What are Verbs?
The verb is king in English. The shortest sentence contains a verb. You can make a one-word sentence with a verb, for example: "Stop!" You cannot make a one-word sentence with any other type of word.
Verbs are sometimes described as "action words". This is partly true. Many verbs give the idea of action, of "doing" something. For example, words like run, fight, do and work all convey action.
But some verbs do not give the idea of action; they give the idea of existence, of state, of "being". For example, verbs like be, exist, seem and belong all convey state.
A verb always has a subject. (In the sentence "John speaks English", John is the subject and speaksdoes or is; they describe: is the verb.) In simple terms, therefore, we can say that verbs are words that tell us what a subject
- action (Ram plays football.)
- state (Anthony seems kind.)
There is something very special about verbs in English. Most other words (adjectives, adverbs, prepositions etc) do not change in form (although nouns can have singular and plural forms). But almost all verbs change in form. For example, the verb to work has five forms:
- to work, work, works, worked, working
Of course, this is still very few forms compared to some languages which may have thirty or more forms for a single verb.
We divide verbs into two broad classifications:
1. Helping Verbs
Imagine that a stranger walks into your room and says:
- I can.
- People must.
- The Earth will.
Do you understand anything? Has this person communicated anything to you? Probably not! That's because these verbs are helping verbs and have no meaning on their own. They are necessary for the grammatical structure of the sentence, but they do not tell us very much alone. We usually use helping verbs with main verbs. They "help" the main verb. (The sentences in the above examples are therefore incomplete. They need at least a main verb to complete them.) There are only about 15 helping verbs.
2. Main Verbs
Now imagine that the same stranger walks into your room and says:
- I teach.
- People eat.
- The Earth rotates.
Do you understand something? Has this person communicated something to you? Probably yes! Not a lot, but something. That's because these verbs are main verbs and have meaning on their own. They tell us something. Of course, there are thousands of main verbs.
In the following table we see example sentences with helping verbs and main verbs. Notice that all of these sentences have a main verb. Only some of them have a helping verb.
|helping verb||main verb|
Helping verbs are also called "auxiliary verbs".
Helping verbs have no meaning on their own. They are necessary for the grammatical structure of a sentence, but they do not tell us very much alone. We usually use helping verbs with main verbs. They "help" the main verb (which has the real meaning). There are only about 15 helping verbs in English, and we divide them into two basic groups:
Primary helping verbs (3 verbs)
These are the verbs be, do, and have. Note that we can use these three verbs as helping verbs or as main verbs. On this page we talk about them as helping verbs. We use them in the following cases:
- to make continuous tenses (He is watching TV.)
- to make the passive (Small fish are eaten by big fish.)
- to make perfect tenses (I have finished my homework.)
- to make negatives (I do not like you.)
- to ask questions (Do you want some coffee?)
- to show emphasis (I do want you to pass your exam.)
- to stand for a main verb in some constructions (He speaks faster than she does.)
Modal helping verbs (10 verbs)
We use modal helping verbs to "modify" the meaning of the main verb in some way. A modal helping verb expresses necessity or possibility, and changes the main verb in that sense. These are the modal verbs:
- can, could
- may, might
- will, would,
- shall, should
- ought to
Here are examples using modal verbs:
- I can't speak Chinese.
- John may arrive late.
- Would you like a cup of coffee?
- You should see a doctor.
- I really must go now.
Main verbs are also called "lexical verbs".
Main verbs have meaning on their own (unlike helping verbs). There are thousands of main verbs, and we can classify them in several ways:
Transitive and intransitive verbs
A transitive verb takes a direct object: Somebody killed the President. An intransitive verb does not have a direct object: He died. Many verbs, like speak, can be transitive or intransitive. Look at these examples:
- I saw an elephant.
- We are watching TV.
- He speaks English.
- He has arrived.
- John goes to school.
- She speaks fast.
A linking verb does not have much meaning in itself. It "links" the subject to what is said about the subject. Usually, a linking verb shows equality (=) or a change to a different state or place (>). Linking verbs are always intransitive (but not all intransitive verbs are linking verbs).
- Mary is a teacher. (mary = teacher)
- Tara is beautiful. (tara = beautiful)
- That sounds interesting. (that = interesting)
- The sky became dark. (the sky > dark)
- The bread has gone bad. (bread > bad)
Dynamic and stative verbs
Some verbs describe action. They are called "dynamic", and can be used with continuous tenses. Other verbs describe state (non-action, a situation). They are called "stative", and cannot normally be used with continuous tenses (though some of them can be used with continuous tenses with a change in meaning).
dynamic verbs (examples):
- hit, explode, fight, run, go
stative verbs (examples):
- like, love, prefer, wish
- impress, please, surprise
- hear, see, sound
- belong to, consist of, contain, include, need
- appear, resemble, seem
Regular and irregular verbs
This is more a question of vocabulary than of grammar. The only real difference between regular and irregular verbs is that they have different endings for their past tense and past participle forms. For regular verbs, the past tense ending and past participle ending is always the same: -ed. For irregular verbs, the past tense ending and the past participle ending is variable, so it is necessary to learn them by heart.
regular verbs: base, past tense, past participle
- look, looked, looked
- work, worked, worked
irregular verbs: base, past tense, past participle
- buy, bought, bought
- cut, cut, cut
- do, did, done
English regular verbs change their form very little (unlike irregular verbs). The past tense and past participle of regular verbs end in -ed, for example:
work, worked, worked
But you should note the following points:
1. Some verbs can be both regular and irregular, for example:
learn, learned, learned
learn, learnt, learnt
2. Some verbs change their meaning depending on whether they are regular or irregular, for example "to hang":
|regular||hang, hanged, hanged||to kill or die, by dropping with a rope around the neck|
|irregular||hang, hung, hung||to fix something (for example, a picture) at the top so that the lower part is free|
3. The present tense of some regular verbs is the same as the past tense of some irregular verbs:
|regular||found, founded, founded|
|irregular||find, found, found|
Irregular verbs are an important feature of English. We use irregular verbs a lot when speaking, less when writing. Of course, the most famous English verb of all, the verb "to be", is irregular.
What is the difference between regular verbs and irregular verbs?
|Base Form||Past Simple||Past Participle|
|With regular verbs, the rule is simple...|
|The past simple and past participle always end in -ed:||finish||finished||finished|
|But with irregular verbs, there is no rule...|
|Sometimes the verb changes completely:||sing||sang||sung|
|Sometimes there is "half" a change:||buy||bought||bought|
|Sometimes there is no change:||cut||cut||cut|
One good way to learn irregular verbs is to try sorting them into groups, as above.
Verb Classification Quiz
|1||The grocery clerk will carry your bags out for you.|
|2||The mail arrived after I left.|
|3||I have already done my homework.|
|4||That book you recommended sounds interesting.|
|5||I prefer cream rather than milk.|
|6||Jerry studies for three hours every day.|
|7||We looked at all of the art in the museum.|
|8||Would you take a picture for us?|
|9||I don't want to fight about who gets the car.|
|10||She seemed like an interesting person.|