What is this thing called ‘verb’?

This is an edited version of material taken from my book Grammar for Teachers. Some sections are incomplete. To read the full text you need to purchase a copy of the book, which is available as a download. Find out more.

The word ‘verb’

Rather confusingly, the word ‘verb’ is used in two different ways:

  • to describe a word class
  • to describe a clause element

Verbs as a word class

In this sense, verbs are on the same level as nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

One of the key features of verbs is that they change their form, or inflect more than other words.

Verb inflection
Verbs inflect like this:

Forms of the verb
So we can say that all verbs have five forms, or parts:

  • stem walk
  • present tense walk/walks
  • past tense walked
  • -ing participle walking
  • -ed participle walked

We can can use the stem to form the infinitive: to walk.

Regular and irregular verbs
All verbs do not work in the same way as the example we have used. Walk is regular. Irregular verbs are less predictable in the way they form the five parts:

  • stem eat
  • present tense eat/eats
  • past tense ate
  • -ing participle eating
  • -ed participle eaten

There are far more regular verbs than there are irregular, but many of the commonest verbs are irregular…

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Main verbs

We saw in Chapter 2 that verbs could be divided into three groups:

  • verbs that need an object
    Elephants eat grass.
  • verbs that do not need an object
    Elephants exist.
  • linking verbs
    Elephants are animals.

Verbs that need an object
In normal speech, Elephants eat… is incomplete because it leaves us asking, eat what? Verbs like eat that need an object are called transitive.

Verbs that do not need an object
Exist on the other hand does not have to be followed by an object and is an intransitive verb.

It is important to note that some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive. For example, work:

It’s a formula that is obviously working.
He trains people to work the machine.

Linking verbs
These verbs are used to link a subject and its complement. They include be, seem, and appear.

Every sentence must contain at least one main verb.

Auxiliary verbs

There is also a group of verbs that don’t have a dictionary meaning, and are not normally used on their own in a sentence. They are used with main verbs. For example:


I am eating bread.
They have eaten bread.
You do eat bread.


I shall eat bread.
I might eat bread.
I could eat bread.

All these verbs are called auxiliaries because they help main verbs. They have been divided into groups A and B, because they have different characteristics.

Primary verbs
The verbs in Group A, be, have, do can also work as main verbs. For example:

  • I am happy to see these names included.
  • I have a new life now and new friends.
  • We do things that are controversial.

These primary verbs are thus dual-function.

Modal auxiliaries
The verbs in Group B cannot work as main verbs and normally appear with a main verb. The full list is…

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Verbs as a clause element

In this sense verbs are on the same level as subjects, objects, complements, and adverbials. To be more accurate they should be described as verb phrases.

In Chapter 2 when we looked at the different parts of a clause, the main examples contained verb phrases that consisted of just one word. This restricted us to just two tenses, the present tense and the past tense. Some linguists only use the term tense in this way, to describe two contrasting forms of the verb: eat/eats and ate. On this basis, they say that English has no future tense. Newcomers to modern grammar find this somewhat disconcerting. What about I will eat – isn’t that the future tense of eat? And if it isn’t the future tense, what is it?

A more pragmatic way of looking at things is to use the term ‘tense’ in a looser and wider way: to describe the form of the verb phrase that provides information about time and aspect. That is how the term will be used in this book.

In tenses, time refers to past, present, and future; aspect refers to the focus that the verb phrase gives us on what is being described.

English tenses
The list of English tenses in this table will be familiar to modern language teachers:

past present future
simple she lived she lives she will be living
continuous she was living she is living she will be living
perfect she had lived she has lived she will have lived
perfect continuous she had been living she has been living she will have been living

Tense and aspect
We have already seen one form of the present tense:

Elephants eat grass.

English has, however, more than one form of the present tense. Compare these two sentences:

I eat plenty of vegetables and I don’t like chocolate.
The ladies watching the late afternoon episode of ‘Crossroads’ are eating Mr Kipling cakes from their local Safeway, wearing their Crimplene trouser suits.

They are both ‘present’ in the sense that both describe something that is true at the time of writing. But only the second describes something that is obviously happening at that moment. We call the first (eat) the simple present, and the second (are eating) the present continuous.

There is also a third form of the present. Compare this sentence with the two previous ones:

I have eaten there; it is wonderful and not ferociously expensive.

It refers to an event that happened in the past, but the speaker is still thinking about it – its effects, good or bad, are still in his or her mind. So, it is in one sense ‘present’. In another sense it is past, completed – the action has been ‘perfected’. Hence the name of this tense, the present perfect.

These three versions of the present tense, simple, continuous and perfect are called aspects. They allow us to use considerable sophistication when talking about events.

Tense and time
Despite the wide range of tenses English has to offer, there are also many other ways in which we can indicate time in our sentences. The simple present tense, for example, can be used to talk about past, present, future and timeless events:

He goes into a restaurant and he says, ‘Oh the waiter, erm, let me see the menu…’ (past)
Rooney shoots… It’s a goal! (present)
Tomorrow we enter the mountains, and everything will change. (future)
Fairly pure water freezes at about 0°C (if given sufficient time). (timeless)

Future time, in particular, is represented in a variety of ways:

Tomorrow we enter the mountains, and everything will change.
(Simple present used for scheduled actions.)

Tomorrow we are holding a party in our bungalow, which has room for about 60 people…
(Present continuous used for plans.)

We are going to change the world of the media!
(going to future for plans.)

We shall look at these issues more fully later on.
(will/shall future: unmarked future)

It is important to note that in many cases the precise time of an event is shown by a combination of verb phrase and one or more words which indicate time (Thursday, next week and so on.) These adverbials form an important part of the next chapter.

Active and passive
So the verb phrase provides a lot of information about time (through the tense) and about the speaker’s perspective (through the aspect). Transitive verbs offer one further variation…

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