The English verb is (according to many sources—The Chicago Manual of Style among them) the most important part of speech. Verbs express actions or states of being and can express thoughts by themselves (Run! Stop! Eat! Die!).
This article is meant to be a full overview of every property of English verbs, and as such it is quite exhaustive. Of the eight parts of speech that exist in the English language, verbs are undoubtedly the most complex.
This mammoth guide doesn’t cover everything—not by a long shot—but it does give you a very solid foundation: if you are able to absorb every concept on this page, your understanding of English will skyrocket.
Well then—let’s dig right into it.
Verbs have four basic properties: voice (active, passive), mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive), tense (present perfect, past perfect, future perfect), person (first person, second person, third person), and number (singular, plural).
It is easy to understand voice through simple examples:
The army conquered the castle.
The castle was conquered by the army.
A hurricane wrecked the East Coast.
The East Coast was wrecked by the hurricane.
I ate one of the carrots.
One of the carrots was eaten by me.
They played tennis all day long.
Tennis was played all day long.
Voice demonstrates the kind of action that is taking place. If the subject acts, you are using the active voice; if the subject is acted on, you are using the passive voice. As you can see from the examples above, the passive voice often uses by.
Mood, also known as mode, reveals how the verb conveys a state of being or action.
The indicative mood is used to demonstrate beliefs and facts. It is also used to ask questions. Examples include: Is that a a jar of pickles? and the garden is clean today and black holes don’t suck everything in and I think you’re quite smart.
The imperative mood indicates commands such as Get the hell out of here! and Do as I say! and Clean those dishes! and Give me that cup. and Please take a shower and Remove those stains from the floor and Do not steal from the neighbors.
The subjunctive mood is used to express mental constructs—things that are not fact. This includes doubtful actions, envisioned situations, things that someone wants or needs, something that is subject to something else, and hypothetical scenarios. Examples include: if I were you, I’d eat that bagel and I wish I could drink eight liters of olive oil in a day and they recommended that I go back and if only it were so. Students often recognize the subjunctive mood through a simple elimination process. Ask yourself the following questions: is this a belief or fact or question? If not, ask yourself if it’s a command. If not, then you are dealing with the subjunctive mood.
The verb tense specifies time.
The present tense refers to actions, conditions or states that take place in the present moment—such as kill, open, flirt, jump and fly. The present tense is used in many ways. For example, ageless truths are in the present tense (different metals emit electrons depending on the electromagnetic radiations), as are facts (tardigrades can survive almost anything).
The past tense occurs in the past (killed, opened, flirted, jumped, flew).
The future tense occurs in the future and almost always utilizes the word will (will kill, will open, will flirt, will jump, will fly). You can also use the word shall (we shall fly), but the usage of will is far more commonplace.
The present perfect tense indicates an action, state or condition that has concluded or is ongoing. Has and have are used (e.g. have carried, has eaten). Examples include: I have carried your laundry and she has eaten the strawberry.
The past perfect tense is used when something was finished before another past action, and utilizes had (e.g. had killed, had opened, had flirted). Example: The kingdom had destroyed its enemies before all was lost.
The future perfect tense is created through the use of will have and refers to something that is presumed to be finished before another future time or action (e.g. will have killed, will have opened, will have flirted). Example: By twilight, she will have remembered the importance of love.
A verb’s person tells you who.
First person uses I (singular) and We (plural). Examples: I am fine. We are fine. I eat this bagel. We eat those bagels. I find you very attractive. We find you very attractive. I remembered the exam questions. We remembered the exam questions.
Second person uses You (singular or plural). Examples: You are a brown cow. You are a woman .You are a man. You have nice eyes. You can walk a mile without getting tired. You possess beautiful blue eyes.
Third person uses he (singular), she (singular), it (singular) or they (plural). Examples: He is very intelligent. He’s a sailor. She is quite lovely. She works hard. It doesn’t work. It’s malfunctioning. They are not my friends. They can’t do this to me.
Finally, number tells you whether a verb is singular or plural, and is dependent on the noun or pronoun the verb is associated with. Singular/plural examples: I am a clown/We are clowns; You have a pie/Y’all have pies; He’s a jerk/They’re jerks; She drinks vodka/They drink vodka; When my window broke, I fixed it/When my windows broke, I fixed them.
A few action verbs include eat, drink, write, research, plan, inspect, teach, and run. An action verb does something—it expresses action—something that a thing does.
Non-action verbs indicate possessions, states, senses, desires, opinions—basically, everything that is not an action. Some examples include want, like, own, believe, possess, seem, and love.
However, a number of verbs can have both the action and non-action attributes. Take, for example, the verb love:
I feel love (Non-action)
I love this teddy bear. (Action)
Verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. Transitive verbs work with direct objects; a subject must do something to this object. For example, the woman ate the muffin—woman is the subject, muffin is the object, and ate is the verb. An intransitive verb, on the other hand, does not require any direct object (example: the dog sleeps).
Just as the same verb can have both the action and non-action attributes, a verb can also have both the transitive and intransitive attributes. The dog sleeps (intransitive) can become the dog sleeps on the ground (transitive) and Please fly that helicopter (transitive) can become I’ll sit here; you fly (intransitive).
A special type of verb called the ergative verb can be employed transitively or intransitively in these two instances: a) when a noun can transform into a non-direct object when the verb is transitive or b) when it’s possible to create a subject and connect him with the object if the verb is intransitive. For example, he crashed the car (transitive) becomes the car crashed (intransitive)—the part of the subject is altered.
Another attribute of verbs is regularity: are they regular or irregular? Regular verbs are identified by how they look in their past-tense and past-participle configurations. A regular verb ends in -ed and has this basic structure: walk-walked-walked, talk-talked-talked, abstain-abstained-abstained. When a regular verb culminates in -e, you add only a -d. Examples: abuse-abused-abused, bristle-bristled-bristled, blaze-blazed-blazed. In some regular verbs you double the final consonant, such as in stop-stopped-stopped.
Irregular verbs do not follow these rules, such as build-built-built, cost-cost-cost, buy-bought-bought, drink-drank-drunk, eat-ate-eaten, know-knew-known and put-put-put. Many of these words are derived from Old English and there is no basic rule that you can follow; you will have to memorize them.
Verbs can also be principal or auxiliary. A principal verb can stand alone or express an action or state, such as in he walks or she cries. An auxiliary verb joins a principal verb and together they make a verb phrase pointing out the mood. Examples: You will eat that croissant! And He must walk to the supermarket. and I need to cry.
Auxiliary verbs, therefore, are extremely irregular verbs that are combined with other verbs to form new and awesome sentences. I won’t get into all of them as there are too many of them, but here are a few of the main ones: have, do, can, ought, must; will and would; shall and should;
Linking verbs, also known as connecting verbs, are verbs that connect the subject with a similar word in a sentence (and this word is either a predicate adjective, a predicate noun or a predicate pronoun). They don’t express action. Examples: Kevin is a guy, the soup smells great, dreams come true.
Phrasal verbs are verbs plus another element. Some examples: ask around, blow up, break down, break up, call around, cheer up, come forward, dress up, fall apart, get away, hold on, sleep over, wake up, work out. Take, for example, this sentence in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “Ron, cheer up,” said Hermione.
Verb contractions are very common in English. Some examples include are not—aren’t; do not—don’t; I will—I’ll; they will—they’ll; we are—we’re; I have—I’ve; we have—we’ve; she is—she’s. The good use of contractions often makes for a better reading experience.
An infinitive verb is usually a verb with to in it, such as to be, to have, to run, to carry, to clean, to love, to drink, to eat, and so on. However, when using the active voice, the to is often torn away—especially when the infinitive verb comes after an auxiliary verb (example: you must cry). If the voice is passive, such as in this sale was made to Kevin, you retain the to. Also note that to is always joined together with ought (example: he ought to have been satisfied). Infinitives are the bread and butter of the English language, and they can be used as verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs.
A very important kind of verb is the participle—a nonfinite verb (also known as a verbal). These verbs are not restricted by mood, number or person. They possess a tense. The two most important participles are the present participle and the past participle.
The present participle always ends in -ing. It points to something that is happening right now. Examples include: A flying car, The dancing woman, the rampaging ants, a crying baby, a walking stick, burning man, running water. A gerund is a present participle derived from a noun that plays the role of a verb while still being essentially a noun. It is not restrained by number, mood or person and, since it is a noun, it can be utilized in multiple ways. In the sentence “knitting can be enjoyable”, knitting is a gerund. When in doubt, remember: participles modify; gerunds function as nouns.
The past participle typically ends in -ed, but irregular past participles can end in -n, -en, -t or -d. It points to something that has already happened. Examples: The ruined car, destroyed kitchen, born baby, the sown seeds, the broken glass, a shaken drink, the burnt toast, a lost child, a baffled man, a deceived woman.
Participle phrases are a combination of participles and other elements—usually complements or modifiers. A participial phrase can be used as an adjective to reshape nouns or pronouns; or as an adverb to modify predicates. Example of a participle phrase: Flying toward the skyscraper, the helicopter was doomed to crash.
Be aware of dangling participles (a participle or gerund that does not modify the closest noun). Observe the following sentence: eaten in restaurants across Switzerland, the widely-acclaimed zürcher eintopf is known as a heavenly delicacy. As you can see, eaten fails to modify the nearest noun. It is referring to the zürcher eintopf. Sentences with dangling participles are often confusing and should be avoided.
There are other things to be wary of such as misleading connectives and a million other tiny exceptions and rules that are impossible to cover in a single article.
Isn’t the English language beautiful?
Allerton, D. J. Stretched Verb Constructions In English. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Ash, John. Grammatical Institutes: Or An Easy Introduction To Dr. Lowth’s English Grammar. Printed at Worcester [Mass.]: By Isaiah Thomas, 1785. Print.
Hopper, Vincent F, and Vincent F Hopper. Barron’s English Verbs. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 1991. Print.
McCarthy, Michael, and Felicity O’Dell. English Phrasal Verbs In Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Rosset, Eduardo. New Guide To Phrasal Verbs. Irún [España]: Editorial Stanley, 2003. Print.
Strunk, William, and E. B White. The Elements Of Style. Print.
The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010.