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Verbs: the essentials

grow fly
kick walk

This guide covers the essentials that you need to know.  There are links below and at the end to take you to guides which explain the different types of verbs in English in more depth.

For the purposes of this guide, a verb is defined as
    a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence

So, taking the four pictures above we can sentences containing verbs as follows:

In these cases, the verbs are performing slightly different functions, as we shall see.


Three sorts of verbs

Fundamentally in English, and many (but not all) other languages, there are three types of verb.

  1. Lexical verbs
    1. Examples: smoke, go, enjoy, imagine, come, decide, think, spin etc.
    2. Meaning: these verbs carry intrinsic meaning.  Even in isolation, for example, a statement such as
      can be understood and the verb can be defined.
    3. Form: these verbs alter according to predictable, if sometimes irregular, patterns.
      They often change form to show person (I smoke, she smokes), tense (I come, I came, I imagine, I imagined) and aspect (I decide, I am deciding).
  2. Auxiliary verbs
    1. Modal auxiliary examples: can, may, might, should, must, could etc.
      Primary auxiliary examples: have, get, be, do
    2. Meaning: these verbs serve to alter the meaning, tense or viewpoint of the main, lexical verb.  In isolation, they mean nothing definable.  If, for example, we say Could, the sense can only be understood if it is linked to a lexical verb in something like
          It could rain
      Equally, the expression Don't! only carries a meaning if the main verb is known or spoken / written as in, e.g.,
          Don't go!
    3. Form: many of these verbs do not show the same changes for tense and aspect but some do so we can change do to does, did, have done etc. but we do not change must to musts or musted etc.
  3. Copular verbs
    1. Examples: be, seem, appear, smell, become etc.
    2. Meaning: these verbs tell us how two things or a thing and its adjective are connected and describe what something is, is like or becomes as in, for example:
          He is the manager
          She became angry
          He looked bored
    3. Form: these verbs alter to show number, tense and aspect just like main or lexical verbs so we have, e.g.,
          She became the Chief Executive
          He was getting angry
          They seemed a little tired


Lexical verbs

These verbs carry intrinsic meaning

We can categorise lexical verbs in a number of ways.  The first two categories are the really crucial ones.

  1. Intransitive verbs
    Some verbs never take an object and can stand alone.  We can say, for example,
        They came
        I responded
    and the meaning is clear.
    However, for example, we cannot say
        *She arrived the hotel
        *It occurred the rain
    because neither of these verbs can refer to a noun directly, i.e., they cannot take an object.  We can, and frequently do, insert a preposition to get, e.g.,
        She arrived at the hotel
        It occurred to me
    but the verb is still not taking an object in these cases.
    Other examples of generally intransitive verbs include
    agree, appear, become, belong, collapse, die, disappear, exist, fall, go, happen, inquire, laugh, live, look, remain, respond, rise, sit, sleep, stand, stay, vanish, wait.
    Most of these can be followed by a prepositional phrase such as about the weather, at six o'clock, of hunger and so on but these are not objects of the verb.  Technically, they are referred to as complements.
  2. Transitive verbs
    Verbs which are transitive must have an object complement.
    For example, we cannot have a sentence such as
        *He brought
        *She sent
    because the verbs bring and send must have an object to make any sense.  We need to know both who and what did it and what or who it was done to.
    Other examples of generally transitive verbs include: buy, cost, get, give, make, owe, pass, show, take, tell.
    We can divide transitive verbs into two more categories:
    1. Those transitive verbs which can take only one object.  These are called monotransitive verbs.  For example, we can say
          She drank the coffee
      but not
          *She drank me the coffee
      Other examples of verbs which only take one object when they are transitive include eat, say, play, read, remember, suspect.
    2. Those transitive verbs that can take two objects.  These are verbs which are ditransitive.  For example, we can say
          He bought the drinks
      and that's a verb with a single object (the drinks) but we can also say
          He bought us the drinks
      and here we have two objects, the drinks (the direct object) and us (the indirect object).
      Another example is
          They sold me the car
      which has a direct object (the car) and an indirect object (me).
      We can also change the order and put the indirect object at the end but then we have to insert a preposition:
          He bought the drinks for us
          They sold the car to me
      Other examples of verbs which can or even must be ditransitive include
      allow, appoint, ask, assure, award, bake, bet, bring, buy, call, cause, charge, cook, cost, cut, deal, do, draw, feed, find, get, give, hand, lend, make, offer, order, owe, pass, pay, promise, read, save, sell, send, show, teach, tell, throw, wish, write
      A fuller list with examples, is available as a PDF document via the link at the end in the list of related guides.
      In English, the indirect object comes before the direct object but that is not always the case in other languages.
  3. Verbs which can be both transitive and intransitive
    These verbs, and there are lots of them, can be both.
    For example, we can say
        She eats (intransitive)
        She eats fish (
    Other examples in this category include
    drink, explain, help, decide, travel, fly, swim, play, continue.

transitive-intransitive pairings

There are a few verbs in English which derive from the same root but have transitive and intransitive variants.  For example, both rise and raise derive from the same source (the Old English ræran, rear) but the first is intransitive and the second transitive.  The others are lie / lay and sit / set so we get, for example:

Other pairs of verbs which are unrelated in terms of origin also form intransitive-transitive couples.  In English, for example:

Some other verbs take on slightly different meaning when used transitively or intransitively.  For example

countries hands

Other languages and teaching

Other people's languages do things differently.

While the essential distinction between transitive and intransitive verb use is common across languages, the actual verbs in question will vary.  A verb that is intransitive in English may well be transitive in another language and vice versa.
In English, the verbs wash and meet can be used intransitively as well as transitively:

In other languages, these two verbs can only be transitive so the reflexive pronoun is inserted giving a translation like
    The washed themselves
    We met us
This can, of course, lead to error.
Some languages, such as Japanese, have large sets of pairs of verbs with slightly different forms, the one transitive, the other intransitive.
It is, therefore, very important that we teach the verb's grammar along with its meaning.  If we don't, we invite error such as
    *She died him
    *He killed in 1940
    *I laughed the film
    *She smiled him
    *I assured
    *He explained me it
    *I complained the manager
etc. and all of these are possible in some languages.

If you would like to see if you have understood this section, try this test.



For more about this section, go to the guide to lexical verbs.

walking stick

Auxiliary verbs

These are sometimes called 'helping verbs'

Auxiliary verbs cannot stand alone and retain their meaning unless the lexical verb they refer to is understood.  For example
    I might
means nothing on its own but
    I might go
carries real meaning.  The auxiliary verb might expresses the speaker's sense of likelihood.  It is possible to say
    I might
in response to
    Are you going to the meeting?
but here the main lexical verb go is understood by both speaker and hearer.

There are, fundamentally, two sorts of auxiliary verb.

  1. Primary auxiliary verbs
    These form tenses, voice or aspects with lexical verbs.  Traditionally, they are restricted to the three verbs be, have and do but many (including this site) add get to the list.
    For example
    • We can alter the tense (and sense) of I work by using the auxiliary have in, e.g.,
          I have worked hard
    • We can change how the speaker wants to communicate his or her view of an event by changing the aspect of I work by using the auxiliary be in
          I am working.
    • We can change the emphasis of what we say also by using the auxiliary be, changing, e.g.
          I broke the window
          The window was broken by me
    • We can change the sense of who did what by using the auxiliary get in
          I got John to repair the car.
      or the auxiliary have as in
          I had the car repaired at the garage
    • We can form negatives and questions by using the verb do as in
          Do you want to come?
          I don't see the problem

There is a guide to primary auxiliaries on this site and you should consult that for more information.

  1. Modal auxiliary verbs
    These alter the hearer's perception of how the speaker understands the situation.
    For example
    • We can express obligation by using the modal auxiliary have to, changing
          I think
          I have to think
          I left
          I had to leave
    • We can express our view of likelihood by inserting a modal auxiliary into
          They arrive
      and making
          They might / should / must arrive soon.
    • We can give or withhold permission by using a range of modal verbs by changing
          You go
          You may go
          You can't go

The most common list of modal verbs is: can, may, shall, will, could, might, should, would, must, ought to, used, need and dare.

Modal verbs are traditionally divided into pure modal verbs, semi-modal verbs and marginal modal verbs.  Pure modal verbs include can, must, will etc., semi-modal verbs include need to, dare to and used to and marginal modal verbs are forms such as going to, be about to, tend to, be likely to etc.

The pure modal auxiliaries are sometimes described as defective because they don't exhibit the full range of forms in the way that lexical verbs do.  For example, must has no past tense (we can't say *musted), we don't form questions with do (so we can't say *Do you can?) and we don't add an -s in the third person (so we don't get *She mights).

Modal auxiliary verbs perform a large range of functions in English.  If you want to know more, a good place to start is the guide to modality.




Copular verbs

These are sometimes called 'linking verbs'

These verbs serve to link the subject of a sentence directly to its function or its characteristics.  There is a list in the guide to copular verbs on this site.  Briefly, however, copular verbs perform two functions:

  1. They link a subject to an object and tell us that they refer to the same thing.
    For example: in
    Mary is a teacher
        Mary became a teacher
        Mary looks like a teacher
    we know that Mary and a teacher refer to the same person.
  2. They link the subject to its characteristic.
    For example: in
    Mary appears angry
    Mary became angry
        Mary is angry
    we know that we are dealing with an angry Mary.

Verbs like be, become and turn into often function in both categories:
    He became angry
    He became a teacher
    She was unhappy
    She was an engineer

Verbs of perception usually only function in the second category and are followed by an adjective:
    It looks awful
    It smells sweet
    It sounds horrible
    They appeared drunk
    She seemed unwell

Many copular verbs also function as lexical verbs in other circumstances:
    She appears happy (copula use)
    She appeared at the door
(intransitive lexical use with a prepositional phrase).
A copular verb can, therefore, only be defined by what it does, not what it looks like.

Summary of verb types


Related guides
verb and clause types for a much more advanced guide to the area
copular verbs an essential guide to these
modality the essential guide
primary auxiliaries for a run-down of the main primary (i.e., tense-forming) auxiliary verbs
lexical verbs for a guide to the meaning-carrying verbs in English
ditransitive verbs a list of the commonest ones with a few notes

Try a last test on all of this.