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

  • an action – run, hit
  • an event – rain, occur
  • a situation – be, seem, have
  • a change – become, grow
The basic form of a verb is known as the infinitive and 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 - I am, she laughs, they love, we begin
  • the past - I was, she laughed, they loved, we began
  • the future I will/shall, she will laugh, they will love, we will/shall begin
These main tenses can be further subdivided, as follows:
  • the present continuous she is laughing
  • the past continuous she was laughing
  • the future continuous she will be laughing
  • the present perfect she has laughed
  • the present perfect continuous she has been laughing
  • the past perfect she had laughed
  • the past perfect continuous she had been laughing
  • the future perfect she will have laughed
  • the future perfect continuous she 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:
3rd person singular present tense
3rd person singular past tense
past participle
present participle
he/she laughs
he/she laughed
he/she loves
he/she loved
he/she boos
he/she booed
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 stem 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 the infinitive 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 stem 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 the infinitive 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:
3rd person singular present tense
3rd person singular past tense
past participle
present participle
he/she takes
he/she took
he/she sinks
he/she sank
he/she swings
he/she swung
he/she creeps
he/she crept
he/she begins
he/she began
he/she goes
he/she went
If you aren’t sure how a verb behaves, 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:
ran back.
Mark and Jeanette
met at college.
is the most popular sport in the United States.
The cause of the accident
was unknown.
In sentences that express a question, the subject does not come before the verb:
How tall is
your son?
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:
was eating a
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.
a drink.
[direct object]
was reading
a story.
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:
a drink.
[indirect object]
[direct object]
was reading
his daughter
a story.
[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 has been 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:
She was singing quietly to herself. [intransitive]
The choir sang carols. [transitive]
She left London on June 6. [transitive]
I want to leave early. [intransitive]
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 a new headquarters in Manhattan.
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.
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:
The Red Sox
beat the Yankees.
[active verb]
When the verb is passive, the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it:
The Yankees
were beaten by the Red Sox.
[passive verb]
Here, the sentence’s point of view has changed, and The Yankees have 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 voicesIn 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 president 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 president 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 favorite movies, this would be in second place.

All books, be they fiction or nonfiction, 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 freeway.
She has always looked down on me
I’ll see to the animals.
Don’t put me off, I’ve waited long enough.
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:
You must act promptly.
Can you speak French?
I would go if I could afford it.
He said he might reconsider his decision.


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Grammar and usage