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Understanding Verbs

Use these online verb lessons for Grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 elementary, middle school, high school students to learn and understand verbs and the verb rules in English grammar.


The verb is a word or a group of words that usually expresses an action or a state of being. There are two kinds of verbs that must be distinguished:

1. The finite verb works with the subject of the sentence to give a sense of completeness, a sense of a statement having been made.

2. The nonfinite verb or verbal works as a nominal (something like a noun) or a modifier). It never works with a subject. It does not give a sense of completeness. Compare:

          The documents had compromised him. documents...

          the compromising documents...

          The authorities accused him of fraud.
          The authorities, having accused him of fraud, ...

The forms and functions of the finite verb are discussed in this section. Nonfinite verbs or verbals are discussed in the lessons on Verbal.

Finite Verbs

Finite verbs can be recognized by their form and their position in the sentence. Here are some of the things to look for when you are trying to identify the finite verbs in a sentence:

1. Most finite verbs can take an ed or a d at the end of the word to indicate time in the past: cough, coughed; celebrate, celebrated. A hundred or so finite verbs do not have these regular endings.

2. Nearly all finite verbs take an s at the end of the word to indicate the present when the subject of the verb is third person singular: cough, he coughs; celebrate, she celebrates. The exceptions are auxiliary verbs like can and must.

3. Finite verbs are often groups of words that include such auxiliary verbs as can, must, have, and be: can be suffering, will have gone, must eat.

4. Finite verbs usually follow their subjects: He coughs. The documents had compromised him. They will have gone.

5. Finite verbs surround their subjects when some forms of a question are asked: Is he coughing? Did they celebrate?

Verbs are distinguished by number (singular and plural) and by person (first, second, third). In general, verbs have a different form only in the third person singular of the present tense.

          I, you, we, they move.


          He, she, it moves.

An exception is the verb to be, which is more highly inflected:

          SINGULAR I am; you are, he, she, it is.

          PLURAL We, you, they are

The finite verb can be a one-word verb with an indication of present or past tense: watch, watched; freeze, froze.

The finite verb can also be a group of words composed of one or more of the following ingredients:

1. Modal auxiliaries: will, would, can, must, etc.

2. Perfect auxiliary: a part of the verb have plus an -en or an -ed ending.

3. Progressive auxiliary: a part of the verb be plus an -ing ending.

4. Passive auxiliary: a part of the verb be plus an -en or an -ed ending.

5. Main Verb: watch, tolerate.

Below is a paradigm or layout of some forms of the finite verb watch.

MODAL              PERFECT             PROGRESSIVE             PASSIVE
had                    watched
was                                               watching
was                                                                                   watched
had been                                       watching
could watch
could have         watched                                                     watched
could be                                         watching
could be                                                                             watched
could have been                              watching
could have been                                                                  watched

Mood Verbs

A verb may be placed in the indicative, imperative, or subjective mood to indicate difference in the intention of the speaker or writer.

The indicative mood is used to make an assertion or ask a question.

          The horse galloped down the street.

          Where are you going?

The imperative mood is used for commands, directions, or requests.

          COMMAND         Go to the store and order a typewriter.
          DIRECTION        Turn right at the next traffic light.
          REQUEST           Please answer my letter.

Subjective Forms. the present and past tense forms of the verb are sometimes used to express matters that are not present or past in the usual sense. They are matters of urgency, formality, possibility, and unreality. The present and past tense forms of the verb used for the subjective are not the expected forms. These unexpected forms are called forms of the subjective mood. (The expected forms are called forms of the indicative mood.)

          I demand that he see me immediately.

          I move that the motion be tabled.

          It was important that she love me.

          if she were to go, there might be trouble.

          If he were talented, he could make money.

There are ways to express subjunctive meanings other than using past and present forms of the verb. Such auxiliaries as might and should can also be used: If you had been presentable, I have have taken you to the party.

Transitive and Intrasitive Verb

Verbs are classified as transitive or intransitive.

A transitive verb (transit means to carry, as in rapid transit) requires an object to complete its meaning. The object of a transitive verb is affected, however, slightly, by whatever the verb expresses.

          The hammer struck the anvil.

          Angela read the newspaper.

An intransitive verb makes an assertion without requiring any object.

          The clock strikes.

          He walks down the street every evening.

A copulative verb, a special kind of intransitive verb, is one that connects the subject to a noun, pronoun, or adjective in the predicate.

          Sean is the president. [Is connects Sean to president. Sean and president are the same person. A noun like president used after a copulative verb is called a predicate nominative.]

The most frequently used copulative verb is to be. Other commonly used copulative verbs are become, seem, smell, look, grow, feel, sound, get, taste, appear.

Many verbs are both transitive and intransitive. A good dictionary will indicate the differences in meaning.

Passive Voice Verbs

Transitive verbs can be switched from the active voice to the passive voice by a transformation that changes the form of the verge and moves the object into the subject's position. The old subject, if it stays in the sentence, becomes a prepositional phrase starting with by. Thus, Sandy Koufax won the award is transformed into The award was won by Sandy Koufax.

The passive voice is used to emphasize or direct attention to the receiver of the action, in this case the award. The passive voice switches our attention from Sandy Koufax to what he received; the award.

The passive voice is also used to eliminate the necessity of naming the agent of the action when that agent is unknown or unimportant.

          Prison authorities released Alfred Krupp from prison in 1951.

          Alfred Krupp was released from prison in 1951.

Present and Past Tenses Verbs

All main verbs are either in the present tense or the past tense: watch, watched. The word tense is also used for other forms, such as perfect and progressive forms.

The present tense expresses any time that has some element of the present in it, no matter how small.

          This apple tastes good. [a present situation]

           Apples taste good. [a general truth]

          In Hamlet, the opening scene takes place at night. [A play written in the past has a plot summary alive in the present.]

          Rita goes to Mexico City tomorrow. [The action will occur in the future, but there is a suggestion that the decision to go may have occurred in the present.]

          he uses lemon in his tea. [a habitual action, past, present, and future]

The past tense excludes the present and covers those events that took place at a definite time or habitually in the past. As with the present tense, the meaning is sometimes reinforced by other words that indicate time.

          I went down the street yesterday. [a completed event in the past]

          Whenever Rock went down the street, the people cheered. [a habitual action in the past]

Modal Auxiliaries

Modal auxiliaries, verbs such as can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will and would, always occur as part of verb phrases. Modal auxiliaries express a large variety of ideas and feelings. A few of the more common uses are listed here.

PERMISSION          You can put your shirt on now.
                              You may come in.
ABILITY                   I can read braille.
                              She could open the door.
NECESSITY            He must see her today.
                             He had to go to Nairobi.
CONCLUSION         He must have seen her.
GENERAL TRUTH    Cats will sleep for hours.

Future Time Verbs

English has no future tense as does Latin. Instead, English uses modal auxiliaries, present and past tense forms, and adverbials of time to express future time.

          He is going to lose his mind.

          He is about to lose his mind.

          I begin work tomorrow.

          It's time you went to bed.

Shall and Will Verbs

To indicate simple futurity, formal usage dictates that shall is correct for the first person and will and won't are correct for the second and third persons.

          I (we) shall (shall not) go.

          You will (won't) go.

          He (she, it, they) will (won't) go.

In recent years, will and won't have been commonly used for all persons even in relatively formal writing. But the shall form has persisted in idiomatic expressions. Shall we dance? is certainly more commonplace than the awkward sounding Will we dance?

To indicate a promise or determination, will is used in the first person: I (we) will go. To express a command or determination, shall is used in the second and third persons: You (he, she, it, they) shall go.

Perfect Tenses Verbs

A perfect tense is used to talk about an action that occurs at one time, but is seen in relation to another time. I ran out of gas is a simple statement about a past event. I've run out of gas is a statement about a past event that is connected with the present.

          I have waited for you [The present perfect indicates that the action occurred in the past and was completed in the present.]

          Luis has visited San Juan several times. [The action occurred frequently in the past so that it has become part of Luis' present experience.]

          I had waited for you. [The past perfect shifts the action further into the past so that it is completed in relation to a later time.]

          Mary had been out in the canoe all morning when she suddenly fell into the lake. [The past perfect indicates that, in the past, one event occurred before the other.]

          By sundown he should have finished the job. [The conditional perfect suggests that something else occurred at a later time to affect the completion of the job.]

          By sundown he will have finished the job. [The future perfect indicates that the even will be completed by a definite time in the future.]

Progressive Tenses Verbs

Progressive tenses draw our attention to the continuity of an action rather than its completion. A verb that in its own meaning already expresses a continuity does not need a progressive form. (I live in Boston already says it. I am living in Boston, the progressive form, says it twice.) But compare He worked in his cellar with the progressive form, which stresses the continuity of the action: He was working in his cellar. The progressive is often helped out by adverbials that express continuity.

          He is always running to his mother.

          I must have been painting the house for days now.

          I've been washing the dog. [The combination of perfect and progressive paints a vivid picture of a person deeply involved in a past process of some duration with immediate relevance to the wet present.]


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