Verbs carry the idea of being or action in the sentence.
I am a student.
The students passed all their courses.
As we will see on this page, verbs are
classified in many ways. First, some verbs require an object to
complete their meaning: "She gave _____ ?" Gave what? She gave money
to the church. These verbs are called transitive. Verbs that are
intransitive do not require objects: "The building collapsed." In
English, you cannot tell the difference between a transitive and
intransitive verb by its form; you have to see how the verb is functioning
within the sentence. In fact, a verb can be both transitive and
intransitive: "The monster collapsed the building by sitting on it."
Although you will seldom hear the term, a ditransitive verb
— such as cause or give — is one that can take a direct object
and an indirect object at the same time: "That horrid music gave me a
headache." Ditransitive verbs are slightly different, then, from
factitive verbs (see below), in that the latter take two objects.
Verbs are also classified as either finite or
non-finite. A finite verb makes an assertion or expresses a state of
being and can stand by itself as the main verb of a sentence.
The truck demolished the restaurant.
The leaves were yellow and sickly.
Non-finite verbs (think "unfinished") cannot,
by themselves, be main verbs:
The inflections (endings) of English verb forms are not
difficult to remember. There are only four basic forms. Instead of forming
complex tense forms with endings, English uses auxiliary verb forms. English
does not even have a proper ending for future forms; instead, we use
auxiliaries such as "I am going to read this afternoon." or "I will read."
or even "I am reading this book tomorrow." It would be useful, however, to
learn these four basic forms of verb construction.
A linking verb connects a subject and its complement.
Sometimes called copulas, linking verbs are often forms of the verb
to be, but are sometimes verbs related to the five senses (look,
sound, smell, feel, taste) and sometimes verbs that somehow reflect a
state of being (appear, seem, become, grow, turn, prove, remain).
What follows the linking verb will be either a noun complement or an
Those people are all professors.
Those professors are brilliant.
This room smells bad.
I feel great.
A victory today seems unlikely.
A handful of verbs that reflect a change in
state of being are sometimes called resulting copulas. They, too,
link a subject to a predicate adjective:
His face turned purple.
She became older.
The dogs ran wild.
The milk has gone sour.
The crowd grew ugly.
Mood in verbs refers to one of three attitudes that a
writer or speaker has to what is being written or spoken. The indicative
mood, which describes most sentences on this page, is used to make a
statement or ask a question. The imperative mood is used when we're
feeling sort of bossish and want to give a directive, strong suggestion, or
Get your homework done before you watch television tonight.
Please include cash payment with your order form.
Get out of town!
Notice that there is no subject in these imperative sentences.
The pronoun you (singular or plural, depending on context) is the
"understood subject" in imperative sentences. Virtually all imperative
sentences, then, have a second person (singular or plural) subject. The sole
exception is the first person construction, which includes an objective form
as subject: "Let's (or Let us) work on these things together."
The subjunctive mood is used in dependent clauses that
do the following: 1) express a wish;
2) begin with if and express a
condition that does not exist (is contrary to fact);
3) begin with as if
and as though when such clauses describe a speculation or condition
contrary to fact; and 4) begin with that and express a demand,
requirement, request, or suggestion. A new section on the uses of the
Conditional should help you understand the subjunctive.
She wishes her boyfriend were here.
If Juan were more aggressive, he'd be a better
We would have passed if we had studied harder.
He acted as if he were guilty.
I requested that he be present at the hearing.
The subjunctive is not as important a mood in English as it is
in other languages, like French and Spanish, which happen to be more subtle
and discriminating in hypothetical, doubtful, or wishful expressions. Many
situations which would require the subjunctive in other languages are
satisfied by using one of several auxiliary verbs in English.
The present tense of the subjunctive uses only the base form of
He demanded that his students use two-inch margins.
She suggested that we be on time tomorrow.
The past tense of the subjunctive has the same forms as the
indicative except (unfortunately) for the verb to be, which uses
were regardless of the number of the subject.
If I were seven feet tall, I'd be a great basketball
Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and another word or
phrase, usually a preposition. The resulting combination creates what
amounts to a new verb, whose meaning can sometimes be puzzling to non-native
speakers. Phrasal verbs often arise from casual uses of the language and
eventually work themselves into the mainstream of language use. Phrasal
verbs can be both intransitive (The children were sitting around,
doing nothing. The witness finally broke down on the stand.) and
transitive in meaning (Our boss called off the meeting. She looked
up her old boyfriend.) The word that is joined with a verb in this
construction (often a preposition) is called a particle.
The problem with phrasal verbs is that their meaning is often,
at first, obscure, and they often mean several different things. To make
out, for instance, can mean to perceive or to see something; it can also
mean to engage in light sexual play. If someone chooses to turn up
the street that is a combination of a verb and a preposition, but it is not
a phrasal verb. On the other hand, if your neighbors unexpectedly turn up
(appear) at a party or your brother turns up his radio, those are
phrasal verbs. To come out, we are told, has eighteen different
Verbs can be combined with different prepositions and other
words, sometimes with dizzying effect: stand out, stand up, stand in, stand
off, stand by, stand fast, stand pat, stand down, stand against, stand for.
Further, the verb and the word or phrase it connects to are not always
contiguous: "Fill this out," we would say, but then we would say, "Fill out
Causative verbs designate the action necessary to cause
another action to happen. In "The devil made me do it." the
verb "made" causes the "do" to happen. Here is a brief list of
causative verbs, in no particular order: let, help, allow, have, require,
allow, motivate, get, make, convince, hire, assist, encourage, permit,
employ, force. Most of them are followed by an object (noun or pronoun)
followed by an infinitive: "She allows her pet cockatiel to perch on
the windowsill. She hired a carpenter to build a new birdcage."
Three causative verbs are exceptions to the pattern described
above. Instead of being followed by a noun/pronoun and an infinitive, the
causative verbs have, make and let are followed by a
noun/pronoun and the base form of the verb (which is actually an
infinitive with the "to" left off).
Professor Villa had her students read four short
novels in one week.
Tense shows the time of a verb's action or being. There
are three inflected forms reflected by changes in the endings of verbs. The
present tense indicates that something is happening or being now:
"She is a student. She drives a new car." The simple past tense
indicates that something happened in the past: "She was a student. She drove
a new car." And the past participle form is combined with auxiliary
verbs to indicate that something happened in the past prior to another
action: "She has been a student. She had driven a new car."
Unlike most other languages, English does not have inflected
forms for the future tense. Instead, English future forms are created with
the use of auxiliaries: "She will be a student. She is going
to drive a new car." English can even create the future by using the present
tense, "The bus arrives later this afternoon," or the present
progressive, "He is relocating to Portland later next month."
Sequence of Tenses
Sequence of Tenses: The relationship between verbs in a
main clause and verbs in dependent clauses is important. These verb tenses
don't have to be identical as long as they reflect, logically, shifts in
time and meaning: "My brother had graduated before I started
college." "My brother will have graduated before I start."
Verbals are words that seem to carry the idea of action
or being but do not function as a true verb. The are sometimes called
"nonfinite" (unfinished or incomplete) verbs. Because time is involved with
all verb forms, whether finite or nonfinite, however, following a logical
Tense Sequence is important.
Participle: a verb form acting as an adjective. The
running dog chased the fluttering moth. A present participle
(like running or fluttering) describes a present condition; a
past participle describes something that has happened: "The completely
rotted tooth finally fell out of his mouth." The distinction can be
important to the meaning of a sentence; there is a huge difference between a
confusing student and a confused student.
Infinitive: the root of a verb plus the word to.
To sleep, perchance to dream. A present infinitive
describes a present condition: "I like to sleep." The perfect infinitive
describes a time earlier than that of the verb: "I would like to have won
Gerund: a verb form, ending in -ing, which acts
as a noun. Running in the park after dark can be dangerous. Gerunds
are frequently accompanied by other associated words making up a gerund
phrase ("running in the park after dark").Because gerunds and gerund phrases are nouns,
they can be used in any way that a noun can be used:
as subject:Being king can be dangerous for
as object of the verb: He didn't particularly like
as object of a preposition: He wrote a book about
, Gerunds and Sequence
Although they are not, strictly speaking, verbs, infinitives
and gerunds carry within them the idea of action. Combined with auxiliary
verb forms, like verbs, they also express various shades of time.
We had planned to watch all the events of
Seeing those athletes perform is always a
The women's hockey team hoped to have won a
gold medal before they were done.
We were thrilled about their
having been in
contention in the world championships before.
To be chosen as an olympian must be the
biggest thrill in any athlete's life.
Being chosen, however, is probably not
The women did not seem satisfied simply to have
been selected as players.
Having been honored this way, they went out
and earned it by winning the gold.
To have been competing at that level, at
their age already, was quite an accomplishment.
Actual and Potential Meanings
Although a gerund and an infinitive will often have practically
the same meaning ("Running in the park after dark can be dangerous" and "To
run in the park after dark can be dangerous"), there can be a difference in
meaning. Gerunds are used to describe an "actual, vivid, or fulfilled
action" whereas infinitives are better used to describe "potential,
hypothetical, or future events" (Frodesen & Eyring 297). This is especially
true with three kinds of verbs: verbs of emotion, verbs of
completion/incompletion, and verbs of remembering.
I hated practicing my violin while the other
kids were playing outside.
I prefer to work during the day.
We began working on this project two years ago.
We finished working on this project a month ago. (Finish
always takes a gerund.)
We will continue to work on this project for the
next four months. I wonder when we will start to wrap up this
(such as remember, forget, regret)
Juanita forgot to do her homework.
Juanita failed to do her homework because she didn't remember to do
Juanita forgot doing her homework. (meaning that
Juanita did her homework but that she forgot she had done so)