Verbs

A verb describes what a person or thing does or what happens. For example, verbs describe:

  • an action – run, hit, travel
  • an event – rain, occur
  • a situation – be, seem, have
  • a change – become, grow, develop

The basic form of a verb is known as the infinitive. It’s often preceded by the word ‘to’:

Molly decided to follow him.

He began to run back.

Click on the headings below to find out more about verbs:

Verb tenses

The tense of a verb tells you when a person did something or when something existed or happened. In English, the main tenses are:

  • the present (e.g. I am, she laughs, they love, we begin)
  • the past (e.g. I was, she laughed, they loved, we began)
  • the future (e.g. I will/shall, she will laugh, they will love, we will/shall begin)

These main tenses can be further subdivided, as follows:

  • the present continuousshe is laughing
  • the past continuousshe was laughing
  • the future continuousshe will be laughing
  • the present perfectshe has laughed
  • the present perfect continuousshe has been laughing
  • the past perfectshe had laughed
  • the past perfect continuousshe had been laughing
  • the future perfectshe will have laughed
  • the future perfect continuousshe will have been laughing

Note that the continuous is also called the progressive.

Different tenses are typically formed either by adding -ed or -ing to the basic form of the verb (known as the ‘stem’), or with the help of other verbs known as auxiliary verbs such as am, was, have, has, had, and will.

Regular and irregular verbs

Many English verbs are regular, which means that they form their different tenses according to an established pattern. Regular verbs work like this:

verb 3rd person singular present tense 3rd person singular past tense past participle present participle
laugh he/she laughs he/she laughed laughed laughing
love he/she loves he/she loved loved loving
boo he/she boos he/she booed booed booing

In the present tense, the basic form of the verb only changes in the 3rd person singular. Most verbs just add -s, but some verbs that end with a vowel other than e add -es (e.g. go/goes, veto/vetoes, do/does). If the verb ends in -y, you need to change the y to an i before adding -es (e.g. hurry/hurries, clarify/clarifies).

If the basic form of the verb ends in a consonant or a vowel other than e, then you add the letters -ed to make the past tense and the past participle, as with laugh or boo. If it ends in e then you just add -d, as with love. If the basic form ends in y, then you change the y to an i before adding -ed (e.g. hurry/hurried, clarify/clarified).

If the basic form of the verb ends in a consonant or a vowel other than e, then you add the letters -ing to make the present participle, as with laugh or boo. If it ends in e then you drop the e before adding -ing, as with love. Note that if the basic form ends in y there is no need to make any spelling changes: you just add -ing (e.g. hurry/hurrying, clarify/clarifying).

But there are also many irregular verbs that don’t follow the normal rules. Here are some examples:

verb 3rd person singular present tense 3rd person singular past tense past participle present participle
take he/she takes he/she took taken taking
sink he/she sinks he/she sank sunk sinking
swing he/she swings he/she swung swung swinging
creep he/she creeps he/she crept crept creeping
begin he/she begins he/she began begun beginning
go he/she goes he/she went gone going
fly he/she flies he/she flew flown flying

If you aren’t sure how a verb behaves, it’s best to look it up. All irregular verb forms will be given in full at the main dictionary entry.

Subjects and objects

All verbs have a subject. The subject is generally the person or thing that the sentence is about. It’s often the person or thing that performs the action of the verb in question and it usually (but not always) comes before the verb:

Catherine followed Jonathan.
[subject]   [object]
He was eating a sandwich.
[subject]   [object]

In imperative sentences (i.e. ones that express a command), the subject is usually understood without being explicitly stated:

Come here at once!

(i.e. ‘You come here at once!’ – the subject You is understood.)

Some verbs have an object as well as a subject. The object is the person or thing affected by the verb:

Catherine followed Jonathan.
[subject]   [object]
He was eating a sandwich.
[subject]   [object]

Direct objects and indirect objects

There are two different types of object: direct objects and indirect objects. A direct object is, as its name suggests, directly affected by the action of the main verb. In the following two sentences, ‘a drink’ and ‘a story’ are direct objects: ‘a drink’ was bought and ‘a story’ was being read.

Jonathan bought a drink.
[subject]   [direct object]
He was reading a story.
[subject]   [object]

An indirect object is usually a person or thing that benefits in some way from the action of the main verb. Take a look at the following sentences:

Jonathan bought Catherine a drink.
[subject]   [indirect object] [direct object]
He was reading his daughter a story.
[subject]   [indirect object] [direct object]

‘Catherine’ has received a drink, but it is ‘the drink’ that has been bought. ‘His daughter’ is hearing the story, but it’s ‘the story’ that is being read.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

A transitive verb is one that is used with an object. In the following sentences, admire and love are transitive verbs:

I admire your courage.

She loves animals.

Some transitive verbs can be used with a direct object and an indirect object:

Liz brought her a glass of water.
  [indirect object] [direct object]
He sent her a letter.
  [indirect object] [direct object]

An intransitive verb is not followed by an object. In the following sentences, cry and talk are intransitive verbs:

The baby was crying.

We talked for hours.

Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive. For example:

The choir sang carols. [transitive]

She left London on June 6. [transitive]

I want to leave early. [intransitive]

Participles

A participle is a word formed from a verb, usually by adding -d, -ed, or -ing.

There are two kinds of participle in English, as follows:

The present participle

The present participle ends with -ing, e.g.:

We are going to Italy.

The company is building new headquarters in the UK.

The past participle

The past participle ends with -d or -ed for regular verbs, e.g.:

She had decided to go to Italy.

Fans had camped outside the studio.

and with -t or -en or some other form for irregular ones, e.g.:

New houses are still being built.

The glass is broken.

Using participles

Participles are used:

  • with auxiliary verbs to make verb tenses such as the present continuous and the past perfect:

We are going to Italy. [present continuous]

She had decided to go to Italy. [past perfect]

  • as adjectives, e.g.:

The pavement was covered with broken glass.

He stared at me with bulging eyes.

  • as nouns, e.g.:

She was a woman of good breeding.

Len was ordered to cut down on his drinking.

When a present participle is used as a noun, as in the last two examples above, it’s known as a verbal noun or a gerund. Here are two more examples of verbal nouns:

Smoking is strictly forbidden.

Camping attracts people of all ages.

See also Dangling participles.

Active and passive

Depending on the way in which you word a sentence, a verb can be either active or passive.

When the verb is active, the subject of the verb is doing the action, as in this sentence:

France beat Brazil in the final.
[subject] [active verb]

When the verb is passive, the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it:

Brazil were beaten in the final.
[subject] [passive verb]

Here, the sentence’s point of view has changed, and Brazil has become the subject of the passive verb were beaten.

The passive is formed with the auxiliary verb ‘be’ and the past participle of the main verb.

These two different ways of using verbs are known as voices. In everyday writing, the active voice is much more common than the passive, which tends to be used in formal documents such as official reports or scientific papers.

The subjunctive

The usual form of a verb is known as the indicative. The subjunctive is a special form that expresses a wish or possibility instead of a fact (the technical term for forms like this is mood). The subjunctive has a limited role in English compared to other languages such as French or Italian, but it's important to use it properly in formal writing.

Take a look at these two sentences:

It was suggested he wait till the next morning.

They demanded that the prime minister explain who authorized the action.

In these sentences, the verbs wait and explain are in the subjunctive. The ordinary, indicative forms would be waits and explains and it would be grammatically incorrect to use them in these sentences:

It was suggested he waits till the next morning.

They demanded that the prime minister explains who authorized the action.

Here are other typical uses of the subjunctive:

  • after if, as if, as though, and unless, in sentences that state a hypothetical condition:

If I were taller, I would have been a model.

  • be and were are used at the beginning of sentences or clauses when the subject follows:

Were I to make a list of my favourite films, this would be in second place.

All books, be they fiction or non-fiction, should provide entertainment in some form or other.

  • in certain fixed expressions, for example ‘be that as it may’, ‘come what may’, and ‘so be it’.

Phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is a verb that is made up of a main verb together with an adverb or a preposition, or both. Typically, their meaning is not obvious from the meanings of the individual words themselves. For example:

His car broke down on the motorway

She has always looked down onme

I’ll see to the animals.

Don’t put me off, I’m trying to concentrate.

The report spelled out the need for more staff.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs are used to form the various tenses, moods, and voices of other verbs. The principal ones are be, do, and have:

She is reading a magazine.

The judge had asked her to speak up.

He did look tired.

There is also a further set of auxiliary verbs known as modal verbs. These combine with other verbs to express necessity, possibility, or ability. The modal auxiliary verbs are must, shall, will, should, would, ought (to), can, could, may, and might. For example:

You must act promptly.

Can you speak French?

I would go if I could afford it.

He said he might reconsider his decision.

 

Back to word classes (or parts of speech).

You may also be interested in

Nouns

Adjectives

Adverbs

 


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Grammar and usage