Verbs are part of the open class.  Traditionally, they are called ‘doing’ words because they communicate a specific action. This is a rather narrow definition, however, since some verbs communicate states and processes rather than actions. Every grammatically complete sentence must have a verb or a group of related verbs.

5 things to know about verbs

  • in Standard English, verbs agree in number and person with the noun or pronoun which precedes them
    • the boy walks to town every Saturday. [third person singular]
    • we walk to town every Saturday. [first person plural]
  • primary auxiliary verbs are used to construct questions and negatives, to create emphasis, to communicate different time scales (aspect), or to construct passive sentences (voice)
    • Do you have any spare tickets for the match? 
    • The dog was stolen by a professional. [passive]
    • Even when I’m on facebook, I do get my work done. [emphasis]
    • He was going to visit tomorrow morning. [aspect: past progressive]
    • The neighbours do not like noisy parties during the week. [negative]
    • We had planned the journey carefully. [aspect: past perfective]
  • modal auxiliaries are used to communicate different shades of meaning (modality)
    • I can run 5km in under 30 minutes. [ability]
    • I may run 5km in under 30 minutes. [possibility]
    • I will run 5km in under 30 minutes. [prediction]
    • I must run 5km in under 30 minutes. [obligation]
  • finite verbs are marked for tense (present and past)
    • The donkey makes a lot of noise. [present]
    • The snow fell very quickly and covered the road. [past]
  • non-finite verbs (-ing participles, -ed participles, infinitives and base form verbs) are not marked for tense; they can stand alone as part of a non-finite clause, or they can be used attributively in front of a noun as a verb modifier
    • The man fell to his knees, begging for mercy. [non-finite clause]
    • To visit you in Paris would be a dream come true. [non-finite clause]
    • The ground was covered with rotting apples. [verb modifier – describing an on-going process]
    • The boy linked to the attack was questioned by the police. [non-finite clause]
    • As the moon came out from behind the cloud, the broken glass reflected its light. [verb modifier – describing a completed process]
    • We can help you clear your debts. [base form verb after a modal auxiliary]

Key terms

You need to be able to understand and use the following terms:

Agreement and non-agreement of verbs


Dynamic and stative verbs


Lexical and auxiliary verbs


Present and past tense verbs

Finite and non-finite verbs


Multi-word verbs


Writing about verbs

Verbs are important in written and spoken language because they are the one essential element of a grammatically complete sentence.  The shortest grammatical structure we can use in English would be a single-word command (Go! Run! Cook!). Identifying the lexical verb is the first step, but the second is being able to recognise any other verbs that are directly related to it. The kind of verbs used in a text tells us something about the purpose and genre: sports commentaries are dominated by present tense dynamic verbs; politicians use present tense verbs to describe existing conditions, past tense verbs to criticise the political decisions of their predecessors, and modal verbs to indicate future changes; narratives traditionally use past tense verbs, with present tense for direct speech. Identifying interesting examples, and being able to describe the verb form and its semantic effect is the key to good analysis.


For additional exercises like this with notes and commentaries, see Mastering Practical Grammar (pages 51-60)

One response to “Verbs

  1. Pingback: The key to verbs | Sara Thorne English Language

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