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Concourse 2

What verbs do


Verbs are, along with nouns, the most important word class in any language.  Without verbs and nouns, almost nothing can be expressed at all.
If we take a sentence such as:

and remove the verbs and nouns, we'll get nonsense:

Remove the rest of the words and leave the verbs and nouns, however, and some sense can be made:

The verb is "Our most powerful impression of experience"
(Halliday 1994:106)

There are guides elsewhere on this site to the forms of verbs: tenses, voice, aspect, transitivity (subjects and objects) etc. and you should certainly check them out for more.  This link will take you to the verbs index for this part of the site.

Here, we are only concerned with what verbs do.
In primary schools the world over, verbs are called 'doing words'.  Among much else taught in schools, however, that's only partly right.
Verbs are a lot more versatile than that.


The three main things that verbs do

doing verbs

Waves Action
the material world behaving and feeling

Verbs certainly describe doing but the there are two sorts of doing:

  1. Verbs describing actions in the external, material world.
  2. Verbs describing behaving and feeling.

Here's what is meant:

Verbs in the external, material world. Verbs of behaving and feeling.
the machine works noisily
the string broke
the bomb exploded
the house fell down
the train took them home
they watched TV
sang in church
sneezed constantly
worried half to death
John forgot her name

thinking and talking verbs

Gorilla People Talking
perceiving and emoting putting thought into words

There are two sorts of these, too.

  1. Verbs referring to thinking, wanting, perceiving and emoting.
  2. Verbs referring to putting thought into words.

Here is what is meant:

thinking, wanting, perceiving and emoting putting thought into words
I enjoyed the film
noticed his nervousness
remembered his face
I thought he was a fool
they hated the place
he told me what to do
I said I was angry
they explained the problem
they asked to be allowed to go
she described his house

being verbs

Mountains Polar Bears
existing relating

Again, there are two sorts:

  1. Verbs which refer to something's existence.
  2. Verbs which refer to relationships between things or people or their attributes.

Here is what is meant:

existence relationships
there are no cigarettes left
there was some milk in the fridge
there's nothing to be said
is there anything more to say?
no shops exist here now
the office is down the hall
this tastes of garlic
it feels rough
we were in Paris
he looks like his brother

The summary
what verbs do summary

so what

So what?

So quite a lot.

Firstly, verbs which look the same may be doing different things.  For example:

Secondly, in order to be able to speak a language, even at a very basic level, learners have to be able to do all 6 things with verbs.  This means they need to learn:

  1. How to describe things that happen in the external world of material objects from the basic
        The plane landed
    to more complex ideas such as
        The experiment failed because the equipment had become contaminated
    in which two different verb processes are involved (material [failed] and relational [had become]).
  2. How to describe behaviour and feeling in, e.g.
        He sat quietly because he wasn't worried
  3. How to describe thought and emotion in, e.g.
        She assumed I was laughing at her and hated me for it
  4. How to describe what people say in, e.g.
        She told me why John wasn't there
        She explained why John disliked the film
    in both of which we have two types of verb operating.
  5. How to say something exists or not as in, e.g.
        There's a hotel on the corner
        There aren't any customers today
  6. How to say how one thing is related to another or what attributes it has as in e.g.
        She's the boss now and she is very difficult to talk to

You don't need to teach all that in one lesson (and you'd be well advised not to try) but it helps enormously if you can recognise the sorts of things verbs do so that you can follow threads in the classroom consistently by introducing verbs of a similar type to extend your learners' abilities.
Here are some examples of how a knowledge of types of verbal processes also allows us to explain the grammar of the language clearly when learners encounter verbs:

You should be aware that other languages encode the various things that verbs do differently from English.

If you would like to read more, there is a fuller and more technical description of verbal processes on this site.
This link will take you back to the verbs index for this part of the site.

There is a short test to see what you can remember.

Butt, D et al, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide, Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, M, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar, 2nd edition, London: Edward Arnold