What is a verb?
A verb is a word which describes fan action, an occurrence or a state of being.
Verbs are vital if we want to make sentences. As we'll see, we simply can't make a sentence if we don't have a verb to put in it.
Here are a few examples of verbs:
The cat jumped on to the table.
The man suddenly became very angry.
He lives in London.
Verbs are also some of the most versatile words in English - they can exist in many forms. Before we look at these forms though, let's explore in a little more detail our definition of a verb and some of the different ways we can categorise them.
Dynamic and stative verbs
In our definition we said that verbs describe actions, occurrences and states of being. What do we mean by this exactly? Well, let's look at some example sentences and see:
The dog walked down the road.
I will build a beautiful house on this land.
In each of these sentences, someone (or something) is performing an action of some kind. The dog is performing the action of walking, and I am performing the action of building (or at least I will be performing this action in the future!). So we can say that "walked" and "build" are two verbs which describe actions. Now have a look at these sentences:
They became friends quite quickly.
The burglary happened late at night.
In these sentences, noone is performing an action as such, but we can see that something occurred. So we can say that "became" and "happened" are two verbs which describe occurrences. Now, we could argue that if a burglary occurred, then of course someone must have performed an action of "burgling" the house. But to describe that we'd need to use a different verb and a different sentence. We'd need to say something like:
Someone burgled the house last night.
Now we have a verb (burgle) which describes an action. But in the original sentence, the verb (happen) describes an occurrence.
So, we've seen some verbs which describe actions, and some others which describe occurrences. What about the third thing that a verb does - describing a "state of being"? Have a look at these two sentences:
Anna is 38 years old.
This box contains six cans.
Do we have any actions or occurrences taking place here? Well, it would be difficult to argue that Anna is performing any kind of action in being a certain age, or that anything is occurring. Similarly, we can't argue that the box is performing any kind of action by containing six cans, or that anything is occurring. So the verbs "is" and "containing" describe what we can call a state of being - no action or occurrence is taking place with these verbs.
This difference, between verbs which describe actions or occurrences and those which describe states of being, lets us categorise verbs into what we call dynamic verbs and stative verbs. Dynamic verbs describe some kind of action or occurrence, and stative verbs describe a state of being.
Let's look at a few more examples of dynamic verbs. Check to see if you agree that someone or something is performing an action in each case, or that something is occurring:
They play football every day.
Can I ask you a question?
This rocket can fly to the moon!
You've been sneezing all day.
Here are some more examples of stative verbs. This time, check to see that no action or occurrence is taking place:
I doubt she'll come.
I love you.
She didn't understand the question.
I prefer the red one.
The cake smells fantastic!
I can't see very well without my glasses.
I wish it would stop raining.
Most stative verbs are verbs which describe opinions (doubt, prefer), feelings and emotions (love), and senses (smell, see).
Verbs which are both dynamic and stative
Some verbs can be both dynamic and stative, depending on how we use them. Here's an example:
I think France is a great place to live. (think - stative)
Wait! Can't you see he's thinking about his answer? (think - dynamic)
In the first sentence I am using the verb "think" to describe my opinion. In this case no action is involved. But what about the second sentence? Well, now we're not using the verb in the same way. We're no longer talking about someone's opinion. Instead there is an action going on in the person's head - the action of thinking.
Here's another example:
This burger tastes great. (taste - stative)
Gill is going to taste the burger now. (taste - dynamic)
The same thing is happening here. In the first sentence we are using the verb "taste" to mean that the burger has good flavour. There is no action involved in "having good flavour". In the second sentence though, Gill is going to perform an action (the action of tasting).
Transitive and intransitive verbs
The next way we can categorise verbs is into transitive and non-transitive. Let's have a look at a simple sentence to start:
Now, when we read this sentence it doesn't sound quite right. Something seems to be missing. We would probably immediately ask ourselves the question "What did he catch?" So let's try the sentence again:
John caught the ball.
That sounds better. It looks like the verb "catch" needs something to follow it if we want the sentence to make sense. The thing which it needs to follow it is an object. If you think back to the Pronouns lesson, you'll remember that the object is the person or thing having the action done to it, or "being acted upon". In our example, "the ball" is having the action done to it - it is being caught - and so the ball is the object.
Now, at this point we need to get a little more specific about what our definition of an object refers to. What we've defined so far as an object is in fact, more specifically, a direct object. This distinction is important because, as we'll see in module 3, there is also something called an indirect object, which is a little different.
So, getting back to our example sentence, we can say more correctly that the thing which the verb "catch" needs to follow it is a direct object. Verbs which need to be followed by a direct object are called transitive verbs. Here are some more examples:
She sent. (without a direct object, the sentence is incomplete)
She sent the email. (with a direct object)
We want. (without a direct object, the sentence is incomplete)
We want our dinner. (with a direct object)
Some verbs can't be followed by a direct object. Have a look at these two sentences:
These sentences seem to be perfectly fine as they are. We don't find ourselves asking the question "John slept what?" or "John sneezed what?" In fact asking these kinds of questions wouldn't make any sense! So if the sentence makes sense without adding a direct object after the verb, then the verb is an intransitive verb.
Verbs which are both transitive and intransitive
Just as some verbs can be both dynamic and stative, they can also be both transitive and intransitive, depending on how they are used. Here's an example:
John is eating. (eat - intransitive)
John is eating the cake. (eat - transitive)
Both sentences are fine. In the first one we are using the verb "eat" as an intransitive verb. We don't need to know what he is eating - the fact that he is eating is enough information. In the second sentence we are using the verb "eat" as a transitive verb - it is followed by the direct object "the cake".
Linking and non-linking verbs
So far we've seen that verbs can be either dynamic or stative, and either transitive or intransitive. A third way to categorise them is into linking verbs and non-linking verbs.
A linking verb allows us to add something to the sentence called a subject complement. A subject complement is something that gives us more information about (in other words, it "complements") the subject of the sentence. Here's an example:
John feels happy.
Remember that the subject is the person or thing "doing" the action. So "John" is the subject in this example. "Happy" is a subject complement - it is giving us some more information about John. The verb (feels) links the subject with the subject complement. If we want to add a subject complement we need a verb which allows us to link it to the subject in this way, and only some verbs allow us to do this. Here are some more examples of verbs which allow us to add a subject complement:
She is very old.
The cake smells great.
He turned pale.
They became doctors.
She remained very still.
So, all of the underlined verbs are linking verbs - they allow us to add a subject complement. There's an easy way we can test to see if we have a linking verb. Just ask yourself the question "Can I replace the verb with "am", "is" or "are" (forms of the verb "be") and still be left with a sentence which makes sense?" Let's try it using the same examples and see:
She is very old. (Here we are already using "is" and so there's no need to replace it)
The cake is great.
He is pale.
They are doctors.
She is very still.
It looks like it works every time. We can replace our verbs with either "am", "is" or "are" (different forms of the verb "be") and our sentences still make logical sense.
With non-linking verbs we can't add a subject complement. Here's an example:
Greg burnt the cakes.
Now, it's true that we've added some words after the verb, but these words don't tell us information about the subject, Greg. Instead, they tell us what Greg burnt. So, it looks like "burnt" in this sentence is a non-linking verb - it doesn't allow us to add a subject complement. But just to be sure, let's use our test to check. We'll try replacing the verb "burnt" with "am", "is" or "are" and see if the sentence makes any sense:
Greg is the cakes.
This doesn't make any sense at all! So "burnt" in our sentence above must be a non-linking verb. Here are some more examples - try replacing the verb in each case with "am", "is" or "are" to check that they are non-linking verbs.
John ran as fast as he could.
He shouted all the time.
They ate dinner.
Verbs which are both linking and non-linking
It will probably not surprise you to learn that some verbs can be both linking and non-linking, depending on how they are used. Let's see an example:
That food smells great. (smell - linking verb)
Greg smelt the soup before trying it. (smell - non-linking verb)
In the first sentence we have a subject complement, "great", which gives us more information about "that food". In the second sentence though, "the soup" doesn't give us any information about Greg - instead it tells us what Greg smelt. Again, we can confirm that this is a non-linking verb by replacing "smelt" with "is" - "Greg is the soup"!
We've looked at three different ways to categorise verbs. Now we're ready to have a look at the different forms that verbs can take. So, what do we mean by different forms?
You may remember from module 1, when we talked about morphology (making words), that our starting point for building a word is a root word - the smallest combination of letters that has any kind of meaning. The examples of root words we saw in module 1 were "man", "play" and "happy". What we then did was add other combinations of letters (called grammatical morphemes) to make other words. Here's a reminder of how we did that with the verb "play":
Now, some of these morphemes that we've added keep the verb "play" as a verb, and others change it into a different part of speech (a noun, an adjective or an adverb). The ones which keep "play" as a verb, including the root word, are:
...and we call these different words the different forms of the verb. So, including the root word "play", it looks like we have four different forms of the verb "play". Let's try another verb, "take":
The first thing you'll notice here is that we've done more than just add a morpheme to one of these forms (took) - the word itself has changed. This is because "take" is what we call an irregular verb. We'll learn more about irregular verbs as we go along.
So we've cheated a bit because we said that we were just going to add morphemes. But it has highlighted something important for us - it looks like the verb "take" has five forms, not four. Now it seems a bit inconsistent for some verbs to have four forms and others to have five. Shouldn't they all have the same number of forms? Could we have "missed" one of the forms of "play" somewhere? Well, the answer is yes - the verb "play" does have five forms, it just so happens that two of them are the same.
Let's see which two of them are the same by giving some names to these different forms of the verb. At the same time we'll add two more verbs, "catch" and "work".
|BASE FORM||THIRD PERSON SINGULAR FORM||PAST TENSE FORM||PRESENT PARTICIPLE||PAST PARTICIPLE|
You'll see that for "play" it's what we call the past tense form and the past participle form that are the same - so we've found our missing form and we now have five forms for all the verbs in the table.
The verb "be"
There's one verb which is different to all the other verbs, and that's the verb "be". "Be" has eight forms instead of the usual five. It has three present tense forms instead of just a third person singular form (am; is; are) and two past tense forms instead of just one (was; were). So "be" is a bit special, and we'll encounter it in all its forms in quite a few different contexts as we move through the course.
Why do we need all these forms?
Now it's all very well knowing that every verb has five forms (or eight in the case of "be"), and that each of these forms has a name, but that's not much use to us unless we know why they have these different forms, how we make them, and what each of them does! Remember we said at the beginning of this lesson that sentences revolve around verbs? Well, we would be very limited in the types of sentence that we could make if every verb only had one form. We wouldn't be able to make sentences in the different verb tenses, or convey a whole range of other meanings that these different forms allow us to do. In short, verbs wouldn't be anything like as versatile as we need them to be in order to communicate.
As we continue into modules 3 and 4 of the course we'll come across these different verb forms many times. We'll see how we make them and what each of them is used for.
We're nearly ready to leave verbs for the time being. Before we do though, there are two more types of verb that we haven't mentioned yet, and which are a little different to the verbs we've been talking about so far. These are auxiliary verbs and modal verbs.
We've seen that verbs are very versatile - they exist in different forms, can describe actions, occurrences or states of being, and can link subjects with subject complements. But there are some things that even verbs can't do. And that's why we have what we call auxiliary verbs.
You can think of auxiliary verbs as helping verbs. They help the main verb (the type we've looked at so far) do something that the main verb alone can't do. They help them to:
- change the tense
- make the verb into a question form
- make the verb into its negative form
The three principal auxiliary verbs in English are:
Here are some examples of these verbs "helping" the main verb in the sentence:
I do not like cheese on my burger.
He has eaten.
I am playing tennis.
Have you seen my cat?
In the first sentence you can see that the auxiliary verb "do" is used to make the sentence negative. In the second and third sentences "has" and "am" help change the tense of the main verb. In the fourth sentence "have" is used to make a question.
Let's try saying these sentences without the auxiliary verbs. Do they make sense?
I not like cheese on my burger.
I playing tennis.
You seen my cat?
The only one that you might think makes sense is the last one, and that's because in informal spoken English it's quite common to miss out the auxiliary verb when we ask a question. In written English, though, it doesn't work, we need to add the auxiliary verb.
When we look at verb tenses in module 4 we'll see in detail which auxiliary verbs we add to make which tense and how to make question and negative forms like the ones above.
Let's have a look again at part of one of our examples.
I do not like cheese.
From what we know so far, what can we say about each of the words in this sentence? We can see that we have a subject (I) and a verb (like). We also have a direct object (cheese). But what about the auxiliary verb "do" and the word "not"? How can we categorise these words? Well, as they are helping the main verb, it would seem to make sense to categorise them as part of the verb.
So we could in fact say that we have a subject (I) and a verb consisting of several words (do not want). We call this "verb consisting of several words" a verb phrase. A verb phrase acts in exactly the same way as a verb, it's just that it contains more than one word. Here are all our examples with the verb phrase underlined in each case.
I do not want cheese on my burger.
He has eaten.
I am playing tennis.
As we go through the course we'll see other types of phrase, and we'll see that they always act like a part of speech, just as the verb phrases above are acting exactly like verbs.
Auxiliary verbs as main verbs
Now, the three auxiliary verbs we've seen so far, be, do and have, can also be main verbs in their own right. Have a look at these sentences where the three verbs are the main verbs:
I do my homework every day.
I have a cat.
You are silly.
When used as main verbs like this, they need help to change tense and make questions and negatives just like other verbs. So we can end up with sentences containing the same verb twice within the verb phrase - the first time as the auxiliary verb and the second time as the main verb! Here are the same examples again, this time with the verbs used twice in this way:
I don't do my homework every day.
I haven't had a cat for a long time.
You are being silly.
Auxiliary verbs to add emphasis
We can use the auxiliary verb "do" to clarify or add emphasis to the main verb. Have a look at these sentences:
I do know how to play.
I did feed the cat.
In the first sentence the person wants to clarify that they know how to play, perhaps having been told the opposite by someone. In the second sentence, the person may have been reminded to feed the cat, and wants to clarify that she has already done it.
We've seen how the auxiliary verbs be, do and have help main verbs by doing things like making questions and negatives. Modal verbs are also auxiliary verbs, and they help main verbs in a different way. Before we see how they help, let's have a look at the main modal verbs:
(There are a few others, called semi-modals, which we'll look at shortly).
So how do modal verbs help main verbs? Well, as we know, main verbs describe actions, occurrences and states of being. But what happens if we want to describe not just the action, but whether the action is possible, or necessary, or desirable? Well, one way we could do this is by using some quite long-winded sentences like this:
John: It is an obligation for you to come to the cinema tonight. It is possible that the film is the best this year.
Mary: I don't know. There is a possibility that I come. Isn't it a good idea for us to eat first though?
John: Ok, do I have your permission to cook you dinner?
This is okay - John and Mary succeed in communicating what they need to say. But the conversation would sound a whole lot better (and go a little quicker too!) like this:
John: You must come to the cinema tonight. The film could be the best this year.
Mary: I don't know. I might come. Shouldn't we eat first though?
John: Ok, can I cook you dinner?
What we've done here is used modal verbs to express the ideas of obligation (must), possibility or likelihood(could, might), desirability (should) and permission (can). In the process we've avoided having to say such long-winded sentences as we saw in the first version of the conversation. Modal verbs can also tell us about ability, certainty and uncertainty, and prohibition. Here are some more examples:
Harry eats three meals a day.
Harry should eat three meals a day.
In the second sentence we're no longer just stating a fact about Harry and his eating habits. We're saying that it's desirable for him to eat three meals a day. In other words, we're giving him advice.
Mary is 40 years old.
Mary might be 40 years old.
In this example, adding the modal verb "might" tells us that it's no longer a fact that Mary is 40 years old - we're showing that we are uncertain of her age - it's possible that she is a different age.
Form of modal verbs
Have a look at the last example again.
Mary is 40 years old.
Mary might be 40 years old.
What happened to the verb "is" when we added a modal verb before it? It changed to its base form. And this is the first thing we can say about the form of modal verbs - they are followed by the base form of the main verb. Let's see what else we can say about their form:
- They are followed by the base form of the main verb
- Modal verbs themselves only have one form - we don't say "mights", "mighted" or "mighting"
- We can't put two modal verbs, or a modal and another auxiliary verb, together - we can't say "I might can go"
Same modal, different function
Let's have a look at another example:
People can spend a lot of money on holiday.
We've used "can" here to talk about possibility or likelihood. But we can also use "can" (and "can't") to express some other functions. Here are some examples:
I can swim very fast. (ability)
You can't go in there, it's dangerous. (prohibition)
Can I have a biscuit? (permission)
I can't eat that. It looks horrible! (possibility/impossibility)
This works with other modal verbs too. Here are some of the different functions of "may" and "must":
You may come in. (permission)
I may go on holiday this year. (possibility/likelihood)
You mustn't walk on the grass. (prohibition)
You must slow down a bit. (advice / obligation)
You must be tired. (likelihood/probability)
So different modal verbs have different functions, depending on how we use them. Their meaning also depends very strongly on the context in which they are used. Have a look at this sentence:
You should sit down.
If you imagine saying this to a friend who looks a bit tired you would probably say that you are giving that friend advice or making a suggestion. If you heard the same sentence from a judge to a defendant in a courtroom, however, the function would be much more of an obligation.
Offers, requests, invitations and suggestions
When formed as questions, modal verbs often perform the functions of making offers, requests, invitations and suggestions. Here are a few examples:
Will you marry me? (request)
Would you open the door please? (polite request)
Can I help you? (offer)
Would you like to come to dinner on Saturday? (invitation)
Shall we go to the beach? (suggestion)
Could you answer the phone? (request)
We said earlier that there are some other modal verbs which we call semi-modals. Let's look at these now:
- have to
These words perform the same functions as full modal verbs - expressing ideas of obligation, necessity, likelihood and so on. Where they differ is in the form. Remember we said that full modal verbs only have one form (we don't say "mights", "mighted" or "mighting") and are followed by the base form of the verb. These semi-modals, on the other hand, are followed by "to" and the base form of the verb and, with the exception of ought, can exist in different forms. We can also combine them with another modal or other auxiliary verb. Here are some examples:
I ought to go now.
He needs to stop smoking.
They had to leave.
He dares to dream.
She may need some help.
We also form questions and negative forms differently with semi-modals (again apart from ought):
I must go.
I mustn't go. (negative)
Must I go? (question)
I need to go.
I don't need to go. (negative)
Do I need to go? (question)
As you can see with the semi-modal the question and negative forms make use of an auxiliary verb (do) - we'll explore this in a lot more detail when we look at how to make questions and negative forms in module 4 of the course.
For now though, we'll move on to the last type of verb that we're going to look at, the phrasal verb.
Phrasal verbs are verbs which consist of more than one word. They are made up of a verb and what we call a particle, which is either a preposition or an adverb. Usually we can't understand the meaning of phrasal verbs from the individual words that make them up. Here are a few examples:
I'm looking after my nephew today.
She gave up smoking last year.
Can we put off the meeting until next week?
As you can see, the meanings of the verbs "look", "give" and "put" don't give us any clues about the meanings of "look after", "give up" and "put off".
The phrasal verb "put off" is very similar in meaning to "postpone". We call two words which have the same or almost the same meaning synonyms. We use "postpone" when we want to be a bit more formal and "put off" when we want to be a bit less formal. This is the case for a lot of phrasal verbs - they have a synonym that is more commonly used in more formal English. The more formal synonym of "speed up", for example, is "accelerate".
Transitive phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs may have more than one word, but they are still verbs. This means that they can still be either transitive or intransitive. Remember that a transitive verb is one that needs to be followed by a direct object. For example, it makes no sense to say "John caught" - we find ourselves asking the question "John caught what?", because the verb "catch" is transitive and so needs to be followed by a direct object. Phrasal verbs are the same - some are transitive, others are intransitive. Here are some transitive phrasal verbs:
"Go over" has the meaning of "review", and without a direct object (the results) it makes no sense. "Put out" has the meaning of "extinguish" and also makes no sense unless we add a direct object (the fire).Let's go over the results again.
Quick, put out the fire!
Separable or inseparable?
Some transitive phrasal verbs are what we call separable. What this means is that we can choose to "separate" the two words in the verb, putting the direct object between them. Have a look at the two examples above again, and try putting the direct object between the two words. It only works with one of them. Let's see:
Let's go the results over again.
Quick, put the fire out
The first sentence doesn't look right at all, but the second one sounds okay. So it looks like "put out" is a separable transitive phrasal verb and we can choose whether we put the direct object in between the two words or after them. What about "go over"? Well, we can't separate the two words, so we call it an inseparable transitive phrasal verb. Here are some more examples:
They sorted out the problem. (sort out - separable)
They sorted the problem out.
I'll look into the problem on Monday. (look into - inseparable)
Now, remember that we can replace nouns with pronouns? Well, our direct objects are all nouns, which means that we should be able to replace them all with pronouns. Let's try, first with some inseparable phrasal verbs:
Let's go over the results again. - Let's go over them again.
I'll look into the problem on Monday. - I'll look into it on Monday.
These look fine, we can replace the direct object with pronouns like "it" and "them". Let's try now with some separable phrasal verbs:
Quick, put out the fire! - Quick, put out it!
They sorted out the problem. - They sorted out it.
They sorted the problem out. - They sorted it out.
Now, it looks like we have a problem here, because the first two examples don't sound right with the pronoun. The third one looks okay though. And that's because with separable phrasal verbs, if we're using a pronoun it must go between the two words in the phrasal verb. Let's try the example with "put out" again, putting the pronoun in the middle:
Quick, put it out!
That's better - we can use the pronoun in this sentence as long as it comes between the two words of the phrasal verb.
Intransitive phrasal verbs
So far we've been looking at transitive phrasal verbs, those which must be followed by a direct object. Some phrasal verbs though are intransitive. They can't be followed by a direct object. Here are some of them:
We don't have much money but we'll just have to get by. (synonym - survive)
She stood up too quickly and passed out. (synonym - faint)
Three-tword phrasal verbs
Some phrasal verbs are made up of not two but three words. All of these are transitive and inseparable:
Why do you put up with his habits? (synonym - tolerate)
I look up to my father. (synonym - respect)
If we took away the last word from both these phrasal verbs, we'd be left with other phrasal verbs entirely, with different meanings:
I put my friends up when they came to stay. (synonym - provide accommodation for)
Can you look up the word in the dictionary? (synonym - search for the meaning)
Here's a summary of the main points from this lesson.
- A verb is a word which describes an action, an occurrence or a state of being.
- Dynamic verbs describe actions and occurrences. Stative verbs describe states of being. Some verbs can be both dynamic and stative depending on how they're used.
Dynamic - I walked to the beach.
Stative - That suit looks great.
Dynamic and stative - They're thinking about the answer. / I think jelly is delicious.
- Transitive verbs need to be followed by a direct object. Intransitive verbs can't be followed by a direct object. Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on how they're used.
Transitive - Kerry dropped the keys.
Intransitive - The dog slept.
Transitive and intransitive - Jim stopped. / Jim stopped the car.
- Linking verbs link the subject with the subject complement. Subject complements give us more information about the subject. With non-linking verbs we can't add a subject complement. Some verbs can be both linking and non-linking, depending on how they're used.
Linking - The spaghetti tastes great.
Non-linking - They ate the spaghetti.
Linking and non-linking - The spaghetti tastes great. / John tasted the spaghetti.
- We make different verb forms by adding grammatical morphemes to the base form of the verb. With irregular verbs some forms change entirely. Each verb has five forms, except the verb "be", which has eight. We need all these verb forms to make different tenses and convey a range of other meanings.
Base form - play / catch
Third person singular form - plays / catches
Past tense form - played / caught
Present participle - playing / catching
Past participle - played / caught
- The auxiliary verbs "be", "do" and "have" help main verbs by changing the tense or making the verb into a negative or question form. Auxiliary verbs and the word "not", together with the main verb, make up a verb phrase.
I am not leaving.
Does she want to play?
I haven't started yet.
- Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb. They help the main verb to express things like obligation, possibility and desirability. Modal verbs have only one form and are followed by the base form of the main verb. Modal verbs can have more than one function.
We should go now. (advice)
You must leave him alone. (obligation)
Can we start? (permission)
I can swim. (ability)
- Semi-modal verbs perform the same functions as modal verbs but differ in form.
We need to go. (necessity / strong advice)
- Phrasal verbs consist of more than one word. Transitive phrasal verbs can be separable or inseparable. Three-word phrasal verbs are always transitive and inseparable.
They put off the meeting. / They put the meeting off. (Transitive and separable)
Let's go over the plan again. (Transitive and inseparable)
The plan fell through. (Intransitive)
What did you get up to yesterday? (three-word phrasal verb)
There's a downloadable factsheet for phrasal verbs below.