What Is a Verb? | Definition, Examples & Types

Verbs updated on  January 10, 2024 8 min read
A verb is a part of speech used to describe an action carried out by the subject of the sentence. This could be anything from a deliberate physical or mental action to a natural process or passive state of being, and the subject could be a person, animal, thing, or even abstract concept.

A grammatically complete sentence must contain at least one verb (though you will often encounter sentences without one in less formal contexts). In fact, a sentence can consist entirely of one verb (e.g., “Sit”). But outside of imperative sentences like this, the verb is normally preceded by a subject (e.g., “The dog sits”).

Verb examples
Johnny ran to catch the bus to see a movie in the theater.
As I get older, I like to read and think about history more and more.
Herman would prefer us not to give advice.
This theory implies that we must approach humanitarian aid differently.


Verb conjugation

Verb conjugation is the way in which verbs change their forms depending on how they are being used. The basic form of a verb (e.g., “go,” “be,” “run”) is called the infinitive, but in most cases the verb is conjugated in some other way. Verbs are conjugated based on:

Subject-verb agreement

A verb must agree with its subject—the noun, pronoun, or noun phrase that represents the person or thing performing the action and which typically appears right before the verb.

In English, subject-verb agreement usually just involves making sure the verb matches the subject in number: singular or plural. The singular form ends in “s,” while the plural does not. However, note that the first-person pronoun “I” uses the usual plural form instead of the singular.

Subject-verb agreement

Singular verb forms

Plural verb forms

The cat leaps.

The cats leap.

Jan says hello!

Jan and Bas say hello!

Time waits for no one.

Time and tide wait for no one.

I like cookies. [not "I likes"]

We like cookies.

This singular vs. plural distinction only applies in the present tense; other tenses use the same form for singular and plural (e.g., “he ran,” “they ran”).

An exception is the highly irregular verb “be.” In the present tense, the unique form “am” (not “is”) is used for the first-person singular. And there are different forms of the past tense, unlike with other verbs.

Forms of the verb “be”

Singular

Plural

Simple present

I am

We are

You are

You are

He/she/it is

They are

Simple past

I was

We were

You were

You were

He/she/it was

They were



Verb tenses and aspects

Tense indicates when something happened, is happening, or will happen:

  • The past tense means something has already happened
  • The present tense means it’s happening now
  • The future tense means it hasn’t happened yet
Each of these tenses has four aspects: simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive that express different meanings.

All tenses except the simple past and simple present are formed with multiple verbs in different combinations—including the auxiliary verbs “be,” “have,” or “will,” a present participle (“-ing” form), or a past participle (“-ed” form).

The table shows examples of all tenses and aspects of the regular verb “wait” in the first-person singular.

Verb tenses and aspects

Past

Present

Future

Simple

I waited for the bus.

I wait for the bus.

I will wait for the bus.

Progressive

I was waiting for the bus.

I am waiting for the bus.

I will be waiting for the bus.

Perfect

I had waited for the bus.

I have waited for the bus.

I will have waited for the bus.

Perfect progressive

I had been waiting for the bus.

I have been waiting for the bus.

I will have been waiting for the bus.



Verb moods

A verb’s mood is used to express the tone and purpose of a sentence—is it a question? A command? A statement? The four main grammatical moods used in English are explained in the table.

Verb moods

Mood

Used to ...

Example

Indicative

State a fact

I live in Copenhagen.

Imperative

Give an instruction, command, or request

Stand up, please

Interrogative

Ask a question

Do you like Sam?

Subjunctive

Describe a doubt, wish, or hypothetical situation

If I were more spontaneous, I would join you for the concert.

Active vs passive voice

A sentence can be written in two different voices:

  • In the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb (e.g., “Cooper ate the food”).
  • In the passive voice, the subject is the person or thing being acted upon (e.g., “The food was eaten”).
The passive voice is formed using a form of the verb “be” and the past participle of the main verb. The person or thing performing the action can still be specified with the preposition “by” (e.g., “The food was eaten by Cooper”), although this is more long-winded than an active phrasing.

If it’s important to know who or what performed the action, it’s best to use the active voice. If who or what did it is irrelevant or unknown, or if you want to place greater emphasis on the person or thing being acted upon, then the passive voice is a good choice.

Active and passive voice examples
Aya stole my pencil. She should be punished.
My pencil was stolen. Did you see who took it?
Scammers often target elderly people with limited information literacy.
Thousands of people are scammed online every day.

Irregular verbs

A regular verb is any verb that follows the standard conjugation rules, forming its simple past and past participle with the standard “-ed” suffix. The simple past and past participle of a regular verb are always identical to each other.

An irregular verb instead forms its simple past and past participle in some other way, such as by changing the vowel in the middle of the verb (e.g., “swam”) or by adding a different suffix (e.g., “broken”). Additionally, the simple past and past participle of an irregular verb are sometimes (not always) different from each other.

Most verbs in English are regular, but many of its irregular verbs occur extremely often (e.g., the auxiliary verbs “be,” “have,” and “do”). Check a dictionary if you’re unsure; it should list the past tenses of any irregular verbs.


Examples of regular and irregular verbs

Present simple

Past simple

Past participle

Regular verb

John argues very eloquently.

Clara argued with the principal.

Richardson has argued along the same lines.

Irregular verb

She knows the book is ours

I knew where to practice.

My grandparents have known each other for forty years.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Verbs are classed as intransitive, transitive, or ditransitive:

  • An intransitive verb has no direct object since it describes an action that isn’t done to a specific object.
  • A transitive verb is followed by a direct object that represents the thing or person being acted upon.
  • A ditransitive verb is followed by two objects: an indirect object representing the person or thing receiving the effects of the action, and then a direct object.
Some verbs can only function as one of these types, but many can function differently depending on the specific sense in which they are used, as seen with “read” in the table below.

Basic sentence structure

Examples

Intransitive verb

Subject + verb.

John swims.

Amanda reads.

Transitive verb

Subject + verb + direct object.

The dog licks his cheek.

Amanda reads poetry.

Ditransitive verb

Subject + verb + indirect object + direct object.

She gave it a chance.

Amanda reads her girlfriend poetry.

Note
The sentence structures shown above are the simplest possible structures for each type of verb; all three can of course be used in more complex ways.

For example, an intransitive verb may be followed by an adverb or adverbial phrase, as in “John swims every Thursday evening.” Don’t mistake this adverbial for an object; the verb “swim” is still intransitive.


What is a linking verb?

A linking verb (aka copular verb) is used to connect the subject with some word or phrase (such as a pronoun or adjective) that describes or identifies it. This word or phrase is called a subject complement; it acts as something like a second subject rather than an object.

Linking verb examples
Everyone is happy to see you.
Andrew seems friendly.
The food looked and smelled great!


Most linking verbs may also be used in other ways, indicating a specific action rather than describing the subject (e.g., “Harold looked at the sky”).

What is an auxiliary verb?

An auxiliary verb is used in combination with another verb to modify its meaning, indicating mood, voice, and tense, as well as in negative statements (in combination with adverbs like “not” and “never”) and questions. The main auxiliary verbs are be, have, and do.

The verb modified by an auxiliary verb is called the main verb. The auxiliary verb is conjugated, whereas the main verb appears as an infinitive (e.g., “look”) or participle (e.g., “looked,” “looking”). Sometimes, several auxiliary verbs appear consecutively.

Auxiliary verbs examples
Jake was asked a lot of personal questions by journalists.
I have been looking for a new apartment for a while.
Jake does not look at you while speaking.
Did you read the instructions?

What is a modal verb?

A modal verb is a special kind of auxiliary that’s used to express ability, possibility, obligation, necessity, or permission. Unlike the other auxiliary verbs, modal verbs are not conjugated—they have one fixed form.

The main English modal verbs are:

  • May
  • Might
  • Can
  • Could
  • Shall
  • Should
  • Will
  • Would
  • Ought to
Modal verbs examples
I will get back to you about that.
May I borrow your pencil?
If I were you, I would travel by train.
You oughtn’t to compare yourself to other people.

Stative and dynamic verbs

Verbs can also be classified as stative or dynamic:

  • A dynamic verb (aka action verb) describes a specific, temporary action (e.g., “run,” “drive,” “generate”). It may be used in the progressive aspect to indicate an ongoing action (e.g., “is running”).
  • A stative verb describes a (mental, physical, or emotional) state of being or perception (e.g., “be,” “possess,” “know”).
Because they describe a general state rather than an action, it usually doesn’t make sense to use stative verbs in the progressive aspect:

Jacques is being French.
Jacques is French.

Phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is a series of two or more words that functions as a verb. This is typically a verb combined with one or more prepositions. A phrasal verb normally expresses a distinctly different meaning from the verb it includes.

Phrasal verb examples
I’m hoping to go [i.e., travel] to Canada on vacation.
Why did the lights go out [i.e., stop functioning]?
I asked Darren if he would go out with [i.e., date] me.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

US vs UK

Rhetoric

Irregardless vs regardless

Burnt or burned

Situational irony

Lable or label

Dreamed or dreamt

Trope

Now a days or nowadays

Kneeled or knelt

Metaphor

Every time or everytime

Smelled or smelt

Consonance

Alot or a lot

Travelling or traveling

Rhyme


Frequently asked questions about verbs

What is a copular verb?

A copular verb (aka linking verb) is a verb that’s used to connect the subject of a sentence with a subject complement.

A subject complement is a word or phrase (often a noun or adjective) that describes or names the subject. In other words, linking verbs help to indicate who or what someone or something is rather than what they do.

Some common linking verbs are “be,” “seem”, “become,” and “feel.” They can be used in sentences like “The dog seems upset” and “My great-grandmother was a journalist.”

What is a helping verb?

A helping verb (aka auxiliary verb) is a verb such as “do,” “have,” or “be” that’s used in combination with another verb to modify its meaning. This other verb is called the main verb. For example, in the sentence “Do you think so?” the helping verb “do” modifies the main verb “think.”

Modal verbs are a special kind of helping verbs. Unlike other helping verbs, each modal verb has only one form and can’t be conjugated. The main modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would (e.g., “We must leave now”).


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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in literature. He writes about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.

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