Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

5.6: Verbs (Part 1)

  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Identify functions and categories of verbs
    • Identify helping verbs
    • Identify verb tenses
    • Identify subject and verb agreement
    • Identify verb tense consistency
    • Identify gerunds
    • Identify participles
    • Identify infinitives

    From 2002 to 2006, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ran a media campaign entitled “Verb: It’s What You Do.” This campaign was designed to help teens get and stay active, but it also provided a helpful soundbite for defining verbs: “It’s what you do.”

    Verbs are often called the “action” words of language. As we discuss verbs, we will learn that this isn’t always the case, but it is a helpful phrase to remember just what verbs are.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Traditionally, verbs are divided into three groups: active verbs (these are “action” words), linking verbs, and helping verbs (these two types of verbs are not “action” words). In this outcome, we’ll discuss all three of these groups. We’ll also learn how verbs work and how they change to suit the needs of a speaker or writer.

    Active Verbs


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Active verbs are the simplest type of verb: they simply express some sort of action. Watch this video introduction to verbs:

    Let’s look at the example verbs from the video one more time:

    • contain
    • roars
    • runs
    • sleeps

    All of these verbs are active verbs: they all express an action.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Identify the active verbs in the following sentences:

    1. Dominic paints the best pictures of meerkats.
    2. Sean’s hair curled really well today.
    3. Elephants roam the savanna.
    4. Billy ate an entire loaf of bread in one sitting.
    1. Dominic paints the best pictures of meerkats.
    2. Sean’s hair curled really well today.
    3. Elephants roam the savanna.
    4. Billy ate an entire loaf of bread in one sitting.

    Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

    Active verbs can be divided into two categories: transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb is a verb that requires one or more objects. This contrasts with intransitive verbs, which do not have objects.

    It might be helpful to think of it this way: transitive verbs have to be done to something or someone in the sentence. Intransitive verbs only have to be done by someone.

    Let’s look at a few examples of transitive verbs:

    • We are going to need a bigger boat.
      • The object in this sentence is the phrase “a bigger boat.” Consider how incomplete the thought would be if the sentence only said “We are going to need.” Despite having a subject and a verb, the sentence is meaningless without the object phrase.
    • She hates filling out forms.
      • Again, leaving out the object would cripple the meaning of the sentence. We have to know that “forms” is what she hates filling out.
    • Sean hugged his brother David.
      • You can see the pattern. . . . “Hugged” in this sentence is only useful if we know who Sean squeezed. David is the object of the transitive verb.

    Intransitive verbs, on the other do not take an object.

    • John sneezed loudly.
      • Even though there’s another word after sneezed, the full meaning of the sentence is available with just the subject John and the verb sneezed: “John sneezed.” Therefore, sneezed is an intransitive verb. It doesn’t have to be done to something or someone.
    • My computer completely died.
      • Again, died here is enough for the sentence to make sense. We know that the computer (the subject) is what died.

    This video provides a more in-depth explanation of transitive and intransitive verbs and how they work:


    There are some verbs that can act as both transitive and intransitive verbs (the video defined these as bitransitive verbs):

    Intransitive Transitive
    The fire has burned for hundreds of years. Miranda burned all of her old school papers.
    Don’t let the engine stop running! Karl ran the best horse track this side of the river.
    The vase broke. She broke the toothpick.
    Does your dog bite? The cat bit him.
    Water evaporates when it’s hot. Heat evaporates water.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Read the following sentences. Are the verbs in each transitive or intransitive?

    1. Liv fell out of the car.
    2. Ian has written over four hundred articles on the subject.
    3. Christopher sings really well.
    4. Marton wondered about a lot of things.
    5. Cate gave great gifts.
    1. Liv fell out of the car. Fell is intransitive.
    2. Ian has written over four hundred articles on the subject. Has written is transitive.
    3. Christopher sings really well. Sings is intransitive.
    4. Marton wondered about a lot of things. Wondered is intransitive.
    5. Cate gave great gifts. Gave is transitive.

    Linking Verbs


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    A linking verb is a verb that links a subject to the rest of the sentence. There isn’t any “real” action happening in the sentence. Sentences with linking verbs become similar to math equations. The verb acts as an equal sign between the items it links.

    As the video establishes, to be verbs are the most common linking verbs (iswaswere, etc.). David and the bear establish that there are other linking verbs as well. Here are some illustrations of other common linking verbs:

    • Over the past five days, Charles has become a new man.
      • It’s easy to reimagine this sentence as “Over the past five days, Charles = a new man.”
    • Since the oil spill, the beach has smelled bad.
      • Similarly, one could also read this as “Since the oil spill, the beach = smelled bad.”
    • That word processing program seems adequate for our needs.
      • Here, the linking verb is slightly more nuanced than an equals sign, though the sentence construction overall is similar. (This is why we write in words, rather than math symbols, after all!)
    • This calculus problem looks difficult.
    • With every step Jake took, he could feel the weight on his shoulders growing.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Read each sentence and determine whether its verb is a linking verb or not:

    1. Terry smelled his yogurt to see if it was still good.
    2. Rosa looks intimidating.
    3. Amy looked over at the clock to check the time.
    4. Gina smelled like chrysanthemums and mystery.
    5. Raymond is a fantastic boss.
    1. Terry smelled his yogurt to see if it was still good. Smelled is an active verb in this sentence.
    2. Rosa looks intimidating. Looks is a linking verb in this sentence.
    3. Amy looked over at the clock to check the time. Looked is an active verb in this sentence.
    4. Gina smelled like chrysanthemums and mystery. Smelled is a linking verb in this sentence.
    5. Raymond is a fantastic boss. Is is a linking verb in this sentence.

    Helping Verbs


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Helping verbs (sometimes called auxiliary verbs) are, as the name suggests, verbs that help another verb. They provide support and add additional meaning. Here are some examples of helping verbs in sentences:

    • By 1967, about 500 U.S. citizens had received heart transplants.
      • While received could function on its own  as a complete thought here, the helping verb had emphasizes the distance in time of the date in the opening phrase.
    • Better immunosuppression management in transplant operations has yielded better results.
      • This time, the helping verb adds clarity to the main verb yielded.  Without it, the sentence would be difficult to understand.
    • Researchers are finding that propranolol is effective in the treatment of heartbeat irregularities.
      • The helping verb are adds immediacy to the verb finding.

    Let’s look at some more examples to examine exactly what these verbs do. Take a look at the sentence “I have finished my dinner.” Here, the main verb is finish, and the helping verb have helps to express tense. Let’s look at two more examples:

    • Do you want tea?
      • Do is a helping verb accompanying the main verb want, used here to form a question.
    • He has given his all.
      • Has is a helping verb used in expressing the tense of given.

    A list of verbs that (can) function as helping verbs in English is as follows:

    • be (and all its forms)
    • cancould
    • dare
    • do (and all its forms)
    • have (and all its forms)
    • maymightmust
    • need
    • ought
    • shallshould
    • willwould

    The negative forms of these words (can’tdon’twon’t, etc.) are also helping verbs.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Identify the helping verbs in the sentences below:

    1. Do you want Tim’s shift tonight?
    2. Cassandra couldn’t afford to give up.
    3. Richard was exercising when Barbara finally found him.
    1. Do you want Tim’s shift tonight? (Do accompanies want. In this sentence, it is used to make a question.)
    2. Cassandra couldn’t afford to give up. (Couldn’t helps afford. In this sentence, it indicates how possible the verb affordis.)
    3. Richard was exercising when Barbara finally found him. (Was accompanies exercising. In this sentence, it is used to indicate the tense.)

    The following table shows examples of the helping verbs in standard English. Some helping verbs have more than one example as they can be used in multiple ways.

    Helping Verb Examples
    be He is sleeping. They were seen.
    can can swim. Such things can help.
    could could swim. That could help.
    dare How dare you!
    do You did not understand.
    have They have understood.
    may May I stay? That may take place.
    might We might give it a try.
    must You must not mock me. It must have rained.
    need You need not water the grass.
    ought You ought to play well.
    shall You shall not pass.
    should You should listen. That should help.
    will We will eat pie. The sun will rise tomorrow at 6:03. He will make that mistake every time.
    would Nothing would accomplish that. After 1990, we would do that again. Back then we would always go there

    Verb Tenses

    What is tense? There are three standard tenses in English: past, present and future. All three of these tenses have simple and more complex forms. For now we’ll just focus on the simple present (things happening now), the simple past (things that happened before), and the simple future (things that will happen later).


    Present Tense

    Watch this quick introduction to the present tense:

    Past Tense

    Watch this quick introduction to the past tense:

    Future Tense

    Watch this quick introduction to the future tense:

    Other Forms of the Past, Present, and Future

    You may have noticed that in the present tense video David talked about “things that are happening right now” and that he mentioned there were other ways to create the past and future tense. We won’t discuss these tenses in too much depth, but it’s important to recognize them.

    We already discussed these briefly in Text: Helping Verbs. These forms are created with different forms of to be and to have:

    • He had eaten everything by the time we got there.
    • She is waiting for us to get there!
    • He will have broken it by next Thursday, you can be sure.
    • She was singing for eight hours.

    When you combine to be with the –ing form of a verb you create a sense of continuity. The subject of the sentence was (or is, or will be) doing that thing for awhile. When you combine to have with the past participle of a verb, you create a sense of completion. This thing had been done for a while (or has been, or will have been). The sense of past, present, or future comes from the conjugation of to beor to have. For further discussion on this topic, look at the “Participles” section in Text: Non-Finite Verbs.


    Most verbs will follow the pattern that we just learned in the previous videos:

    Person Past Present Future
    I verb + ed verb will verb
    We verb + ed verb will verb
    You verb + ed verb will verb
    He, She, It verb + ed verb + (or es) will verb
    They verb + ed verb will verb

    To Walk

    Let’s look at the verb to walk for an example:

    Person Past Present Future
    I walked walk will walk
    We walked walk will walk
    You walked walk will walk
    He, She, It walked walks will walk
    They walked walk will walk

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Change the tense of each sentence as directed below. You can type your answers in the text field below:

    1. Make this sentence present tense: Alejandra directed a play.
    2. Make this sentence past tense: Lena will show me how to use a microscope.
    3. Make this sentence future tense: Gabrielly eats a lot of hamburgers.

    1. Alejandra directs a play.
    2. Lena showed me how to use a microscope.
    3. Gabrielly will eat a lot of hamburgers.

    Irregular Verbs

    There are a lot of irregular verbs. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of memorization involved in keeping them straight. This video shows a few of the irregular verbs you’ll have to use the most often (to beto haveto do, and to say):


    • Was this article helpful?