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.
 

Verbs Express Actions

Verbs are doing words. 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 which express a state of being are the ones which take a little practice to spot, but, actually, they are the most common. The most common verb is the verb to be. That's the one which goes:

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

As we covered at the start, verbs do not necessarily express physical actions like the ones above. They can express mental actions too:

Example:

  • 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 already mentioned, this is seen in forms like is, are, were, was, will be, etc.

Some real examples:

  • 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.)
 
 
Click on the verbs:



 
 


Take the test on verb tenses
 

Verb Terminology

There is a lot of grammatical terminology associated with verbs. Below are explanations of those used most frequently by grammarians. (There is a more comprehensive list in the Glossary of Terms.)

INFINITIVE FORM

When a verb is preceded by the word to, it is said to be in its infinitive form (i.e., most basic form).

  • I have to smoke that!
  • (to smoke - infinitive form of the verb)

PAST TENSE

Verbs which 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)

PRESENT TENSE

Verbs which 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)

FUTURE TENSE

Verbs which 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)

SUBJECT OF A VERB

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)
  • Tony is guilty.
  • (Tony - subject of the verb to be)
  • Who was that?
  • (Who - subject of the verb to be, i.e., was)

DIRECT OBJECT 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 will eat a whole chicken.
  • (a whole chicken - direct object of the verb to eat)

INTRANSITIVE VERBS

Some verbs cannot have a direct object. These verbs are said to be 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.)

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

INDIRECT OBJECT OF A VERB

Some verbs have two objects, a direct object (see above) 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)

PASSIVE SENTENCE

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 are quite useful:

  • The carpet was damaged. (< passive sentence - no blame)
  • We damaged the carpet. (< active sentence)

ACTIVE SENTENCE

Active sentences are the opposite to passive sentences (see above). 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.)

CONJUGATION OF VERBS

A verb will change its form a little depending on the subject. For example:

  • I write / He writes (< write and writes)
  • The camel laughs / The jackals laugh (< laughs and 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:

1. I
2. You
3. He / She / It
4. We
5. You
6. 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 in one of these categories. Camel is like he (i.e., third person singular) and jackals is like they (i.e., third person plural).  

This topic 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 (insurance for them).

PARTICIPLES

Participles are formed from verbs. There are two types: present participles and past participles. Present participles end ...ing. Past participles have various endings. 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 can be used as adjectives. For example:

  • Soaring prices affect the quality of the wool.
  • (soaring - present participle - used as an adjective)
  • I am not the first to comment that prices are falling.
  • (falling - present participle - used as an adjective to describe prices)
    (Note: When an adjective is placed after the word it is describing, it is called a predicate adjective.)
  • He is a forgotten hero.
  • (forgotten - past participle - used as an adjective)
  • They were neglected.
  • (neglected - past participle - used as an adjective)
    (Note: This is a passive sentence (see above). In this role, neglected is known as a past passive participle.)
 

 
START A NEW SENTENCE

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.)

BEING OR BEEN

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); whereas, 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?
 

 
BEWARE SPLIT INFINITIVES

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 OR WHOM?

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

 
PASSIVE OR ACTIVE?

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.)  
 
 


Take the test on verb tenses.
 

See also:

What are adjectives?
What are adverbs?
What are conjunctions?
What are interjections?
What are nouns?
What are prepositions?
What are pronouns?
Verbs with prepositions - succinct writing


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