April 24, 2014

Verbs: the basics

When we get down to the business of putting words together to form a sentence, we need rules and we need elements. The rules are called syntax. The elements are called the parts of speech.

The first part of speech that this Web site deals with is the verb. We consider it first for the simple reason that the verb, in all its strength and power, is the engine that either makes your sentence soar or leaves it sputtering on the ground in frustration.

In more practical terms, a verb is a part of speech that usually denotes an action (jump, collapse), an occurrence (shine, rot), or a state of being (seem, feel).

While the more complicated elements of verbs are outside the scope of this site (feel free to explore linguistics to your heart’s content for that discussion), every writer must be concerned with a verb’s structure and tense. Without an understanding of these basics, writers run the risk of overlooking everything from the correct tense of the verb to the correct subject-verb agreement to the correct case of pronouns in relation to the verb.

Just so we can claim we are on the same page, here is a very minimal explanation to get us started:


The tense of a verb indicates the relative time of the action or state of being. Rarely are writers required to know the name of a verb’s tense other than to understand its usage and agreement.

In other words, it might be less important for you to know that in the sentence “Bill is running,” the verb “is running” is in the present progressive tense than it may be to know that “running” is the main verb and “is” acts as its helper.

Tense is also important in assuring that a verb agree with the subject. (i.e. “Bill is running” not “Bill are running” or “Bill were running.”).

Verb Parts

As we saw with the example above, a verb can include more than one word., but whether the verb is one or two or even three words, they all include a Lexical or main verb. Some verbs include an Auxiliary verb that helps the main verb, which is why they are also called “helping” verbs.

For a breakdown of how that plays out, read this: Verb Structure

Verbs Types

It is misleading to think of a verb simply as the action in the sentence. While there are any number of action verbs, such as “run” or “jump,” sometimes the action is merely emotional or intellectual, as in “believe” or “imagine.” Other times, verbs indicate no action at all, as in “be” or “seem,” but instead serve to link the subject with its state of being.

To delineate between action that is received by an object and action that is not received by an object, action verbs are divided into transitive and intransitive verbs.

Those verbs that indicate a state of being rather than an action are defined as linking verbs. Determining whether the verb indicates an action or a state of being is easier with a clear understanding of verb tense and structure. (That’s the part right before this. Did you read it? Do you understand it? If not, things are likely going to get a little rough.)

Verbs Transitive An action verb. It requires a direct object.
Intransitive An action verb without a direct object.
Linking A verb implying a state of being or condition for the subject.

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