logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Verbs: the essentials


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 construct 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 or main 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:
      1. person
            I smoke
            she smokes
      2. tense
            I come
            I came
            I imagine
            I imagined
      3. aspect
            I decide
            I am deciding
        I have decided
  2. Auxiliary verbs
    1. Types
      1. Modal auxiliary verbs, for example:
        can, may, might, should, must, could
        etc. occurring in, e.g.:
            I can see him
            She may be late
            They might complain
            We should go now
            I must get the car fixed
            We could understand
      2. Primary auxiliary verbs, for example:
        have, get, be, do
        occurring in, e.g.:
            I have spent the money
            I got the car fixed
            She is writing to him
            Do you understand?
    2. Meaning
      Auxiliary verbs do not carry meaning alone so, for example:

      are all meaningless unless we know what the main verb is or we state it.
      1. Modal auxiliary verbs express the speaker / writer's viewpoint concerning the main verb so, for example:
            She must study
        expresses the speaker's view of obligation
            She might not be at home
        expresses the speaker / writer's view of likelihood
        and so on.
      2. Primary auxiliary verbs express how the main verb should be understood in relation time and to other events so, for example:
            John has read the book
        expresses two things:
            a) the reading of the book is a finished past event and
            b) the reading of the book has changed the present in some way so now we can follow it with something like
            ... and he can tell you what he thinks about it.
        Other primary auxiliary verbs can express ongoing actions or states as in
            She is still running the company
        These verbs also signal question forms as in
            Do you want anything else?
        passive ideas as in
            She was taken to hospital
            She got hurt in the accident
            Peter had his house decorated
        and imperatives as in
            Don't take that!
    3. Form:
      1. Many modal auxiliary verbs do not show changes for person, tense and aspect but some do so we can change, e.g.:
            She can swim well
            She could swim well
        We cannot, however, change must to musted etc.
        We can also change form to show person with some modal auxiliary verbs, for example, changing
            I have to go
            He has to go
        and we can show some aspects as in, e.g.
            She should have finished by now
      2. Primary auxiliary verbs change form much like lexical or main verbs although they are all irregular, e.g.:
            She had the car fixed
            I have got the house painted
            They were arrested
            Did you get the money?
  3. Copular verbs
    1. Meaning
      These verbs act to link noun subjects to some kind of attribute or make it equivalent to another noun.  The archetypal copular verb is be but there are a number of other verbs that act in the same way.  For example:
          He is a doctor
          That seems interesting
          They appear tired
          That smelt terrible
    2. 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 or main verbs

These verbs carry intrinsic meaning

We can categorise lexical or main 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
    etc., 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, 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 always 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 or 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, expect, 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 (transitive).
    Other examples in this category include
    drink, explain, help, decide, fly, smoke, 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 (or radically) different meaning when used transitively or intransitively.  For example


Finite and non-finite verb use

You may well have heard of the term infinitive to describe the highlighted verbs in these sentences:
    I want to help
    She must not go

They are called, respectively the to-infinitive and the bare infinitive (or infinitive without to, somewhat clumsily).  The reason is that they are not finite.  In other words, they have no mark on them for tense or person.
Non-finite verb forms are not marked for time (tense) or for the nature of the subject (person).  There are three main sorts of non-finite verb forms:

  1. gerunds (i.e., verbs which behave grammatically in a noun-like way).  For example:
        I enjoy walking
    They are not actually just simple nouns in most cases because they cannot take plurals and are treated as singular forms.  Some are really very noun-like however as in:
        The furnishings were lovely
    (and we refer to these as verbal nouns).
  2. infinitives of two sorts:
    1. bare infinitives as in, e.g.:
          Let her come
          She might object
    2. to-infinitives as in, e.g.:
          I want to help
          She used to be so happy
  3. participles of two sorts;
    1. present participles as in, e.g.:
          On arriving, I saw the party had nearly finished
          Smiling, she welcomed him in
    2. past participles as in, e.g.:
          Broken, the hammer was no use
          The aria was beautifully sung

Finite verb forms, on the other hand, are marked for tense and person so we get, for example:
    Mary left early
where we can tell from the form of the verb that it is past tense
    Peter enjoys opera
where we can tell from the form of the verb that it is third-person singular (the -s inflexion at the end of the verb).

There are, however, two problems:


Problem 1

English is a language which has very few inflexions compared with heavily inflected languages like German, French, Spanish and Greek.  So, for example, we have:
    John left
    I left
    We left
    They left
    You left

etc. and the form of the verb, while marked for tense, remains unchanged for person.
Some verbs do not even do that so the past forms of, e.g., put, set, burst, cost, cut etc. look exactly the same as the present tense and the base forms.

We also have:
    I like opera
    You like opera
    He likes opera
    We like opera
    They like opera

in which only the third person singular form is marked for person and all the other verb forms look the same.

We get around this problem by suggesting that there is marking for tense and person but in many cases it is zero marking and we represent it like this: Ø-marked.


Problem 2

Finite and non-finite forms can combine to make finite forms in English.
Because the language relies heavily on auxiliary verbs, this is a very frequent occurrence in English.  All the following are finite forms but they contain non-finite forms.  The non-finite forms are highlighted in black and the finite forms in red.
    She has left
    They are leaving
    We have left
    She had left
    She will leave
    They are going to leave
    Mary ought to leave
    Mary can leave

It is important, therefore to distinguish between a finite verb phrase (all of the above) and a finite verb form (only the parts in red). 

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 or main verbs, linked below.

walking stick

Auxiliary verbs

These are sometimes called 'helping verbs'

Auxiliary verbs cannot stand alone and retain their meaning unless the lexical or main 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 lexical or main 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 or main 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, linked below, and you should consult that for more information.
    There is also an essential guide to voice which explains the passive-active distinction.
  2. 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 auxiliary verbs by changing
          You go
          You may go
          You can't go.

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

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

The central modal auxiliary verbs are sometimes described as defective because they don't exhibit the full range of forms in the way that lexical or main 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 essential guide to modality, linked below.




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, linked below.  Briefly, however, copular verbs perform two functions:

  1. They link a subject to another noun or noun phrase 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 end up 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 or main 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

This excludes a lot of detail.


Related guides
word class map this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site
verb types and clause structures for a much more advanced guide to the area
copular verbs an essential guide to these
modality the essential guide
what verbs do for a functional analysis of the nature of verbs
primary auxiliaries for a run-down of the main primary (i.e., tense-forming) auxiliary verbs
voice: the essential for a guide explaining the distinction and forms of the passive and active voice
lexical or main 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.