective or a noun, it is known as a verbal.) Below are some examples of participles being used as adjectives:
  • Our business is badly affected by the soaring price of wool.
  • (The word soaring is a present participle. Here, it is being used as an adjective to describe price.)

  • He is a forgotten hero.
  • (The word forgotten is a past participle. Here, it is being used as an adjective to describe hero.)
Read more about participles.



The verb is the most important part of speech - you cannot form a sentence without one. That said, once you have formed a sentence (i.e., expressed a complete idea), you should put a full stop (or period ) and end the sentence. Do not insert a comma and continue writing. This is a very common mistake. It is known as a run on comma or run on sentence. This is covered in more detail in the lesson run-on errors.

For example:
  • Pick up a copy of our free brochure, this explains how to contact us and reach our showroom.
  • Do not be put off by the road works, we are still here, come and visit us.

(Occasionally, it may be appropriate to use a dash or a semicolon instead of a full stop. See the lesson Extend a Sentence.)


Some writers occasionally confuse the words being and been. As a rule, the word been is always used after have (in any form, e.g., has, had, will have). The word being is never used after have. For example:
  • I have been busy.
  • Terry has being taking the stores to the shelter.
  • (being cannot follow has)

(Although a past participle, been is not used as an adjective. Therefore, it must be used with have, which is its auxiliary verb. The auxiliary verb for being, on the other hand, is to be.)

See the lesson Being or Been?


Placing another word between to and its verb is called a split infinitive and is considered by some to be a mistake. For example:
  • You have to really try.
  • (The infinitive verb to try is split by the word really.)
  • ...to boldly go where no man has gone before.
  • (The infinitive verb to go is split by the word boldly.)

This is covered more in the lesson Too and To.


Who is always the subject of a verb. However, whom is never the subject of a verb. That is the difference between the two. (Covered more in the lesson Who and Whom.)


Many businesses encourage their staff to use active sentences in their writing. This is because they consider the structure of passive sentences to be less flowing and the tone more flowery. For this reason, the Microsoft Word grammar checker often suggests an active version of a passive sentence. For example:
  • The hook-shaped shoreline was eroded by time.
  • (passive sentence)  
  • Time eroded the hook-shaped shoreline.
  • (active sentence / This version would be suggested by Word's grammar checker. However, if you prefer the passive version - stick with it.)  

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