What is a verb

What is a Verb?

Words are divided into classes according to the function they serve. For example, a name is known as a noun in grammar; for example, ‘James’, ‘London’, ‘mountain’,.

A verb describes an action such as in the sentence, ‘I drive my car to work every day.’

Also a verb can describe a state or a situation such as ‘I am happy.’ A third function of a verb is as a link word; for example, ‘After visiting the university, I became interested in applying for a place there.’ There are several categories of verbs, some of which will be explained in this article.


Transitive and Intransitive Verbs


Consider the simple sentence, ‘The student wrote an essay.’ In grammatical terms, ‘student’ is the subject, ‘wrote’ is the verb, and ‘essay’ is the object. Because the verb has an object, it is said to be transitive. Contrastingly, an intransitive verb has no object, as in the sentence, ‘I listen to the radio every morning.’ Here, ‘I’ is the subject, ‘listen’ is the verb, but the phrase ‘to the radio’ is not an object; it is known as the complement.

A good dictionary will indicate whether a verb is transitive or intransitive.

We often come across mistakes where people try to add an object to an intransitive verb. An example is, ‘We appeal the decision of the tribunal.’ This is incorrect, as ‘appeal’ is an intransitive verb, so it cannot have an object. The correct way of saying this is, ‘We appeal against the decision of the tribunal.’ This makes ‘decision’ to be what we call an indirect object.


Subject-Verb Agreement

To be grammatically correct, the subject and verb of a sentence must agree. For example, in the sentence, ‘A range of options were presented.’, the subject (range) and the verb (were) do not agree. This is because ‘range’ is singular and ‘options’ is plural. The correct form is ‘A range of options was presented.’ Here, both subject and object are singular, so they agree.


Finite Verbs

For a sentence to be grammatically correct, it must contain a finite verb. This means that the verb must agree with the subject in person, number, tense, and mood. For instance, ‘The train gradually increasing its speed and passing through many stations and reaching a speed of 125mph’. This is not a sentence because neither of the verbs ‘increasing’ and ‘reaching’ agrees with the subject ‘train’. It can be made into a sentence by using the verb ‘reached’ instead of ‘reaching’. ‘‘The train, gradually increasing its speed and passing through many stations, reached a speed of 125mph’. Here, ‘reached’ is a finite verb.



When a word changes according to its function in the sentence, this is called ‘inflection’. This happens when a noun is made plural; for example, ‘book’ becomes ‘books’. Although inflection is not as common in English as in many other languages, verbs are inflected according to person, number and tense. For example, we say ‘I watch’ and ‘He/she watches’. For the past tense the verb is inflected to ‘watched’.



When asked how many tenses there are in the English language, most people would reply, ‘three – past, present and future’. Strictly, there are only two tenses, past and present. To obtain the past from the present form, the verb is inflected, such as ‘look’ (present) and ‘looked’ (past). Although many other languages have an inflected form for the future tense, English does not. The future tense in English is formed by adding ‘shall’ or ‘will’; for instance, ‘I shall look’.


In modern English grammar, each tense is split into four forms: simple, continuous, prefect, and perfect continuous, as follows:


Present simple: I watch

Present continuous: I am watching

Present perfect: I have watched

Present Perfect continuous: I have been watching


Past simple: I watched

Present continuous: I was watching

Present perfect: I had watched

Present Perfect continuous: I had been watching


Future simple: I shall watch

Future continuous: I shall be watching

Future perfect: I shall have watched

Future perfect continuous: I shall have been watching


Regular and Irregular Verbs

As can be seen above, the verb ‘watch’ is regular. It forms the simple past by adding ‘-ed’ to the verb, and also forms the past perfect with ‘watched’. In the past perfect ‘watched’ is known as the past participle. Most verbs follow this pattern. However, some verbs (often the most frequently used ones) are irregular and do not follow the same pattern. Consider the verb ‘to go’, where the past tense is ‘went’, and the verb ‘to come’, where the past tense is ‘came’,

In many irregular verbs, the past simple and the past participle are different. Examples are: I drive (present), I drove (past simple), and ‘I have driven’ (past continuous); and

I begin (present), I began (past simple), and I have begun (past continuous). A good grammar book will contain a list of irregular verbs.


Active and Passive

A transitive verb can be either in the active or passive voice. Consider this example:

‘An engineer repaired the faulty boiler.’  (Active)

‘ The faulty boiler was repaired by the engineer.’ (Passive)


Notice how when the verb is passive, the subject becomes the object and the object becomes the subject.


Use of the passive voice is often discouraged in academic writing. Also, in more general writing it is regarded as being too formal and as lacking in clarity. So why is it used at all?

In the example above, the passive is used to emphasise the fact that the boiler is faulty.

Please note that the list of tenses given above is for active voice verbs. There are equivalents for passive voice, but as some of these are used infrequently, I have not given a list.



It is generally considered that a verb can be in one of three moods: indicative, imperative, subjunctive.

Indicative is where the verb makes a statement, and is the most frequently used form, while imperative is a command such as ‘Listen to this.’ Also, a verb can be said to be in the interrogative mood when it asks a question. Generally, the mood of the verb causes few problems. However, the subjunctive mood can sometimes cause difficulty. An example of subjunctive is ‘If my teacher were here, she would explain this to me.’ At first glance, this appears to be an error, and that it should be ‘was’. However, because the teacher is nor here (and maybe unlikely to be so), this is just a hope, so it is subjunctive mood and ‘were’ is correct. Another example of subjunctive are ‘It is essential that he remain at home.’ For more details on subjunctive consult a grammar book.


Split Infinitive

The infinitive of a verb is its basic form, ‘to walk’, ‘to go’. In the past, grammar experts frowned on what is called the split infinitive, that is to insert a work between ‘to’ and the verb, such as ‘to diligently study’. Although, by today, there is a more flexible attitude to this and modern grammar experts claim that a split infinitive can be used. They argue that in Latin, the infinitive form is one word, and for that reason so it should not be split in English. Today, most proofreaders will not ‘correct’ a split infinitive, except where it sounds awkward. For example ‘The students were advised to not submit their essays late.’ This sounds somewhat awkward, and it would be better to say ,‘The students were advised not to submit their essays late.’


Phrasal Verbs

A phrasal verb is a verb that consists of more than one word; for example, ‘The experiment was carried out successfully.’ Generally, the use of phrasal verbs is not encouraged in academic writing. Therefore, the above sentence would be better as, ‘The experiment was conducted successfully.’ However, care needs to be taken that replacing a phrasal verb with one word does not change the meaning. An example of this is ‘Every effort was made to deal with this situation’. If ‘deal with’ is replaced by ‘manage’ , this may not retain the meaning.



This article has presented the basic points related to verbs, but cannot be regarded as comprehensive and covering every topic of English grammar. Readers who feel that they would like to learn more about verbs and English grammar generally are advised to consult a good grammar book such as Oxford Everyday Grammar written by John Seely and published by the Oxford University Press.


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