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The Verb in the English Language

The verb is the part of speech that describes an action or indicates a state of being. Verbs and verb phrases usually function as predicates in a sentence or a clause.

They will usually display one or more of the following aspects:

  • tense - expresses the time of a verb's action or state of being, such as the present, past or future;
  • mood - expresses the quality of the verb that conveys the speaker's/writer's attitude towards a subject. There are three major moods in English: i) the indicative mood = used for factual statements or to pose questions; ii) the imperative mood - to express a request or command; iii) the subjunctive mood (rarely used) = to show a wish or a doubt.
  • aspect - indicates completion, duration or repetition of an action. There are two primary aspects in English: i) the perfect and ii) the progressive (also known as the continuous form). These two aspects may be combined to form the perfect progressive.
  • number - the grammatical contrast between singular and plural, which is also present in nouns, pronouns and determiners.
  • person - the relationship between a subject and its verb, showing whether the subject is speaking about itself (first person = I or we); being spoken to (second person = you); or  being spoken about (third person = he, she, it, they)
  • voice - the quality of a verb that indicates whether its subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon (passive voice).

Classifying English Verbs

These are probably the most common ways to classify English verbs in broad categories:

Main Verbs

The large open class of main verbs (or full verbs, meaning that they are not dependent on other verbs); these are  also called lexical verbs.

Examples are: run, eat, love, classify, become, think, etc.

We also include the copula be and the transitive do in this category, that is to say when these two verbs are not used to help other verbs form their continuous tenses or used to form questions.

Auxiliary Verbs

The small closed class of auxiliary verbs, also called helping verbs. These are then split into two subtypes of auxiliaries:

  • i) the primary auxiliaries (be, have and do) which help form the compound verbs, but which can also act as lexical verbs;
  • ii) and the modal auxiliaries (can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, will and would).

Transitive Verbs

Transitive verbs - verbs that take an object (direct or indirect): 'She sells seashells'. There often is confusion over the use of the verbs 'lay' and 'lie':

"There have been some difficulties with grammar since I last wrote. Lay is a transitive verb (I lay down a case of claret every month; she laid the table), lie an intransitive one (he lies over there; she lay in bed until noon). Do not confuse them." (Simon Heffer, "Style Notes 28: February 12, 2010." The Daily Telegraph)

Intransitive Verbs

Intransitive verbs - verbs (such as laugh) that does not take a direct object or complement. "Some verbs are complete in themselves and do not require any further elements to make their meaning complete: although there may be further elements in the sentence, these are not essential. This is called intransitive complementation. It involves verbs such as: appear, arrive, begin, break, come, cough, decrease, die, disappear, drown, fall, go, happen, increase, laugh, lie (tell an untruth), matter, rain, rise, sneeze, snow, stop, swim, wait, work." (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

Many verbs have both a transitive and an intransitive function, depending on how they are used. The verb break, for instance, sometimes takes a direct object ("Rihanna breaks my heart") and sometimes does not ("When I hear your name, my heart breaks").

Transitive and Intransitive Uses of Verbs
"More exactly, we should talk about transitive or intransitive uses of certain verbs, as a great many verbs can be used in English both transitively and intransitively. Land is transitive in The pilot landed the plane safely, but intransitive in The plane landed. Carry is transitive in They carried backpacks, but it has an intransitive use in His voice carries well (= 'projects')."
    (Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course. Routledge, 2006)

Dynamic Verbs

A dynamic verb indicates an action, process, or sensation: eat, drive, smell, talk, write, read, speak, etc.

State Verbs

A state verb describes a state, situation, or condition: be, have, know, like, own, belong, seem, understand, believe, etc.

Regular Verbs

A regular verb (also known as a weak verb) is one that forms its past tense and past participle by adding -d or -ed (or in some cases -t) to the base form:

to film - filmed - filmed - filming

Irregular Verbs

An irregular verb (also known as a strong verb) is one that doesn't form the past tense by adding -d or -ed. They need to be learned as they come, from verb lists.

to run - ran - run - running

Finite Verbs

A finite verb expresses tense and can occur on its own in a main clause:

She walked to school.

Nonfinite Verbs

A nonfinite verb (an infinitive or participle) can occur on its own only in a dependent phrase or clause: While cooking dinner, I thought of him intensely.

Further categories of verbs, which don't necessarily come in pairs

Causative Verbs

These are verbs used to indicate that some person or thing helps to make something happen. Normally these are followed by another verb, like in: Learning English will enable you to speak it at ease in a foreign country. He made me realise the truth instantly. I forced him to speak up. Other examples: cause, allow, help, have, enable, keep, hold, let, force, require, and make

Catenative Verbs

A verb--such as keep, promise, want, seem, and many others--that can link with other verbs to form a chain or series. A catenative verb (also called a chain verb) takes a nonfinite clause as its complement, as in: He decided to try to make his mother understand his endeavours.

Copular Verbs

These are verbs that join the subject of a sentence to a subject complement. Common copular verbs are: be, seem, appear, look, sound, smell, taste, feel, become, get. After copular verbs we use adjectives, not adverbs. Compare:
He spoke intelligently. (Intelligently is an adverb. It tells you about how the person spoke.)
He looks intelligent. (Intelligent is an adjective in a predicative position. It tells you about the person himself.)

Performative Verbs

These are verbs, such as promise, invite, apologize, and forbid--that explicitly conveys the kind of speech act being performed. By saying we apologize we perform an expressive act simultaneously with the naming of that expressive act. A test for whether a verb is being used performatively is the possible insertion of hereby: I hereby apologize; The committee hereby thanks you. 

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