What Is a Verb?
A verb is a word that expresses an action (sing, dance, breathe), an occurrence (become, happen), or a state of being (be, exist). In other words, a verb can be used to express something that a noun does (or has done or will do) or to link a noun to some other noun (e.g., Janet is an athlete) or to an adjective that describes that noun (e.g., Janet is strong). The most commonly used verb in English is to be. When I talk about the verb to be, I mean is, are, was, were, has been, will be, etc. I do not mean a word that is going to become a verb!
Subjects and Objects of Action Verbs
Sometimes, a verb has a subject. Often, it does not. The subject is the noun or pronoun that is “doing” or “being” that verb in that sentence.
- I laugh.
- He eats.
In other words, the subject of verb is the noun or pronoun that is “verbing” that verb.
In the Reed-Kellogg system of sentence diagramming, the subject-verb relationship goes on a horizontal line. A vertical line goes clear through the horizontal line to separate the subject from its verb.
Sometimes, a sentence describes some action that is being done to or for some other noun or pronoun. Those other nouns and pronouns are the objects of that verb.
An object that is being verbed by the subject is called the direct object. Verbs that can take a direct object are called transitive verbs. Verbs that do not have a direct object are called intransitive verbs. Some verbs can be used transitively or intransitively.
- I eat (intransitive)
- I eat pie (transitive)
In the Reed-Kellogg system of sentence diagramming, the nouns and verbs all go on the horizontal lines. Put a vertical line clear through the horizontal line between the subject and the verb. Put a half line between the verb and the direct object.
The dictionary entry for a verb will usually tell you whether it can be used transitively or intransitively. The definition and the usage notes will also help you figure out what kind of subjects can verb that verb, and what kind of objects can be verbed by that subject. For example, the verb to murder means to kill someone unlawfully. Since laws apply only to human beings, you can say that someone was killed by a grizzly bear, but it makes no sense to say that the person was murdered by a grizzly bear.
In many European languages, the direct object of a verb is put in the accusative case, which is marked by special word endings. In English, we have only two cases: the nominative case for the subject of a verb and the objective case for everything else. Thus, direct objects are in the objective case. We don’t mark nouns for the objective case, but we do mark pronouns for the objective case:
- I called him.
- He called me (not I).
- I asked her (not she).
An indirect object is a noun or pronoun that represents something to which (or whom) or for which (or whom) the subject verbed. Verbs that can take an indirect object are often called dative verbs. In many languages, indirect objects are in the dative case. In English, they are in the objective case. Sometimes, you have to figure out from word order that a particular noun or pronoun is the indirect object.
- I gave him $10.
You can also use a preposition (such as for or to) to indicate that a noun or pronoun is the direct or indirect object:
- I gave $10 to George.
Active and Passive Voice
When a verb is being used in the active voice, then the subject of the verb is also the agent that is doing that verb. But when that sentence is rephrased in the passive voice, the direct object of the verb becomes the subject. The agent of the verb may go in a prepositional phrase, if it appears at all:
- Shakespeare wrote the sonnet. (Active voice)
- The sonnet was written by Shakespeare. (Passive voice)
Note that you can use the passive voice only with transitive verbs. That’s because intransitive verbs do not have a direct object that can serve as the subject of a verb in the passive voice. To express the passive voice in English, we use some version of the auxiliary verb to be and a past participle of the main verb. I’ll explain the particulars under each of the tenses below.
Some English teachers will tell you that it is bad to use the passive voice. They are wrong. The passive voice is useful whenever the agent of the verb is unknown or unimportant. For example, an emergency room doctor might note that a patient had been stabbed in the chest. The doctor may not know or care who stabbed the patient.
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell urged his readers to avoid using the passive voice. But that essay also contains some of the most powerful use of the passive voice in English letters:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
Notice that by using the passive voice, Orwell’s calls attention to the indefensible actions themselves. Thus, he implies that such atrocities are evil regardless of whether the perpetrators are British, Russian, or American.
Of course, the use of the passive voice can be used to obscure the identity of the person or persons responsible for causing some problem. For example, political consultant William Schneider jokingly referred to the phrase “mistakes were made” as an example of the “past exonerative tense.” It is used for admitting that problems exist, while preventing anyone from being blamed for causing them.
Conjugation of Verbs (Finite Verbs)
Verbs can be used to express something that a noun is doing. Thus, that verb becomes conjugated (which means linked) to that noun. In English, we have to make some minor alterations to a conjugated verb to make it match its subject in person and number (see the discussion of number under nouns and person under pronouns). The verbs are also marked to indicate the timing of the action. In European languages, these alterations are made mainly to the ending of the verb. A verb that has been conjugated and marked for time is called a finite verb because it has an ending. A finite verb can serve as the main verb in the predicate of a complete sentence.
|First person||Second person||Third person*|
|Singular||I walk||you walk||He, she, or it walks|
|Plural||We walk||You walk||They walk|
|*Ordinary nouns usually refer to the third person, which means neither the speaker (or writer) nor the audience.|
When the subject is in the third person singular (he, she, or it), we put an –s on the end of the verb. For the first and second person, whether singular or plural, and for We leave off the –s from verbs that are conjugated to a plural subject.
- The cat walks.
- The cats walk.
Notice that when a verb is in the simple past, we alter the verb to show that the action occurred in the past, but we usually don’t mark the verb for conjugation to show the number of the subject:
- The cat walked.
- The cats walked.
The verb that deviates the most from this pattern is also the most commonly used verb in the English language: to be.
|Simple past||Simple present||Simple future|
|First person (I)||was||am||will be|
|Second person (you)||were||are||will be|
|Third person (he, she, it)||was||is||will be|
|First person (we)||were||are||will be|
|Second person (you)||were||are||will be|
|Third person (they)||were||are||will be|
As I explained above, a finite verb has a subject and can serve as the main verb in a complete sentence. In the following examples, the finite verbs are in boldface and the nonfinite verbs are underlined. Notice that the nonfinite forms are often used in combination with a finite verb to express the timing of the action.
- He sleeps all day.
- He is sleeping.
- He has slept
- He will have to sleep eventually
- He will try to get more sleep.
Note that when a verb has not been linked to any subject, such as “dream” in the phrase “to dream the impossible dream,” you don’t have to do anything to the ending of the verb. Thus, grammarians started to call that form of the verb the “no-ending” form, or infinitive, from the Latin word infinitivus, which means without an ending. (The English word infinite also means “without an end,” in the sense of going on forever.) There are two forms of infinitive in English: the bare infinitive and the to-infinitive:
- He will sleep.
- He will try to sleep
Notice that the nonfinite verbs sleeping and slept do have some sort of ending. Thus, they are not infinitives. Because they take part in expressing the action of the finite verb, they are called participles, which came from the Latin word participium, which means a sharing. There are two types of participles in English. The present participle is always made by adding the ending -ing to the word. The past participles are trickier in English. Many of them are irregular because they were derived from Old English words that had complicated rules for making the past participle. If you have any doubt about what the past participles of a verb should be, look the word up in a dictionary.
|Bare Infinitive||Present Participle||Past Participle|
|saw (to cut with a saw)||sawing||sawed or sawn|
Timing (Tense and Aspect) of Verbs
Good writers pay careful attention to the timing expressed by their verbs, adverbs, and adverbial phrases. There are two ways to express the timing of an action or state of being. One is to mark the verb itself (e.g., saying “I worked” as opposed to “I am working”). The other way is to use some adverb or adverbial phrase that expresses timing (e.g., saying “I worked until midnight last night” or “I am working tomorrow). Notice that adding “until midnight last night” clarified the timing of the verb, but adding the word tomorrow changed the timing. Instead of expressing what is going on now, “I am woring tomorrow” expresses my plans for the following day.
The tense of a verb refers to whether the action or state of being expressed by the verb is in the past, the present, or the future.
The aspect of the verb refers to other features of the timing of the verb, such as whether the action is finished or ongoing, or whether the action occurred once or repeatedly. For example, we use past participles to express the perfect aspect, which describes actions that have been completed. We use present participles to express the progressive aspect of a verb, which describes ongoing action. When grammar teachers talk about the tense of a verb, they usually mean a combination of tense and aspect. In the following table, you can see how a finite verb plus bare infinitives and participles are used to express tense and aspect in English.
|Progressive||was eating||am, are, or is eating||will be eating|
|Perfect||had eaten||have eaten||will have eaten|
|Perfect progressive||had been eating||have been eating||will have been eating|
|Imperfect||used to eat, would eat,‡ always ate||—||—|
|*The simple present tense can also be expressed by using the finite verb do or does plus the bare form of the infinitive (I do eat, he does eat). To negate the simple present, you negate the finite verb (I do not eat, he does not eat).
†The simple future can also be expressed with a simple present form of to be (am, are, is) plus the present participle going plus the to-infinitive of the verb (e.g., he is going to win).
‡The modal auxiliary would can be used to express the imperfect aspect but can also be used to express the conditional mood
From studying this table of English Verb Tenses, you can see that the underlying rules for making those tenses are simple.
- The past tenses have a finite verb in the past tense. In the simple past, that finite verb is the main verb. In the other tenses, the finite verb is an auxiliary verb (was or had)
- The present tenses have a finite verb in the present tense. For the simple present, the finite verb is usually the main verb. It can also be do or does, which is complemented by the bare infinitive. In the other tenses, the finite verb is an auxiliary verb (am, are, is, or have).
- The future tenses have a finite verb in the future tense (the auxiliary verb will). That auxiliary verb is complemented by a bare infinitive, either the main verb or the auxiliary verb have.
- The simple tenses have no participles.
- The progressive tenses have a present participle that expresses ongoing action.
- The perfect tenses have a past participle that expresses compete action.
- The perfect progressive tenses have both a present and a past participle.
Proper Usage of English Tenses
Simple Past Tense
The simple past tense is used to describe actions that is in the past relative to the speaker or writer. It can be used to describe action in a time period that has finished or for a definite time period in the past:
- We went to the Adirondacks last summer.
- We worked on it for a week.
The simple past tense is also used for expressing a series of completed actions in the past. Notice that the actions are usually expressed in the order in which they occurred:
- I woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head.
If a statement contains an independent clause and a when-clause that both contain a verb in the simple past, the action in the when-clause happened first, even if the when clause appears at the end of the sentence.:
- The students ran out of the classroom when the bell rang.
The simple past tense can also be used to describe habits that stopped in the past. Thus, it can have the same meaning as “used to.” Adverbs or adverbial phrases are often added to emphasize that the action was a habit:
- We always had pancakes for breakfast on Sundays.
The simple past is used to express facts that used to be true but are no longer true:
- Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States during World War I.
To make the emphatic form of the simple past, use the finite form of the verb to do:
- We did wash the dishes!
To negate the simple past, add “not” to the emphatic form:
- No, you did not wash the dishes!
To ask a question in the simple past, use the emphatic form:
- Did you wash the dishes?
The words “did not” can be contracted into didn’t:
- You didn’t wash the dishes!
To express the passive voice in the simple past, use was/were and the past participle:
- The window was broken.
- The dishes were washed.
Simple Present Tense
The simple present tense in English is the base form of the verb. It is made out of the bare infinitive. It is used to express ideas that are true in the present:
- Jacqueline lives in Paris.
- He is 20 years old.
The simple present tense is also used for statements that are always true:
- Bees make honey.
- Earth is the third planet from the Sun.
The simple present tense is also used to express habits and repeated action in the present. Sometimes, an adverb (sometimes, always, often, or never) or an adverbial phrase (on Sundays) is used with the simple present tense:
- She goes to church every Sunday.
- She never misses a meeting.
The simple present tense is also used to express something that will happen at a fixed point in the future:
- They fly to Los Angeles tomorrow.
Sometimes, the simple present tense is formed from the finite form of the verb to do, along with the base infinitive. This form is sometimes called the emphatic tense or emphatic mood because it emphasizes the verb:
- I do believe in spooks! I do, I do, I do believe in spooks!
The emphatic form is important because it is the basis for the interrogative form (questions) and the negative form of the simple present tense. Note that people often leave off the infinitive if it is clear from context::
- Do you take insulin? (Interrogative form)
- No, I do not [take insulin]. (Negative form)
Simple Future Tense
There are two ways to express the simple future tense in English. One is to use the finite form of the auxiliary verb will plus the bare infinitive of the main verb:
- The doors will open at 3:00 pm.
Sometimes, the verb will is contracted:
- I’ll see you later.
- He’ll be home after 6:00 pm.
/n ilaThe other way to express the simple present in English is to use the finite form of the verb to be plus the present participle going plus the to-infinitive form of the verb:
- I am going to cook supper tonight.
Both the “will” form and the “going to” form can be used to express that something will happen in the future. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter which form you use. However, we generally use the “will” form to express voluntary action or to make a promise.
- I will call you next week.
The “going to” form is often used to express a plan, whether or not the plan is realistic:
- We are going to have chili for supper.
- I’m going to marry a billionaire.
For a simple prediction, you can use “will” or “going to”:
- He will win the election.
- He is going to be the next mayor.
Never use the future tense in time clauses:
- When you arrive, we will serve dinner. (Not “when you will arrive.…”)
To negate the future tense, add the word “not.” The word “not” can be contracted as won’t (will not) or isn’t (is not):
- John will not listen.
- John won’t listen.
- Jane is not going to listen.
- Jane isn’t going to listen.
To use the simple future in a question in English, adjust the word order:
- Will you pay for this?
- Is he going to pay for this?
To express the passive voice in the simple present, use is/are and the past participle:
- English and Spanish are spoken here.
Past Progressive Tense
The past progressive tense is formed by using the simple past tense form of to be (was, were) and the present participle (the ‑ing) form of the verb. The past progressive tense is used to express that an action was interrupted in the past. The interruption is usually expressed by a verb in the simple past:
- We were eating supper when the earthquake hit.
The interruption can also be a specific time:
- At 6:00 pm, I was eating supper.
Note that the simple past is used to express when an action began or ended. The past progressive tense is used only to express that the action was ongoing when the interruption occurred.
- At 6:00 pm, we ate supper. (We started eating at 6:00 pm.)
- When the phone rang, we were eating supper.
The past progressive tense can be used to express that two actions were going on at the same time in the past:
- He was planting flowers while she was mowing the lawn.
Writers often use a series of parallel actions to describe a setting:
- It was chaos. The children were running around, the dogs were barking, and the parents were yelling.
The past progressive tense is often used with words such as “always” or “constantly” to express disapproval of something that often happened in the past:
- He was always wasting time.
- They were constantly complaining about the food.
Because the progressive aspect means an ongoing action, you would use while, not when, with the past progressive tense. You would use when, not while, with the simple past:
- He called while I was sleeping.
- I was sleeping when he called.
To express the passive voice in the past progressive tense, use was/were being and the past participle:
- Dinner was being prepared when they arrived.
Present Progressive Tense
The present progressive tense is used to express continuing action that is going on now:
- The baby is sleeping.
- The children are staying at their grandparents’ house this summer.
The present progressive tense can also be used to express things that are about to happen:
- I am leaving for my vacation tomorrow.
Note that the progressive aspect is used only for dynamic verbs, which express some sort of activity or process or bodily sensation:
- I am walking.
- My head is aching.
We do not use the progressive aspect for stative verbs, which express a relationship or some inert perception:
- I hate seafood. (Not I am hating seafood.)
- He owes me $10. (Not he is owing me $10.)
To express the present progressive tense in the passive voice, use is/are being and the past participle:
- They are being watched.
Future progressive tense
The future progressive tense is made by the future tense (will be or is going to be) plus the present participle. It is used for expressing interrupted actions in the future:
- He will be waiting for your call.
- She is going to be working all afternoon, so she won’t be home when you arrive.
- At midnight, I will be sleeping.
The simple future is used to show when an action begins or ends. The future progressive tense is used to show that an action will be happening when something else happens or at some specific point in time:
- At 6:30 pm, I will eat supper. (I will start eating at 6:00 pm.)
- At 6:30 pm, I will be eating supper. (I will be in the process of eating at 6:30 pm.)
The future progressive tense can be used to show that two or more activities will be happening at the same time:
- At the party, some people with be dancing, others will be singing, and a few people will be drinking.
Do not use a future tense in time clauses:
- While I wash the dishes, he will fold the laundry. (Not “while I am going to be washing the dishes.…”)
To make a question out of the future progressive tense, change the word order:
- Will you be waiting for me at the train station when I arrive?
To negate the future progressive tense, add “not”:
- I will not be waiting for you at the station.
Here’s an example of the passive voice in the future progressive tense:
- The restrooms will be being cleaned when the guests arrive.
Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect tense is made out of had and the past participle. It is used to express an action or duration that was completed before some time in the past:
- They had already eaten before the luncheon started.
- She had studied French for three years before she went to Paris.
If the sentence contains the words “before” or “after,” the past perfect is optional because the timing of two events is clear:
- She studied French before she went to Paris.
However, if you are talking about an event that never happened, you need to use the past perfect tense:
- He had not studied French before he went to Paris.
Here’s an example of the passive voice in the past perfect tense:
- Many of the cookies had been eaten by the time the guests arrived.
Present Perfect Tense
The present perfect tense is expressed by using has/have and the past participle. It is used to express that some action was completed at some unspecified time in the past:
- I have already been to France.
It is not used with specific time expressions, such as yesterday or last week. If you specify a particular time, you should use the simple past tense:
- I went to France last summer.
In other words, the present perfect tense is not used to describe a particular event but to explain that someone has had a particular experience. Nevertheless, you can use adverbial phrases to limit the time frame. Also, notice how you alter the word order to use the present perfect tense in a sentence::
- Have you had anything to eat within the past 12 hours?
The present perfect tense is also used to express a duration that lasted up until the present:
- I have been in the country for more than a year.
The present perfect tense can also be used to talk about change that has happened over time:
- Those trees have grown very tall since I was here last.
The present perfect tense can also be used to talk about accomplishments, of individuals or of humanity as a whole:
- Her daughter has learned to play the piano.
- Researchers have discovered the cause of the disease.
The present perfect tense can also be used to talk about events that have occurred at various times in the past:
- She has called on that customer numerous times.
- I have interviewed many experts.
The present perfect tense can also be used to say that something that you expected has not yet happened. Notice that the adverb not goes between has/have and the participle, and that the has/have and not can be contracted as hasn’t or haven’t::
- The mail has not arrived yet.
- He hasn’t learned cursive writing, but he’s a good typist.
Here’s an example of the passive voice in the present perfect tense:
- He has been called many names.
Future Perfect Tense
The future perfect tense is made by “will have” or “be going to have” plus the participle. It is used to express the idea that something will (or will not) happen before some other time or event in the future.
- You will have finished your homework by the time he gets back.
- I am not going to have finished my homework before the movie starts.
It can also be used to express a duration of time before some time or event:
- On Tuesday, I will have been working on this project for a full year.
Remember, the future is not used in time clauses:
- You may eat your dessert after you finish your broccoli. (Not “after you will have finished”)
Here’s how to use the future perfect tense in the passive voice:
- The cookies will have been eaten by the time the guests arrive.
Mood of Verbs
The mood of a verb expresses the speaker or writer’s attitude toward the action or state of being described by the verb. For example, the indicative mood is used to express something that the speaker or writer believes to be factual. In contrast, the imperative mood is used for commands and requests. The interrogative mood is used for asking questions. The conditional mood is used for expressing what might, could, or would happen if some condition is met. The subjunctive, which is seldom used in English, is used to express something that is contrary to reality.
|Indicative||Statements of fact|
|Imperative||Commands (the subject [you] may be implied)|
|Conditional||What would happen if some condition is met|
|Subjunctive||A hypothetical state, a state contrary to reality, such as a wish, a desire, or an imaginary situation|