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1.3: Verbs

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    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

    Active verbs are the simplest type of verb: they simply express some sort of action.

    Let’s look at example verbs:

    • contain
    • roars
    • runs
    • sleeps

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


    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.

    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.
      • Hates is also a transitive verb. Without the phrase “filling out forms,” the phrase “She hates” doesn’t make any sense.
    • 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.


    There are some verbs that can act as both transitive and intransitive verbs.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\)



    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.


    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.

    Multi-Word Verbs

    Multi-word verbs a subclass of active verbs. They are made up of multiple words, as you might have guessed. They include things like stirfry, kickstart, and turn in. Multi-word verbs often have a slightly different meaning than their base parts. Take a look at the difference between the next two sentences:

    • Ben carried the boxes out of the house.
    • Ben carried out the task well.

    The first sentence uses a single word verb (carried) and the preposition out. If you remove the preposition (and its object), you get “Ben carried the boxes,” which makes perfect sense. In the second sentence, carried out acts as a single entity. If you remove out, the sentence has no meaning: “Ben carried the task well” doesn’t make sense.

    Let’s look at another example:

    • She’s been shut up in there for years.
    • Dude, shut up.

    Can you see how the same principles apply here? Other multi-word verbs include find out, make off with, turn in, and put up with.

    Helping Verbs

    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:

    • Mariah is looking for her keys still.
    • Kai had checked the weather three times already, but he looked one more time to see if the forecast had changed.
    • What ever happens, do not let the water level drop below this line.

    As you just saw, helping verbs are usually pretty short, and they include things like is, had, and do (we’ll look at a more complete list later). 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:

    • 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.
    • Do you want tea?
      • Do is a helping verb accompanying the main verb want, used here to form a question.
    • Researchers are finding that propranolol is effective in the treatment of heartbeat irregularities.
      • The helping verb are indicates the present tense, and adds a sense of continuity to the verb finding.
    • He has given his all.
      • Has is a helping verb used in expressing the tense of given.

    The following table provides a short list of some verbs that can function as helping verbs, along with examples of the way they function.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Helping verbs





    Express tense and a sense of continuity

    He is sleeping.

    Express tense and indicate the passive voice

    They were seen.


    Express Ability

    I can swim.

    Such things can help.


    Express ability (past tense)

    I could swim.

    Express possibility

    That could help.


    Express willingness

    Who dares enter here?


    Express negation (requires the word not)

    You do not understand

    Ask a question

    Do you want to go?


    Express tense and a sense of completion

    They have understood.


    Ask permission

    May I stay?

    Express possibility

    That may take place.


    Express possibility

    We might give it a try.


    Express a command

    You must not mock me.

    Express confidence in a fact

    It must have rained.


    Express command/request

    You need not water the grass.


    Express a command/request

    You ought to play well.


    Express commitment

    You shall not pass.


    Express a request

    You should listen.

    Express likelihood

    That should help.


    Express future tense

    We will eat pie.

    Express confidence in a future occurrence

    He will make that mistake every time.


    Express future likelihood

    Nothing would accomplish that.

    Express “future in the past”

    After 1900, we would do that again.

    Express habitual actions in the past

    Back then we would always go there.

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

    Note: The helping verbs to be, to have, and would are used to indicate tense.


    Identify the helping verbs in the sentences below:

    1. Damian can’t work tonight. Do you want his shift?
    2. Cassandra couldn’t afford to give up.
    3. Richard was exercising when Barbara finally found him.

    Main Verbs

    The main verb is the most important verb in the sentence. It is always what expresses the central action or the state of being of the subject. Main verbs can be by themselves or they can be accompanied by a helping verb.


    Underline the verbs in the following sentences, including the helping verbs.

    1. Although the title would imply differently, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature actually describes the end of the wilderness rather than the end of nature.
    1. English 101 will lead to your success in college.
    2. Biodiversity is important to the overall health of an ecosystem.
    3. Beyoncé’s video “Formation” challenged some members of her audience to accept a more overtly political version of the pop star.
    4. Struck with an intense craving, Chelsea needed to eat at Crab n’ Spice.

    Contributors and Attributions

    1.3: Verbs is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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