logo ELT Concourse teacher training: The Bridge

The Bridge: Verbs


Verbs are, in Halliday's view:

Our most powerful impression of experience
(Halliday 1994, An introduction to functional grammar: 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold p106)

It is not surprising, therefore, that most learners perceive the ability to handle verbs in English as a major priority, and they are right to do so.
Unfortunately, verbs are also quite difficult.

On most initial training courses, a session or even two is devoted to understanding verbs in some way but such sessions, because of the nature of introductory courses, tend to mix up the analysis of verbs with tenses, voice and aspects and that can obscure things that are important about verbs in their own right.

This short guide will not consider tenses and aspects at all but will look at the three main ways of analysing verbs and, in passing, consider some of the teaching implications.


Classification by type

This is the usual way to start the analysis.  There are three main types (one of which consists of two subtypes).

  1. Lexical or main verbs
    These are probably what most learners and teachers think of when asked to give an example of a verb.  Here are some examples:
        She travelled to Paris
        I work in Berlin
        The clock stopped
        They leave on Sunday
        Peter explained the problem
        I cried
        The lion ate him

    and so on.
    Lexical or main verbs come in a variety of flavours as we shall shortly see but they have two characteristics in common:
    1. They carry meaning even when standing alone so, for example:
      communicates an obvious meaning without any context or co-text.
    2. They inflect for tense and person (in English) so we can have:
          She arrived
          I chose the blue dress
      talks too much
      with endings and alterations (underlined) to show person and tense.
  2. Auxiliary verbs
    These verbs are of two sorts and, standing alone in this role without any context or co-text, they carry no meaning:
    1. Primary auxiliary verbs operate to affect the grammar of what we say so for example:
          I have arrived
      got the work done
      Do you understand?
          The house
      was repaired
      In these cases respectively, the verbs act to:
          change the aspect of the verb arrive
          alter the sense of who is the subject of the verb do
          make a question
          change the voice (from active to passive)
    2. Modal auxiliary verbs express how the speaker / writer sees an event.  So, for example, we may have:
          She should be here soon
      must get this finished
      dared not ask
      need to speak to you
      could help
      In these cases respectively, the verbs act to:
          express the speaker's opinion of the desirability or likelihood of something being true
          express an imposed obligation
          express the speaker's attitude to the verb ask
          express the speaker's understanding of the necessity for something to occur
          express the speaker's ability to do something
      The clue is in the name of these: they express modality of one kind or another.  Modality simply describes the way something is perceived or done.
  3. Copular verbs
    These verbs link the subject to the attribute (i.e., a characteristic, often an adjective) or equivalent noun, so, for example, we see:
        That tastes awful
    is the boss
    appears upset
        I am
    getting old
    became doctors
    was an MP
    In these cases, respectively, the verbs act to:
        link the subject, this, to the adjective which describes it, awful
        link the subject, she, to another way of expressing the same thing, the boss
        link the subject, he, to the adjective which describes it, upset
        link the subject, I, to the adjective, old, in a way that shows development through time
        link the subject, they, to the thing that the subject changed into, dosctors
        link the subject, she, to the thing that the subject was, an MP
    In all these cases, the second noun or noun phrase is not the object of the verb.  It is the complement of the verb.
    These verbs, too, need co-text to communicate so expressions like:
        *This tastes
        *She is
        *I am getting
        *They became
    are fundamentally meaningless.

Moral #1: make it clear to learners what kind of verb they are dealing with.



Some verbs may operate in more than one category.  For example:

The fact that some verbs appear in more than one category means that teachers need to be alert to their grammatical function and do not needlessly confuse learners.

? To make sure you have this clear before we go on, try a short matching test.


Classification by structure

The most obvious distinction here is the first in the list that follows but there is one other that is important.

  1. Transitivity
    is a fundamental concept and verbs vary across languages in this respect.  Verbs in English are also variable and some can fall into all three of these categories with variations in meaning, usually.
    1. Intransitive verbs do not have an object so, for example:
          She arrived at six
          I spoke up
          They complained
          We walked

      are all intransitive uses of the verbs (although speak and walk can also fall into the next category)
      In these examples, and in these meanings, the verbs cannot be used with an object so we do not allow:
          *She arrived the hotel
          *I spoke the boss
          *They complained the room
          *We walked the house
    2. Monotransitive verbs take a single direct object, for example:
          They spent the money
          She lost her wallet
          I told a lie
          I gave the explanation

      are all monotransitive uses of the verbs (although the fourth may fall into the next category).
      In these examples, the objects are:
          the money
          her wallet
          a lie
          the explanation
    3. Ditransitive verbs take two objects.  Usually, the indirect object (the beneficiary) comes before the direct object (the thing or person affected).  For example:
          She told me a lie
          I gave the man the cash
          I offered him the work
          She left David the house and all her money

      are all ditransitive (although all of them may be monotransitive and the last, with a different meaning, can be intransitive).
      In these examples, the two object are:
      Direct Indirect
      a lie me
      the cash the man
      the work him
      the house and all her money David
  2. Catenation
    Some verbs can form chains of meaning with other verbs and there are two main ways this happens although there are some variations that are explained in the guide linked below:
    1. with the to-infinitive, for example:
          I want to go to see her
          I came to help to prepare for the party
    2. with the -ing form (often called a gerund in this case), for example:
          I loathe standing in queues
          I like skiing
          I remember meeting her

The phenomenon of certain verbs being primed for certain types of grammatical structures is known in the trade as colligation and there is a guide to that, linked below.

? To make sure you have this clear before we go on, try a short matching test.


Classification by meaning: verbal processes

This analysis is of verbal processes and falls into three parts, each containing two sub-sections.

  1. Doing verbs
    1. Material processes refer to what things do and to the external, material world of our experience, for example:
          The bridge collapsed
          The fire destroyed the warehouse

    2. Behavioural processes refer to what people do, to psychological or physical behaviour, for example:
          She laughed at the idea
          Mary cried all night
          They worried
  2. Thinking and saying verbs
    1. Mental processes refer to opinions and feelings, for example:
          I believe he's coming
          I love sweet things
          She wants more time
    2. Verbal processes refer to what people say by bringing the internal world to the outside, for example:
          She said she would help
          I explained why I was there
          I asked who could help

  3. Being verbs
    1. Existential processes refer to something presence or absence, for example:
          There's a shop on the corner
          It's a pity she is late
          There appears no answer to the problem
    2. Relational processes refer to the connections between things and people, for example:
          My office lies on the third floor
          It smells like nail varnish
          They are made of copper
          I was at home
? To make sure you have this clear before we go on, try a short matching test.



There are some obvious classroom implications of which the first is probably the most important.

  1. Languages work very differently:
    1. what is a transitive verb in English may not be in other languages and vice versa
    2. most languages only have one way of catenating verbs
    3. some languages may have a different verb form altogether for transitive and intransitive meanings
    4. some languages will use affixes to show transitivity
    5. some languages will reserve a different form of the verb be for permanent and temporary states (for both or either relational processes or copular uses)
  2. It is not enough to explain or lead learners to the meaning of a verb because
    1. some are meaningless without co-text or context
    2. some fall into more than one category with different meanings
    3. the grammar differs between verbs, even those that are close synonyms (compare, for example, hide and conceal)
  3. To understand how verbs work, learners need to focus or be focused on:
    1. verb type (grammatical function)
    2. form ((ir)regularities, catenation and transitivity)
    3. meaning (verbal processes encoded by the verbs)
  4. The types of meanings that verbs encode will be appropriate to certain types of text so it is important both for production and comprehension that learners are primed to look for and use certain types of processes.  For example:
    1. Narratives will frequently require behavioural, material and mental process verbs
      For example:
          I went to the cinema which was showing the film and I enjoyed it so much that I told my father about it
    2. Explanations will require relative, material and existential processes
      For example:
          The garden is very overgrown and looks terrible so it is important to get a gardener in
    3. Expositions and discussions will involve material and mental processes as well as modal auxiliaries
      For example:
          Cars cause a lot of pollution in cities and I think they should be banned
    4. Information reports will use relational and behavioural processes
      For example:
          The riot was in the city centre and the demonstrators caused a lot of damage to cars and shops

If that's all clear enough to you, you can go on to the guides below (on the right).  If you still feel slightly confused, try the links on the left.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
verb essentials verbal processes
gerunds and infinitives verb types and clause structures
the infinitive essentials finite and non-finite forms
modal auxiliaries one by one the infinitive
copular verbs catenative verbs
auxiliary verbs essentials colligation