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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:

The old man was happily watching his home team beat Arsenal on TV.

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

The old happily his home on.

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

man was watching team beat Arsenal TV.

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 check them out for more.  This link will take you to the verbs index for this part of the site (new tab).

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 repaired her laptop

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

 beach huts

Prime verbs

All languages have a set of what are known as that language's prime verbs.  In English, these are
    be | bring | come | do | get | give | go | keep | make | put | take
These are the verbs which are basic to most idiomatic language and which often take the place of more formal verbs.
So, for example:

We can render ... ... as this with a prime verb
He appeared suddenly He was suddenly there
They have raised four children They have brought up four children
He attended the meeting He came to the meeting
I executed her instructions I did as she told me
I arrived at the hotel late I got to the hotel late
I handed in my essay I gave my essay in
He travelled to New York He went to New York
Please retain the receipt Please keep the receipt
I prepared dinner I made dinner
She garaged the car She put the car in the garage
I caught the train I took the train

There are, in fact very few verbal concepts in English which cannot be rendered less formally and more simply by using one of the prime verbs in combinations with adverbials.
Teaching prime verbs is important.



They photographed each other  

Up to now we have discussed the subject plus the verb and seen how verbs represent doing, talking and thinking and being.
There is, of course, another aspect and that concerns not the subject of the verb but its object.

For example,
    Mary smokes
is a verb which describes a behaviour (doing verb) which concerns only the subject (Mary).
    Mary smokes cigars
describes two things: Mary's behaviour and what the behaviour acts on (cigars).  In this case, the word cigars is the Direct Object of the verb and the verb is described as transitive.
Here are some more examples with the direct object in bold:
    He told a story
    The President signed the decree
    The car hit the garage door
    She feels the cold
    People want clarity

and in all these cases, we have a verb followed by an object (and that is the normal ordering in English).
In all these examples, too, we have a single object on which the verb acts directly.  The use of the verb is called mono-transitive because it takes a single object.

We cannot, however, have these:
    *She arrived the hotel
    *I talked the subject
    *The people came the shop

because these verbs do not take an object (they are intransitive).  In some languages, the verbs are transitive and that can lead to error.
It is also the case that some verbs must take an object so we cannot say, e.g.:
    *They photographed
    *She told
    *They accepted

    *I poured
unless the hearer knows what the object is and can fill the gap.  Some verbs are always transitive.

Some verbs can take two objects and they are called ditransitive uses of the verbs.  For example, in the following the direct object is in bold and the indirect object is underlined in bold:
    She read the children a story
    They gave me a hand
    They offered her the job
    She sent
her brother an email
You can see that it is possible to remove the indirect object and still have an acceptable sentence so we allow:
    She told a lie
    They gave a hand
    They offered the job
    She sent an email

but we cannot remove the direct object because that gives the unacceptable:
    *She read the children
    *They gave me

or it changes the meaning as in:
    They offered her
    She sent her brother

In English, there are two basic rules (of thumb):

  1. The indirect object comes before the direct object
  2. The indirect object is usually a person and a recipient of the action

It is also possible in English to shift the indirect object to the end of the clause and link it with a preposition, usually to but also sometimes for.  Here are some examples of the shifting in action:

She told her father a lie vs. She told a lie to her father
She showed me her garden She showed her garden to me
He read me the paragraph He read the paragraph to me
The old lady cooked me breakfast The old lady cooked breakfast for me

Not all ditransitive verbs can do this.  If you would like a list of ditransitive verbs which also marks whether they are used with to, for or neither structure, you can get it from the link in the list of related guides at the end.

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.

Finally, languages vary in terms of transitivity (or its lack) so a verb such as arrive is, in English, intransitive so we allow:
    She arrived
    She arrived at my house
but not
    *She arrived my house
We can also have:
    An accident happened
but not
    *It happened an accident
because happen is intransitive.
In other languages, these verbs (and many others) are transitive and that leads to the error.
In other languages, too, the positions of the direct and indirect objects are reversed and that can lead to errors such as:
    *She told a lie the boss
and so on.

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

Related guides
verbs index for the links to related areas
stative and dynamic verb uses for a guide to two very basic distinctions
tense and aspect for the essential guide to two related concepts
verbal processes for a more technical description
ditransitive verbs for a list in PDF format

Butt, D, Fahey, R, Feez, S, Spinks, S and Yallop, C, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide, Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, M, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar, 2nd edition, London: Edward Arnold