Verb Types

It is fair to say that verbs are probably the most important component of a sentence: they can define the subject, define the relationship between subject and object, advance the idea of the sentence, paragraph, or even essay, and they can make any writing weak or strong. Verbs establish time, pace, condition, voice, and many other elements of a sentence. Choosing the best verb available and using it correctly and appropriately are therefore crucial skills that every good writer must master.

To do this, we must first recognize the types of verbs available to us.

Verb Types

be active copula(r)/state modal
auxiliary transitive intransitive ambitransitive

Structural Types

base regular irregular passive active participles (verbals)

  • Be Verb

Forms: was, were, am, is, are, will be, been, being (+any combination with other verbs to create a compound verb)

The be verb is the most widely used verb in English. It can be used on its own, or as a helping verb (auxiliary) in compound verbs. It is a linking verb (copula verb), but we will look at it on its own before moving on to the other copula verbs.

The be verb is used to express the condition or state of the subject. In other words, it shows the situation of the sentence, whereby the subject is described (and so defined) by what follows. When used on its own, the be verb indicates no action, no movement, and no progression of any sort. Put more simply, the be verb expresses a certain existence. It might help to think of the be verb in this context as an equal sign (=). The weather here is nice. (the weather = nice)

Jake’s father was a senior manager at Microsoft, but is now unemployed. I am sure he will be fine, though. (Jack’s father, in the past = manager; now, he = unemployed; I think, future, he = fine)

Despite all his friends, colleagues, and even family telling Joshua to quit smoking, he is being stubborn, declaring he will not be told what to do.

The most important thing to remember about the be verb is that it cannot be used with an active verb in any simple tense. That means that He was played basketball in high school, is incorrect. You can say He played basketball, or He was a basketball player.

The be verb can be used as part of a compound verb to indicate, for example, a continuous tense (am doing), or a passive voice (was done). In these cases, the be verb changes to indicate the tense or the voice of the action—it does not indicate a situation.

The detectives are still searching for clues to the murder.

The package was delivered on time, but Mr. Kent’s assistant is unaware of where the package is being held at the moment.

I would like to thank everyone for their wonderful support. The letters and emails have been a wonderful source of encouragement.

  • Active Verbs

Forms (examples): did, do, does, will do, has done, played, play, plays, will play, eat, ate, was eaten, will eat, read, read, will read, etc.

Participle forms: done, doing, played, eaten, read, etc.

Active verbs indicate what is happening in the sentence. Although other verbs may appear active (copula, state, etc.), active verbs must indicate a movement or action of some kind, as defined by the verb itself. Active verbs are transitive or intransitive, as will be discussed later.

These days more and more doctors treat patients holistically, using naturopathic methods adopted from the medical practices of the East. In this sentence there are three active verbs (treat, use, adopt). Only treat is used in its simple form; using and adopted are both participles.

Participles are active verbs that are used as adjectives or adverbs. Although they keep the appearance of being verbs, they are not necessarily being used to indicate an action or movement, but rather are being used to describe a verb or noun (in the above sentence, using is an adverb participle used to indicate how doctors treat patients; adopted is a participle being used as an adjective to describe, or say something about, the methods the doctors use).

For more on participles, click here.

  • State and Copula(r)

Examples of state verbs: have (possession), understand, love, think (opinion), believe, like, feel, appear, know, remember, want, look, feel, taste, smell, sound etc.

(main) Categories of state verbs: emotion, thought, sense, possession.

(main) Copula verbs: be, become, seem, appear, get, grow, stay, keep, turn, go, remain, resemble, run (operate), lie

Copula verbs are also called linking verbs, as they link the subject and the subject complement according to some sort of relationship:

She is nice.; She seems nice.; She appears to be a nice person.; I think she is nice.

Certain verbs appear to be action verbs, but are in fact not so. They indicate no action or movement, but rather a state of being or a transition of from one state to another. While in most cases the grammatical rules that apply to active verbs also apply to state and copula verbs, one rule stands out as different: we cannot use state verbs in an –ing form. Copula verbs, on the other hand, can be used with the –ing form.

Incorrect: I really hope you are understanding what I am saying. (understand is a state verb, in that you are not “doing” anything in order to understand; you either do or you do not understand)

Correct: I really hope you understand what I am saying.

Correct: English is becoming the most commonly used language in the world. (Become is a copula verb in that it links one state of being to another state of being, showing a transition.)

This might cause some confusion. Firstly, remember that we are not speaking of actions when we use these verbs; rather, we are describing the state or situation of something. Compare:

The chef tasted the soup to see if it needed more salt. Tasted here is an action verb with a direct object (the soup). It means placing some of the soup on the tongue to gauge its flavor.

The soup tasted wonderful and needed nothing to make it better. Tasted here is a copula verb, without action but rather a state of the soup (wonderful). In this case, wonderful acts as a subject complement to the soup (the soup’s taste = wonderful).

Modal verbs modify other verbs by adding particular aspects to them. In other words, they add an element of degree to these other verbs. For example, they add an element of probability, necessity, recommendation, and so on.

The modal verbs are: may/might; can/could; should/ought to; must; will; would; shall (rare)

Note: Modal verbs do not adjust for tense. They are taken as is, and depend only on the situation of the sentence. In other words, they do not, for example, take an ‘s’ in the third person singular in present simple. The only exceptions are could (past of can), and would (past of will).

Other verbs that act as modals are: need to, have to, and had better. These verbs, however, are treated as regular active verbs, whereby they adjust to the tense that the sentence calls for. (needed to, had to; had better is not used in the past tense)

Functions of modal verbs:

Hypothetical: would: I would help you if I could, but I’m too busy these days.

When we speak of the past in terms of actions or situations that could have happened, we are speaking hypothetically. In these cases we can also use might, should, and could + have + past participle. This is because the past cannot be changed, and all present thoughts and discussions about actions in the past are hypothetical.

Probability: may, might: I might be able to help you tomorrow, but I’ll have to check my schedule first. I’ll let you know by tonight.

Permission: may: Ladies and gentlemen, you may begin your tests when you hear the bell.

Recommendation/Advice: should, ought to: You should read over the contract before you sign it.

Ability: can, could: Lindsey can speak five languages fluently.; When he was younger, Jack could swim across the lake.

Necessity: must: All visitors must declare their purpose when checking in at the airport.

  • Auxiliary/Helping Verbs

Helping verbs are used in conjunction with other verbs to create specific forms. The helping verbs are be, do, have, and will. Though they can be used on their own, as helping verbs they are used to create passive structures, continuous structures, perfect structures, negative forms, question forms, to show a tense, or to add emphasis:
The letter was written last week.

The workers are drilling a hole in the ground to check for problems.

The package has arrived.

William wasn’t able to attend.

Do you understand?

I will deliver the package for you.

I did see it, but I still can’t believe it.

  • Transitive

Transitive verbs are verbs that must have a direct object associated with them in order to complete their meaning. The best example of this is the verb want. It is impossible to want without wanting something (direct object).

Alex wants to play tennis. (to play tennis is the direct object of want. In this case, tennis is the object of play, while to play is the direct object of want.)

Other examples of transitive verbs:

give bring offer make take show tell owe buy

Ladies and gentlemen, I need you to give me your full attention, please. (you to give me your full attention is the direct object of need, while your full attention is the direct object of give; me is the indirect object of give)

This trip will require an overnight stay in a log cabin in the mountains. Please bring warm clothing and toiletries with you as there is nowhere on the mountain to buy anything you might need.

The residents of this area demand an explanation. We feel that this is the minimum the company owes us.

  • Intransitive

These are verbs that are not associated with, nor do they require a direct object. A clear example is the verb go. A subject always goes somewhere, and a destination is not a direct object, but rather an adverb.

The ambassador will fly to Paris to meet with government officials there, after which he will go to London for more talks.

Other intransitive verbs:

disappear  laugh  fall  cry  feel (emotion)

We all laughed at the comic’s jokes, but we laughed the hardest when he fell off the stage. He was so embarrassed that he just disappeared after his show. (none of the italicized words in this sentence takes a direct object.)

I feel sick. (feel is a copula verb. All copula verbs are intransitive and take a subject complement)

  • Ambitransitive

There are many verbs that can be used as a transitive in some cases, and as an intransitive in other cases. If you are unsure about whether the verb is being used as a transitive or intransitive, see if it leaves you asking what? after it. If the verb can be answered in terms of what? then it needs a direct object to answer this question. Let’s look at the verb play:

Trans: Many parents encourage their children to learn to play a musical instrument when they are young in order to stimulate their brains and develop their mechanical skills.

Intrans: It isn’t important if you win or lose. The most important thing is that you play the best you can and try your hardest.

Example: Move:

Trans: When moving the computer equipment, please take extra care not to drop anything.

Intrans: The clouds are moving across the sky very quickly, suggesting that a storm is coming.

Example: Walk:

Trans: A good dog owner is one who walks his or her dog at least twice a day.

Intrans: It would actually be faster to walk to the store than to drive or take the bus.

Structural Types

  • Base form: Be, Play, Do, Have, etc.
    These are the verb concepts, meaning that they are the idea of the verb, not the action or situation itself. They most commonly appear as infinitive verbs when they do not take a tense. There are certain constructions in which the base verb is used, such as the subjunctive voice.
  • Regular/Irregular: play – played / eat – ate, etc.
    The difference between a regular and irregular verb is the form they take in the past and past participle forms. You can view the list of irregular verbs here.
  • Active/Passive: did/was done; write/ is written, etc.
    The passive and active voices are constructions which indicate whether the subject of the clause is doing the action or receiving the action. The difference in form is apparent in the passive voice, which needs a be verb joined to a past participle in order to convey that the action is happening to the subject of the clause. Keep in mind, however, that in the passive structure, the subject of the clause is also the object of the verb.
  • Participles (also called verbals): These are the –ing, -ed, and irregular past participle forms of verbs. They are used as adjectives or adverbs. See more.
  • Phrasal verbs (also called Idiomatic Verbs): These are verbs that are attached to a preposition and take on meanings that may be very different from the two words individually. For example, to take up may mean to carry something to a higher place, or it could mean to start a new hobby. It could also mean to discuss something:

    Please take this package up to the third floor.

    I decided to take up chess as a means to exercise my brain.

    If you have any problems with the decision, you may take it up with your supervisor.

    Notice that some phrasal verbs may be placed together while others may have an object between the verb and preposition.

    There are many phrasal verbs commonly used in English. They should be treated as vocabulary and should be used sparingly and appropriately in writing.