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Concourse 2

Types of verbs and clauses

fractal This is an overview.  For more detail on any of this, follow the links in the text or table at the end.

Verb types in English are complicated.  In her book, English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation, Beth Levin considers some 3000 English verbs and classifies them in a bewilderingly complex way, identifying over 80 types based on their functions in sentences.  Note, too, that this is subtitled A Preliminary Investigation.

This is a site for language teachers, not theoretical linguists, so the following will not be quite so comprehensive.  In fact, we'll focus on just six types.

This guide considers lexical verbs only.  There is a separate guide to primary auxiliary verbs and modal auxiliary verbs get a whole section to themselves.
So, what is considered below are verbs which are not:

  1. acting to form a tense or aspect (the role of primary auxiliary verbs)
  2. not signalling the speaker's view of an event or state is in terms of its likelihood, desirability etc. (the role of modal auxiliary verbs)


6 types of verb

Here are six examples of verbs performing various functions in English.

  1. The police officer became angry.
  2. She is a doctor.
  3. They gave the man some money.
  4. I cooked the dinner competently.
  5. Peter arrived late at the party.
  6. They elected her president.

These six types have been chosen because distinguishing between them is one of the most difficult things for learners of English to do.  Partly, this is because languages vary a lot in how verbs can be characterised and what they do.


Subjects and predicates

The six examples above represent six of the most common clause forms in English.  We can analyse them like this:

  • In each there is a simple subject
    1. Sentence 1.: The police officer
    2. Sentence 2.: She
    3. Sentence 3.: They
    4. Sentence 4.: I
    5. Sentence 5.: Peter
    6. Sentence 6.: They
  • The verbs are followed by what is usually called the predicate (i.e., the rest of the sentence including the verb which drives the meaning).  In functional grammar, these two parts would be called the Theme (the subject) and the Rheme (the predicate).

However, the predicates are more complicated.  There are six different sorts.  When you have identified what makes them up (word classes, types of phrase etc.), click here.

It's important that you are sure about these clause structures so try this short matching test before we go on.


Four things to notice

  1. Direct objects of verbs can also be clauses acting as nouns, introduced with that, which is why they are called nominalised that-clauses.  For example:
        He told me a lie
    has the direct object a lie and the indirect object me but:
        He told me that he was hungry
    Has the structure: Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object
    but here the Direct object is the nominalised clause that he was hungry.
    Nominalised that-clauses cannot act as indirect objects.  Indirect objects are mainly noun clauses or pronouns, never that-clauses.
    Nominalised that-clauses cannot be moved as indirect noun-phrase or pronoun objects can, so, while we allow:
        He told a lie to me
    we do not allow:
        *He told that he was hungry to me
  2. There is a variant of the Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Adverbial structure which deploys a complement (usually an adjective or a non-finite verb form).  For example:
    He kept the people happy
        She left her mother wondering what happened

    We could make this the seventh structure but in fact, it follows the structure of the final category above.  It is, functionally, Subject-Verb-Object-Object Complement or SVOCO.
  3. Adverbial complements are usually considered optional elements of sentences so we can have:
        I made the beds
    which is Subject-Verb-Direct Objector SVOD
        I made the beds immediately
    which is Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Adverbial or SVODA
    However, a few transitive verbs (notably, put, place, stand and treat) insist on an adverbial complement so while we can have
        I put it down
        He treated her badly
        I placed the table in the corner
        I stood the lamp over there

    we do not allow simply SVOD, in these meanings of the verbs:
        *I put it
        *He treated her
        *I placed the table
        *I stood the lamp
    The normally intransitive verbs lie and live also demand an adverbial complement so do not allow the pattern of simple Subject-Verb or SV as most intransitive verbs do.  So, for example, we can accept
        He lay on the bed
        She lived in London
    but not:
        *He lay
        *She lived
  4. Some transitive verbs which would normally demand the structure Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Adverbial or SVODA allow us to suppress or make implicit the object and can appear in Subject-Verb-Adverbial or SVA structures (or simply SV, of course):
        She's reading at the moment
    implies an object, as does
        They are smoking outside
        They washed before lunch
        She drank
    In other words, the SVODA exists by implication but not in the overt structure of the sentence.
    Many other transitive verbs do not allow this object elision so we do not permit:
        *He used
        *They made
        *The children liked



But all that is about clause structures.
I thought this guide was about verb types!

OK, and so it is.
A moment's consideration will reveal that verbs can be classified according to the types of clauses they appear in.  In fact, certain classes of verbs require certain clause structures.
In the following some abbreviations have been used, as they have above.  Here they are explained:

Code Expands to ... Example
S Subject noun phrase Mary and her sister came home
Mary and her sister
is the subject
V Verb phrase They put her up for the night
put up
is the verb phrase
CS Subject complement John is a doctor
a doctor
is the subject complement co-referential with the subject, John.  It is not the object of the verb because it is the same as the subject.
CO Object complement They made her happy
the object complement is happy because it applies to her, the object of the verb make.
A Adverbial phrase She suddenly disappeared
the adverbial is suddenly.  Even though the adverbial comes before the verb, a sentence of this sort can be described as SVA because the adverbials can often follow the verb (She disappeared suddenly last night)
O Object noun phrase If only one object is present, we can use O to denote it.
In He broke the window, the object is the window.
When there is a possibility of two objects being present (even though one may not be) we use the following.
OD Direct object He paid the money
the direct object is the money.
OI Indirect object He paid her the money
the indirect object is her.

Now we have the mechanics of how clauses work, we can identify which kinds of verbs work with which kinds of clauses.


Intensive verbs

she seems happy  

Intensive verbs take subject complements rather than objects and appear in clause structure SVCS.  For example:

  1. I am a nurse
  2. Peter is running to fat
  3. She is getting aggressive
  4. He is growing old
  5. He seemed even more delighted
  6. John fell ill
  7. She turned aggressive

When they are used as copular verbs they cannot be used dynamically (*They are being doctors, *He was appearing happy etc.).  Examples 1, 5, 6 and 7 are copular verbs taking the SVCS structure.
When such verbs are used dynamically, the sense is usually a change of state rather than a consistent attribute of the subject.  Examples of the SVCS structures with these verbs used dynamically are 2 (a change of state from thin to fat), 3 (a change of state from peaceable to aggressive) and 4 (a change of state from younger to older).
You can see that the example
    She turned aggressive
is copular rather than dynamic use because it represents the end point of the change of state, not the process.
    He fell ill
is a copular use for the same reason but
    He is falling ill
is a dynamic use describing the change of state.  Both uses differ from the more common intransitive use of the verb as in:
    He fell over

Intensive verbs do not take objects – they take complements.

In the sentences above we have the following types of complement:

  1. a nurse (a noun complement co-referential with the subject)
  2. to fat (an adverbial complement, in this case a prepositional phrase)
  3. aggressive (an adjective complement)
  4. old (an adjective complement)
  5. even more delighted (an adjective phrase complement)
  6. aggressive (an adjective complement)

Extensive verbs

it extended for miles  

Extensive verbs form all the other sorts of clause structures we have looked at.  They are intransitive, monotransitive or ditransitive and they appear in different clause structures.  (If you aren't fully sure about these terms, check out the guide to subjects and objects.)



he waited  

Intransitive verbs include, e.g., appear, arrive, come, disappear, rain, snow, work etc.  Obviously, they can have no truck with any clause structure which contains an object.
Think about what sorts of clauses they can form and then click here.

Some verbs can be transitive and intransitive (sometimes with a change in meaning).  For example:
    She ate at one o'clock
is intransitive and SVA, but
    She ate lunch at one o'clock
is transitive and SVODA
An alternative way to analyse this is to suggest that the object in the first example has been elided but is implied (see Note 4 above).
An example of a verb which changes meaning when used in the two ways is:
    I can manage on $50 a week (intransitive and SVA)
    She manages two shops (transitive and SVO)
When they are transitive, these sorts of verbs follow one of the patterns below.
See also Note 3, above concerning the verbs lie and live which insist on the inclusion of an adverbial and cannot be merely SV.


Monotransitive only

they shared an umbrella  

Monotransitive verbs include, e.g., attend, believe, describe, enjoy, find, join, share, take, use, watch etc.
What kinds of clauses do they demand?  Click here when you have an answer.



she asked the man a question  

Ditransitive verbs include, e.g., ask, bring, find, give, offer, pay, save, teach etc.  What clause structures do ditransitive verbs demand?  Click here when you have an answer.


Parsing the clauses

tree diagrams

For classroom presentation purposes, and to get the structures clear in your own head, parsing the clauses is a visual way of understanding the structures we have considered.
Here's a set of examples of all six clause structures:

sv sva svoco 
svod svoda svoiod 


Verbs which can have more than one nature

Some verbs, such as break, drive, finish, manage, smoke, turn and write etc., are two-faced and can be transitive or intransitive.  In many cases, the meaning alters between the two forms or the nature of the subject changes (compare, e.g., I broke the glass with The glass broke, I ate at six with I ate the food etc.).

  • When they are transitive, they command one of the three transitive clause structures and when intransitive they need SV or SVA only.
  • Some transitive verbs can be mono- or di-transitive and the same considerations apply: when they are ditransitive they require a different clause structure from when they are used monotransitively (see above).

Here's a list of some common verbs categorised by transitive nature and the clause structures they demand.

generally transitive usually intransitive transitive and intransitive can be ditransitive
SVOD, SVODA or SVOCO SV or SVA ← as appropriate → SVOIOD


These verbs often have a slightly different meaning in the two uses and take different sorts of subjects.  Compare, e.g.:
She broke the chair vs. The chair broke.
He called at six vs. He called his mother.



So what?  Classroom implications

So quite a lot.
Think for a moment about how our awareness of the fundamental types of verbs and clause structures should inform our practice and then click here.

Related guides
copular verbs for more on what are called linking verbs in some sources
stative and dynamic uses for more on verbs used in these ways and the role of aspect
subjects and objects for more on case in English
primary auxiliary verbs for more on how verbs like these function to make tenses and signal aspects
modality for more on the range of uses of modal auxiliary verbs and other ways to signal modal meaning
verbal processes for an alternative view of what verbs do from a functional perspective

If you want to take a test on all this, click here.

Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Levin, B, 1993, English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman