Verbs are the parts of speech that show action or indicate a state of being. We put them with nouns, and we create complete sentences. Like nouns, verbs are foundational in our vocabulary, and we learned verbs as children shortly after we learned nouns. The following pages will help you learn more about verbs, as there really is a lot to consider when it comes to verbs, such as making our subjects and verbs agree, using active versus passive voice, and keeping our verbs in the same tenses.
We’ll explain the types of verbs first, to give you context and help you establish some “verb vocabulary,” but most writers will want to pay close attention to issues of tense, subject-verb agreement, and active versus passive voice in the pages that follow.
Auxiliary verbs are sometimes called the helping verbs because they work with the main verb in a sentence and “help it out”. Together, the auxiliary verb and the main verb form a unit. Here are some examples of sentences containing auxiliary verbs:
- Steven is leaving and taking his football with him. How are we going to play now?
- Her favorite team has finished at the top of the conference, so she is going to buy a team jersey. I hope she buys me one, too.
Common Auxiliary Verbs
Linking verbs join or “link” the subject of a sentence with the rest of the sentence. They make a statement by linking things, as opposed to showing any kind of action.
Common linking verbs are any of the to be verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, and being. However, become and seem are also common, and other verbs have the potential to be linking verbs. It really depends upon the sentence. Here is an example of a common linking verb used in a sentence:
- My environmental biology class is interesting because our teacher thinks Bigfoot might exist.
Here are some examples of how other verbs can become linking verbs:
- That house looks haunted.
- Those old shoes smell funny.
Because linking verbs and auxiliary verbs are often the same words, you may wonder how you can tell the difference between a linking verb and an auxiliary verb. The key is that linking verbs join the subject and the predicate of a sentence, and in some ways, allow the predicate to rename the subject; auxiliary verbs will be used with other verbs.
Action verbs are the verbs you can probably identify as verbs quickly and easily. These are the words that show action, words like jump, run, and eat.
There are two main classes of action verbs: transitive and intransitive, and there aren’t separate lists for each class. Action verbs can be both transitive and intransitive because it all depends on the structure of the sentence.
A transitive verb expresses action toward a person or thing named in the sentence. An intransitive verb expresses action without making any reference to an object.
The college freshman ate Ramen noodles.
The college freshman complained loudly.
Sophia speaks French.
She speaks fluently.
Verbs can be in the present tense, present progressive tense, past tense, past progressive, present perfect, or past perfect. According to Martha Kolln, author of Rhetorical Grammar, there are two grammatical features of verbs that are especially useful: tense and agency, which will be discussed later in the pages on passive voice.
It’s important to understand tense because you want to be consistent with your verb tenses in your writing. It’s a common mistake to shift tenses without realizing it. This discussion of tenses can increase your “tense awareness,” which will lead to fewer errors.
Let’s take the verb to eat as an example and see how it looks in the different tenses with the subject I.
|present tense (present point in time)
I eat dinner.
|present progressive (present action of limited duration)
I am eating dinner.
|past tense (specific point in the past)
I ate dinner yesterday.
|past progressive (past action of limited duration)
I was eating.
|present perfect (completed action from a point in the past ending at or near present)
I have eaten dinner.
|past perfect (past action completed before another action also in the past)
I had just eaten dinner when the phone rang.
When it comes to verb tenses, it’s important to be consistent and to be aware of any shifts. If you shift, there needs to be a reason for the shift. Also, APA will often require past tense in your essays, while MLA requires present tense, even if the words have been written in the past. For example, to set up a quote in APA, you might write something like this:
- Smith (2009) wrote, “This verb stuff is really confusing” (p. 10).
In MLA, you would set up the same quote with a present tense verb, like this:
- Smith writes, “This verb stuff is really confusing” (10).
For a more in-depth explanation of APA recommendations for verb tense usage in literature reviews and research papers, go to: Verb Tense Shift.
“The basic rule of sentence agreement is simple: A subject must agree with its verb in number. Number means singular or plural.” (Rozakis, 2003, p. 62) The subject may be either singular or plural, and the verb selection should match the subject. The task sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to make the subject and verb match without some thought. Subject-verb agreement errors are common errors many beginning writers make, and they are highly-stigmatized errors, which means people will judge you for them.
Here are some tips to help you avoid subject-verb agreement errors.
- When the subject of a sentence is composed of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by and, use a plural verb.
- Suzy and her friend are missing the best movie ever!
- When the subject of a sentence is composed of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by or, use a singular verb.
- The pen or the pencil is in the drawer, my purse, my book bag, or perhaps, my pencil pouch.
- Do not be confused by a phrase that comes between your subject and your verb.
- Russell Wilson, as well as the rest of the Seattle Seahawks, is ready for the game against the Green Bay Packers.
- Collective nouns can be tricky. Sometimes, they take a singular verb, and sometimes they take a plural verb. It depends upon how they are being used. Be sure to refer to the Collective Nouns page for more information and examples.
- Fractions can be especially tricky, but the rule is that fractions should be treated as singular or plural, depending upon the noun they are referring to.
- Two-thirds of the zombies in “The Walking Dead” move slowly. The rest can apparently sprint.
- Two-thirds of your cake was eaten before you got home.
Active Versus Passive Verbs
As mentioned earlier, grammarian Martha Kolln mentions agency as one of the most important aspects of verb you should know about. Agency involves understanding the relationship between the subject and the verb in a sentence and whether or not the subject is the agent in the sentence.
Take a moment to read the following two sentences.
- Amy grabbed the zombie survival guide.
- The zombie survival guide was grabbed by Amy.
Can you see how these sentences are different?
In the first sentence, the verb grabbed is active because its subject, Amy is the doer or agent. Amy did the grabbing.
In the second sentence, was grabbed is passive because it describes an action done to its subject, guide. The doer of the action, Amy, is now the object of the preposition by.
We want to use active verbs whenever possible as they allow us to express ourselves clearly, succinctly, and strongly. Active verbs imply that we’re confident with what we’re saying; we believe in our words. Looking back at the two sentences, we can see that the first one uses fewer words and makes no mistake as to who did the action. The latter sentence is wordy and does not directly address Amy.
TIP! A little strategy you can use to test to see if you’re using passive voice is to see if you can add by zombies after the verb. If you can, then you likely have passive voice and may want to restructure your sentence. In the example above, you could certainly say, was grabbed by zombies, so you know this is passive voice.
Purposeful Passive Voice
There are occasions when we might want to use passive verbs, such as when we don’t want to mention the doer, the result of the action is more important than the doer, or the doer is unknown. Let’s take the following scenario and apply it to all three reasons for using a passive verb.
Tom and Mark, two brothers, are preparing their home for the zombie apocalypse. Tom is throwing canned goods across the room to Mark, who is stacking them on a shelf. They continue to throw canned goods across the room, despite knowing that it’s against their mother’s wishes. Tom throws a can of creamy corn to Mark and accidentally hits a vase. The vase breaks into pieces. Their mother asks what happened.
The responses could go as follows:
- Tom threw the creamy corn and broke the vase.
- The vase was broken when the creamy corn was thrown at it.
The first sentence uses the active verbs "threw" and "broke". It simply tells what happened and squarely blames Tom. The second sentence uses the passive verbs "was broken" and "was thrown". It doesn’t mention who threw the can of corn, keeping the doer unknown. Also, it might be reasonable to believe that Tom thinks letting his mother know that the vase is broken is more important than identifying who broke the vase.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, what is a vase in the face of a zombie apocalypse, but you get the idea!
TIP! There are some situations when passive voice can be useful, so it’s not the case that passive voice is “wrong.” It’s just that, in most college-level essays, your professors will want you to use active voice because it makes for lively, more engaging writing. A good way to spot passive voice is to look for to be verbs. You will want to limit those as well.