What Are Verbs?
The Quick AnswerWhat are verbs?
Verbs are "doing" words. Verbs can express physical actions (e.g., play, dive), mental actions (e.g., think, guess), or states of being (e.g., exist, am).
VerbsA 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).
Verbs Can Express Physical ActionsHere are some sentences with verbs that express physical actions. (In each example, the verb is highlighted.)
- 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 Can Express Mental ActionsWhile many verbs express physical actions (e.g., to jump, to dance, to sing), verbs can also express mental actions. For 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 Can Express a State of BeingA 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.
Here is the verb to be in the different tenses:
|Subject||Verb to be||past tense||present tense||future tense|
|He / She / It||was||is||will be|
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 VerbsAs 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 VerbAn 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.)
- 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 VerbA 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 VerbA 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. (Here, the direct object is the pie.)
- The postman will give Sarah the letter. (Here, the direct object is the letter.)
Read more about transitive verbs.
Intransitive VerbAn 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.
Auxiliary VerbAn 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).)
Modal VerbA 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.)
Phrasal VerbA 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.)
Regular and Irregular VerbsA 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 Verb||Simple Past Tense||Past Participle|
An irregular verb is one that does not conform to this ruling. For example:
|Irregular Verb||Simple Past Tense||Past Participle|
Read more about regular and irregular verbs.
Verb TerminologyThere is a lot of grammatical terminology associated with verbs. Below are explanations of the most common terms. (There is a more comprehensive list in our Glossary of Terms.)
The Infinitive FormWhen 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 is the infinitive form of the verb.)
Past TenseVerbs that express actions in the past are said to be in the past tense.
- He talked with more claret than clarity. (Susan Ertz) (Talked is the past tense of the verb to talk.)
- I ran to the lake. (Ran is the past tense of the verb to run.)
- They were all there. (Were is the past tense of the verb to be.)
Present TenseVerbs that express actions occurring now are said to be in the present tense.
- John jumps out the window. (Jumps is the present tense of the verb to jump.)
- Who is ill? (Is is the 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 is the present tense of the verb to be, and lights up is the present tense of the verb to light up.)
Future TenseVerbs 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 is the future tense of the verb to take.)
- They will surrender. (Will surrender is the future tense of the verb to surrender.)
- Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth. (Archimedes, 287-212 BC) (Will move is the future tense of the verb to move.)
Take a test on verb tenses.
Subject of a VerbThe 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 is the subject of the verb to steal.)
- The dog is guilty. (The dog is the subject of the verb to be.)
- Who was that? (Who is the subject of the verb to be.)
Direct Object of a VerbMany verbs perform an action on something. This is called the direct object of the verb.
- Terry kissed her hand. (Her hand is the direct object of the verb to kiss.)
- Beverly can eat a whole chicken. (A whole chicken is the direct object of the verb to eat.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
Indirect Object of a VerbSome 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. (Here, a story is the direct object, and the children is the indirect object.)
- I will bake him a cake. (Here, a cake is the direct object, and him is the indirect object.)
- The postman gives Anne a letter every day. (Here, a letter is the direct object, and Anne is the indirect object.)
Passive SentenceThe 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.)
- Carl was arrested by PC Adams.
- 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.)
Active SentenceActive 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 damaged the carpet.)
- Jamie read a story. (This is an active sentence. Jamie is the subject. Jamie read a story.)
Conjugation of VerbsA verb will change its form a little depending on the subject. For example:
- I write.
- He writes.
- The jackal laughs.
- The jackals laugh.
- He / She / It
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.
ParticiplesParticiples 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|
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.)
Why Should I Care about Verbs?Even though there's a lot of terminology associated with verbs, native English speakers are really good at using them (e.g., using the right tense, conjugating verbs correctly). We can handle all this stuff without giving the grammar a second thought. Nevertheless, the terms covered on this page will definitely be useful if you decide to learn a foreign language or to teach English because, if you do, you will encounter all of these terms. Knowing what they mean in English is a great starting point for learning how these features are addressed in other languages.
That said, some of the terms covered in this entry do have their own oddities or traps, and these are covered on their individual pages. At the "verb" level, there are five good reasons to think more carefully about verbs.
(Reason 1) Write flowing sentences.We fill our speech with verbs. For that reason, speech is great. It's clear and structured naturally. Writing, on the other hand, can be boring, corporate, predictable, and structured abnormally. These bad traits are most often caused by an overuse of nouns.
So, a good trick to ensure your writing leans towards verbs and not nouns is to say your sentence aloud and make that the start point of your sentence structure. This is a good way to get some verbs into your writing and to limit yourself to just enough nouns to get the job done.
|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.|
There's another refinement. To optimize your sentence flow and to reduce your word count even further, opt for 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.|
(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.)
(Reason 3) Avoid common spelling errors related to verbs.Here are some common spelling errors caused by failing to spot a verb:
- "Accept" is a verb, but "except" usually isn't.
- "Advise" is verb, but "advice" isn't.
- "Affect" is usually a verb, but "effect" usually isn't.
- "Lose" is usually is verb, but "loose" usually isn't.
- "Marinate" is a verb, but "marinade" isn't.
- "Passed" is a verb, but "past" isn't.
- In British English, "practise" is a verb, but "practice" isn't.
- In British English, "license" is a verb, but "licence" isn't.
(Reason 4) Spot when you've written a sentence and end it appropriately.Verbs are important. You can't write a sentence without one. Remember that a sentence expresses a complete and includes a subject that governs at least one finite verb. It may sound basic, but lots 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 error. The most common type of run-on error 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.
What's this got to do with verbs? Well, spotting finite verbs and their subjects is a good start 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.)
- 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's no subject. However, the words "she was very wide" is an independent clause. That's why there's no comma before and but one before but.)