Verbs

by Craig Shrives

What Are Verbs? (with Examples)

Verbs are words that express physical actions (e.g., to jump), mental actions (e.g., to guess), or states of being (e.g., to exist). Here are some more examples:
  • Physical actions:
    • to swim, to write, to climb
  • Mental actions:
    • to think, to ponder, to consider
  • States of Being:
    • to be, to exist, to seem
Verbs are extremely important. Every sentence requires a verb. The verb in a sentence tells us what the subject is doing. You might find it useful to think of verbs as "doing" words.
What are verbs?

Verbs Expressing Physical Actions

Here are some sentences with verbs that express physical actions. (In each example, the verb is in bold.)
  • She sells pegs and lucky heather.
  • The doctor wrote the prescription.
  • Alison bought a ticket.
  • (The verbs "sells," "wrote," and "bought" all express physical activities.)

Verbs Expressing Mental Actions

Verbs can also express mental actions. For example:
  • Peter guessed the right number.
  • I think out loud too often.
  • She considers her words before she speaks.
  • (The verbs "guessed," "think," and "considers" all express mental activities.)

Verbs Expressing a State of Being

A small but extremely important group of verbs do not express any activity at all; they express a state of being. The most important verb in this group (arguably of all) is the verb "to be."

Here are some example sentences with different forms of the verb "to be":
  • Edwina is the largest elephant in this area.
  • It was a joke.
  • I am.
  • (The verbs "is," "was," and "am" all express states of being.)
Here are some other verbs that express a state of being:
  • Alien life almost certainly exists.
  • It seemed funny at the time.
Here is the verb "to be" in the different tenses:
SubjectVerb "to be"
past tense present tense 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

Interesting Fact

"I am" is the shortest sentence in English.

Types of Verbs

As well as being categorized as a physical verb, a mental verb, or a state-of-being verb, 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.
  • ("To like" is not an activity. It's a state.)
  • The bear is hungry.
  • ("To be" is not an activity. It's a state.)

Stative Verb

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

Transitive Verb

A transitive verb is one that acts on something (i.e., it has a direct object). For example:
  • I saw the dog.
  • (Here, the direct object is "the dog.")
  • Lee ate the pie.
  • (The direct object is "the pie.")
  • The postman will give Sarah the letter.
  • (The direct object is "the letter.")
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 the tense of "to eat.")
  • The table has been prepared.
  • (Here, the auxiliary verbs "has been" help to express the voice of "to prepare" (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 the mood of "to arrive" and "to be" (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.
  • ("Might" helps to express the idea of possibility.)
  • Lee may eat as many pies as he likes.
  • ("May" helps to express the idea of permission.)
  • Lee should give you some of that pie given you bought it.
  • ("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.
  • (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.)
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. Here is an 18-minute video that explains all the key terms associated with verbs:

Verb Terminology

There is a lot of terminology associated with verbs. Below are explanations of the most common terms.

The Infinitive Form

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 wear that!
  • ("To wear" is the infinitive form of the verb.)
Read more about the infinitive form of a verb.

Past Tense

Verbs that express actions in the past are said to be in the past tense.
  • I ran to the lake.
  • They were all there.
  • He talked with more claret than clarity. (Author Susan Ertz)
  • ("Ran," "were," and "talked" are all verbs in the past tense.)

Present Tense

Verbs that express actions occurring now are said to be in the present tense.
  • John jumps out the window.
  • Who is ill?
  • He is the kind of a guy who lights up a room just by flicking a switch.
  • ("Jumps," "is," and "lights up" are all verbs in the present tense.)

Future Tense

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.
  • They will surrender.
  • Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth. (Greek mathematician Archimedes, 287-212 BC)
  • ("Will take," "will surrender" and "will move" are all verbs in the future tense)
Read more about verb tenses.

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 borrowed the boat.
  • ("Tony" is the subject of the verb "to borrow.")
  • The dog looks guilty.
  • ("The dog" is the subject of the verb "to look.")
  • Who was that?
  • ("Who" is the subject of the verb "to be.")
Read more about the subject of a verb.

Direct Object of a Verb

Many verbs perform an action on something. The thing being acted upon is called the direct object of the verb.
  • Terry kissed her hand.
  • ("Her hand" is the direct object of the verb "to kiss.")
  • Our dog Beverly can eat a whole chicken.
  • ("A whole chicken" is the direct object of the verb "to eat.")
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. 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 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 direct objects.

Indirect Object of a Verb

Some verbs have two objects, a direct object and an indirect object. The indirect object is the person for whom the action was performed.
  • Jamie read the children a story.
  • (Here, "a story" is the direct object, and "the children" is the indirect object.)
  • I will bake him a cake.
  • ("A cake" is the direct object, and "him" is the indirect object.)
  • The postman gives Anne a letter every day.
  • ("A letter" is the direct object, and "Anne" is the indirect object.)
Read more about indirect objects.

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.")
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 caught by Mr. 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 is an example of an active sentence. It tells us that Mark damaged the carpet.)
Read more about passive sentences.

Active Sentence

Active sentences contrast with 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" performed the action of "to damage.")
  • Jamie read a story.
  • (This is an active sentence. "Jamie" is the subject. "Jamie" performed the action of "to read.")
Read more about active sentences.

Conjugation of Verbs

A verb can change its form depending on the subject. For example:
  • I am. / You are. / He is.
  • 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:
 FormForm Name
1Ifirst person singular
2yousecond person singular
3he/ she / it
[any singular noun,
e.g., dog, tree]
third person singular
4wefirst person plural
5yousecond person plural
6they
[any plural noun,
e.g., dogs, trees]
third person plural
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. This issue rarely causes problems for native English speakers, who conjugate verbs correctly without much thought. Read more about subject-verb agreement.

Participles

Participles are formed from verbs. There are two types:
  • present participles (e.g., looking, taking)
  • past participles (e.g., looked, taken)
Present participles end -ing. Past participles have various endings (e.g., -ed, -en). Here are some more 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 function as adjectives. Here 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.")
Note: When a verb form (like a participle) functions as an adjective or a noun, it is known as a verbal.
Read more about participles.

Why Should I Care about Verbs?

The terms covered on this page will be useful if you're learning or teaching a foreign language because your study books will be full of them. That said, here are five more good reasons to think more carefully about verbs.

(Reason 1) Write flowing sentences.

We fill our speech with verbs. As a result, speech is clear and structured naturally. Writing, on the other hand, can be boring, corporate, predictable, and structured abnormally, which are usually consequences of overusing nouns.

So, to ensure your writing contains lots of verbs, a good trick is to say your sentence aloud and make that the starting point for your sentence structure. This will put more verbs into your writing and reduce the number of nouns.
Unnatural
(Overusing Nouns)
Natural
(Deploying a Good Verb)
I was under the mistaken assumption you had made the payment.I mistakenly assumed you had paid.
They are in agreement that he was in violation of several regulations.They agree he violated several regulations.
She will be in attendance to present a demonstration of how the weather will have an effect on our process.She will attend to demonstrate how the weather will affect our process.
Opting for verbs over nouns will make your sentences flow better and also reduce your word count because you will avoid the articles (e.g., "an," "the") and prepositions (e.g., "in," "on") that are needed to make nouns work.

To optimize your sentences even further, use action verbs over linking verbs, which like nouns can sound a little stuffy.
Stuffy
(Using Linking Verbs)
Natural
(Using Action Verbs)
This rule is applicable to both teams.This rule applies to both teams.
The treaty is binding for all parties.The treaty binds all parties.

Top Tip

"If your writing reads like writing, then re-write it."

(Reason 2) Ensure your subject and verb agree in number.

Here is an excellent reason to care about verbs: subject-verb agreement.

"Subject-verb agreement" means using the right version of the verb to agree with the subject. It just means saying "The cat was hungry" and not "The cat were hungry." In other words, it's about changing a verb to match its subject (called "verb conjugation").

Verb conjugation is a simple concept, but there are many traps that cause writers to match a singular subject with a plural verb, or vice versa. When this mistake occurs, we say there is no subject-verb agreement. A subject and its verb must agree.

Here are three examples of sentences with no subject-verb agreement. (The verbs are shown in bold.)
  • Either of the buttons work.
  • ("Works" would be correct because "either" is singular.)
  • The agenda are pinned on the wall.
  • ("Agenda" is now accepted as a singular word, despite deriving from the plural of "agendum.")
  • Jack as well as Jill fall down the hill.
  • ("Falls" would be correct because "as well as" does not create a compound subject like "and" does.)
Read more about the traps that cause no subject-verb agreement.

(Reason 3) Avoid common spelling errors related to verbs.

Here are some common spelling errors caused by failing to spot a verb:

(Reason 4) Spot when you've written a sentence and end it appropriately.

Remember that a sentence expresses a complete thought and includes a subject and a finite verb. It may sound basic, but lots of writers fail to spot when they've written a sentence. Consequently, they commit the most common mistake made by otherwise excellent writers: the run-on sentence. The most common type of run-on sentence is writing a sentence, putting a comma, and then writing another sentence.
  • I don't know how to act my age, I've never been this old before.
  • Lazy is such an ugly word, I prefer to call it selective participation.
  • It was me, I let the dogs out.
  • My house was clean yesterday, I'm sorry you missed it.
Having written a sentence, writers are drawn to a comma because they've more to say and feel a period (full stop) is too abrupt. It isn't. A period is fine. There are other options of course (e.g., a dash, a semicolon, an ellipsis (three dots), a subordinating conjunction like "because") you just can't use a comma.

What's this got to do with verbs? Well, spotting finite verbs and their subjects is a good starting point for dividing your work into proper sentences. If you look at the wrong examples above, you will find a subject, a finite verb, and a complete thought either side of the comma, which means you're looking at two sentences.

(Reason 5) Spot when to use a comma after a conjunction (e.g., "and").

Of course, it is common for a sentence to consist of more than one independent clause. (An independent clause is one that can stand alone as a sentence.) When these "standalone sentences" are joined with a conjunction (e.g., "and," "but," "or"), it is normal to put a comma before the conjunction.
  • Actors are con men, and con men are actors. (Actor Edward Burns)
  • (This sentence comprises two "standalone sentences" (i.e., independent clauses). The comma before "and" is correct.)
When a conjunction does not join two independent clauses, it is normal not to use a comma.
  • My grandmother was gruff and looked very fierce. She was quite small, but she was very wide. (Author Salman Rushdie)
  • (Here, the words "looked very fierce" is not an independent clause because there is no subject. However, the words "she was very wide" is an independent clause. That is why there is no comma before "and" but one before "but.")
Spotting finite verbs and their subjects is a good starting point for dividing your work into independent clauses, and that's key for determining whether to use commas before conjunctions.

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See Also

Nouns for kids Stative verbs Auxiliary verbs Compound verbs Phrasal verbs Finite verbs Non-finite verbs Helping verb Intransitive verbs Linking verbs Regular verbs Irregular verbs Weak verbs Subject/verb agreement

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