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What are verbs? How can they be defined or categorized? This page attempts to answer these essential questions as clearly and concisely as possible.

Verbs are among the essential building blocks of communication in any language. They are, with the subject, one of the two essential elements of a sentence or clause. The other is the subject.

Verbs: a definition

A verb exists in relation to a subject. It is the key and essential element of thepredicate in a sentence. The verb expresses an action or process undertaken by the subject, or a situation defining the subject.

► Actions:  to break,  to start,  to  shout
Processes :  to sleep,  to eat,   to  think
Situations :  to be,  to seem,   to  live

Verbs in the sentence

Every sentence is made up of a subject and a predicate.  The predicate must contain averb, but can contain many other elements too (a complement, an object or more,adverbs, circumstantial expressions, etc.).  Examples:

The president sneezed
You have taken the wrong bag
The man and the woman both forgot.
He forgot to get off the train at York.

Different types of verb

Transitive or intransitive?

Verbs can either be transitive or intransitive.  A transitive verb requires an object, an intransitive verb cannot have an object.  Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending on context.

► Transitive:  to build,  to employ,  to like, to drop
Intransitive :  to sleep,  to die,  to fall
Verbs that can be either : to give,  to burn,  to smell

Stative or dynamic?

Verbs can be either stative or dynamic.  Stative verbs describe a situation or state, dynamic verbs describe a process or change of state.  The two categories are incompatible with each other.

► Stative – describing a state :   to know,  to lie,  to be,  to like,
Dynamic – expressing a change of state:  to discover, to lie down,  to become, to learn


   1)  I know a lot of people in London.
2)  My father likes beer but not whisky.
3)  The scientists discovered a new planet on the edge of the solar system.
4)  I sat down and went to sleep.

Tense, aspect, voice

Linguists maintain that there are only two tenses in English, the present and the past. Other “tenses” are verbforms created with the help of auxiliaries and modals.

Here is a table of the main verb forms in English, in simple and progressive aspect, and active and passive voices: sample verb – to make

Form / Tense
Aspect, voice
Simple, active Progressive, active Simple, passive Progres­sive, passive
Present I make I am making I am made I am being made
Future I will make I will be making I will be made rare
Preterit I made I was making I was made I was being made
Present Perfect I have made I have been making I have been made rare
Past perfect I had made I had been making I had been made rare
Future perfect I will have made I will have been making I will have been made rare

Rare forms:
Other “tenses” may exist in English for some verbs, in specific contexts; for example we could envisage “It will be being repaired ” or “He’s been being looked after”, but forms like this are very rare. Here, nonetheless, is a plausible example of a future progressive passive, which is hard to avoid in this particular case:
While you’re on holiday in Majorca, I’ll be being interviewed for that job in Glasgow.

Other verb forms in English: modality

Other forms or tenses, and notably conditionals, are formed with the help of modal verbs:can, could, may, might, would, plus must , should and  ought to. These forms are structured in the same way as the future or future perfect. These are the only structures possible using modal auxiliaries !

Here is a table of modal verb forms, using the modal auxiliary  must .

Modality in the present or future Modality in the past
Simple, active I must take I must have taken
Progressive, active I must be taking I must have been taking
Simple, passive I must be taken I must have been taken
Progressive, passive rare rare

Mood: the subjunctive in English

Most English-speakers do not know that there is a subjunctive mood in English; but there is, and many use it quite regularly, without realising. However there is only one context in which the subjunctive is commonly used, and that is in the context of a hypothetical conditional statement. And of these, there is just one expression that is used – from time to time – by most people, and it is:
If I were you  as in  If I were you, I’d drive more carefully.

Note that the expression is “If I were you” (a subjunctive), and not “If I was you” (an indicative), though the second form is also heard.

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