Verbs are usually action words. They indicate what the subject of each clause is doing. That’s why you cannot have a sentence without at least one main verb.
Here is a sentence with two clauses, and therefore two verbs:
When I remember my childhood, I become sentimental.
The sentence also reveals that not every verb is clearly an action. The verb become shows a change or a process. These abstract verbs are less about action, and more about describing a state of being (many of them are linking verbs).
So let’s dig in and learn about the different kinds of verbs.
Transitive, Intransitive, and Linking verbs
There are two main types of verbs: transitive and intransitive verbs. However, some intransitive verbs can also be described as linking verbs.
Transitive verbs take a direct object. The word transitive is derived from the Latin verb transire, which means to go or cross over. English actually has quite a few words that start with trans, and in each case the prefix means across / cross:
translate = carry across (from one language to another)
transvestite = cross dresser
transition = crossing over
transport = convey across
trans-Atlantic = across the Atlantic
In the same way, transitive verbs carry the action across to a direct object:
She sold her car.
Transitive verb: sold.
Direct object: her car.
By contrast, intransitive verbs lack a direct object:
I fell down the stairs.
Intransitive verb: fell.
Prepositional phrase: down the stairs.
If we asked fell what? there is no answer. The prepositional phrase explains where these actions took place, but there is no direct object.
However, there are many verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive:
I guessed the answer.
I just guessed.
In most dictionaries, the abbreviations vt and vi will tell you if a verb is transitive, intransitive, or both.
The third category of verbs consists of linking verbs (a kind of intransitive verb). These verbs don’t take a direct object. Instead, they are followed by a noun or adjective that describes the subject:
Henry is a mechanic.
She became angry.
The linking verb acts like an equal sign, linking the subject to the description after the verb. The latter is called the subject complement:
Subject = complement (noun or adjective)
There aren’t that many linking verbs, and most of them are forms of to be. The others tend to describe states of being or are associated with the senses:
“To Be” States of Being Senses am appear feel is become look are grow/turn smell was stay/remain sound were seem taste …
Note that “to be” can also be a helping verb.
As you study the following examples, look for the way in which the subject complement (the noun or adjective after the linking verb) describes the subject:
Your duet sounded fantastic.
This specimen is a Libellula depressa, a species of dragonfly.
The apple pie smells lovely.
The main dish will be linguine.
Be careful though: some of these linking verbs can be transitive or intransitive verbs in a different context:
Smell the roses!
He tasted the oysters.
She is in the bathroom.
Kendra looked through the telescope.
The first two sentences have direct objects and the last two end with prepositional phrases (so no direct object or subject complement).
Exercise: Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
Exercise: Transitive, Intransitive, and Linking Verbs
Helping or auxiliary verbs allow us to create verb phrases. Without them we would have a hard time expressing exactly when something happened (tense), what the tone of the statement is (mood), and whether the action is active or passive (voice).
In addition, a subcategory of helping verbs (called modal auxiliaries) provides other nuances like possibility and necessity.
Three of the most common helping verbs come in quite a few forms (in grammatical terms, they are strongly inflected):
Be Do Have am do have are does has is did had was doing having were done be being been
These helping verbs make it easy to create verb phrases:
have been talking
In a sentence, these phrases may be interrupted by adverbs:
You were not listening
I am fortunately going on holidays then.
Alternatively, in questions a helping verb may come before the subject:
Have you been taking your medication?
The only thing that never changes is that the helping verbs always come before the main verb.
Exercise: Helping Verbs
There are also quite a few helping verbs that allow you to fine-tune the exact meaning of a verb phrase. These are the modal auxiliaries, and in the chart they are organized by function:
Modal Auxiliary Function can/could ability/possibility may/might possibility/permission must/ought to obligation should obligation/condition would condition shall/will intention/probability
As you can see, some modals have multiple or overlapping uses. Let’s take a closer look at a few that are easily misused.
There are three ways to use shall:
1. To express a command or make a strong statement:
You shall not pass!
2. To ask a question or make a suggestion:
Shall we go to the mall?
3. To indicate the future tense:
We shall overcome.
Now here’s the rub: traditionally rule three applies only to first person subjects. You can say I shall or we shall (both first person), but you’re not supposed to say you shall or they shall (unless you’re commanding them – see rule 1).
If you find this confusing, you can take comfort from the fact that most people use will just to form the future tense (also in the first person). Even in formal writing will is generally acceptable (more so in North America than in Britain). But if you want to be a stickler you can go around shouting “Thou shalt use shall to indicate the future tense with first person subjects only!”
May vs. Might
Often we use may and might interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference between them: may suggests a stronger possibility than might. The latter is more hypothetical, and is especially useful to describe situations that are contrary to fact (they didn’t happen, but they might have).
Let’s first look at some examples where may and might are interchangeable:
I may order a cheese burger.
I might go for a swim later.
By contrast, the following sentences clearly require might rather than may:
If you had stopped smoking decades ago, your lungs might now be clean.
Had I not slammed on the breaks, you might now be in a hospital.
In these cases we are dealing with hypothetical situations, where might is preferred.
And that’s it for helping verbs. Use them together with transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs to form complex verb phrases.
Exercise: Identifying Helping Verbs
- Parts of Speech
- Sentence Structure▼
- Essay Writing▼