Verbs & Verbals
Sentences cannot exist without verbs, the words in a language indicating thoughts and actions. We need nouns to name things and verbs to express what those things do. Even the shortest of sentences use verbs. Verbs do more than show action: they indicate when the action happened, how many things were acting, and can describe the action.
Verbs are the most complex part of most languages. This is because conjugations change the verb form based on everything from time (tenses) to requirements (conditionals). Irregular forms make matters even more complicated.
The tense of a verb indicates time. The use of singular and plural forms indicates the quantity of things “acting” in a sentence. Finally, the choice of a verb can describe the action. “Eating” and “gorging” describe consuming food, but imply different manners of consumption.
Verbals are words based upon verbs; they act like other parts of speech. Verbals can act as nouns or adjectives.
Most verbs make a statement, ask a question, or give a command. Other verbs connect a description to a sentence’s subject. Students are often told verbs are “action words” because they do frequently indicate an action. Verbs indicate what the subject of a sentence is doing, thinking, or being at a given moment in time.
A simple test for most action verbs is if you can use the word after the word “to” within the following sentence:
He wants to ______.
He is going to… eat, sleep, drink, run, think, walk, speak.
The combination of a verb and the word “to” is an infinitive.
The form of a verb must agree with the number of person, places, things, or concepts in the subject. If the subject of a sentence is one person, then use a singular verb. If there are multiple subjects, use a plural verb. Unfortunately, the rules vary by verb, by subject (especially pronouns), and subject format. Other languages tend to be more consistent — welcome to English!
|I||I walk to the store.|
|You (one)||You walk to the store.|
|He/She/It||He walks to the store.|
|They/You (group)||They walk to the store.|
|We||We walk to the store.|
Notice he/she/it is followed by a verb ending in “s” in the examples. All other examples use the basic form of the verb. Despite “you” being singular at times, like “he” is, it is an exception to the rule of adding “s” to a verb with with singular subject.
The cat runs after mice each morning.
The cats run after mice each morning.
This guideline is known as the “moving s” by some teachers. The “s” moves from the singular verb to the plural noun. What you need to remember is that many verbs follow this guideline.
Singular or Plural
It isn’t always easy to determine if a sentence’s subject is singular or plural. It should be simple, you might be thinking, but then it wouldn’t be American Standard English. Use the following rules to help you determine what requires a singular verb or a plural verb. Because subject-verb agreement errors are common, we dedicate a lot of space to these rules.
Ignore phrases and clauses between the subject and verb. Don’t let prepositional phrases fool you, they are not part of the subject.
on the pagewere depressing.
When editing sentences, we suggest lightly lining out prepositional phrases. Phrases add information to a sentence, but do not alter the basic subject-verb structures. Prepositional phrases confound many writers and sentence diagrams are a lost art.
“Each” and “every” are singular subjects. While these pronoun doubles refer to groups, they technically address individual members of groups. An individual is a singular subject.
Each writer on the panel was an award-winning author.
Every student was listening intently. They were fascinated.
(Notice they is plural.)
Two or more singular nouns connected with “and” are a plural subject. This rule means that a list of two or more items acts as a plural subject.
Sara and John were to present a report.
The dog, cat, and parrot are her pets.
Singular nouns used in “either…or” and “neither…nor” conditions require a singular verb. The logic here is that only one of the options will be acting — a singular subject of “[either] one item or the other.”
Either Erin or Sarah is going to be the new editor.
Fractional subjects require a verb in agreement with the noun unit. The “noun unit” refers to either the units of measurement or the item being measured.
Half of the boys were late to practice.
Half of the team was late to practice.
When the noun unit refers to the measuring unit, the verb is singular if the amount is one or less, plural for anything more than one of the unit.
Half a cup of flour was added to the recipe.
Three and a quarter cups of sugar were also used.
With subjects of differing numbers, place the largest before a plural verb. If you are not certain, assume a collective noun is largest and work backwards.
The coach, the parents, and the team were surprised by their victory.
John and his brothers were all talented players.
Inverted sentences (v-s) follow the agreement rules. Inverted sentences are often questions, but they do appear in statements when the writer wants to emphasize the verb.
Waiting for him on the platform, was his bride-to-be.
(Simplified form: His bride-to-be was waiting for him.)
Collective nouns follow two agreement rules in American Standard English. Collectives are singular when acting as a unit, but plural when acting as individuals. Usually, the plural appears in a “negative” sentence, one featuring a disagreement.
The team have disagreed as to the new mascot design.
(The individuals disagree, therefore they are not acting as a unit.)
The team has agreed on a mascot, after a week of debate.
(The team is again a unit, acting as one.)
Conjugations of “To Be”
The verb “to be” expresses a state of being, acting, or receiving action.
|Present Tense||Past Tense||Future Tense|
|I am||We are||I was||We were||I shall be||We shall be|
|You are||You are||You were||You were||You will be||You will be|
|He is||They are||She was||They were||She will be||They will be|
|Present Perfect||Past Perfect||Future Perfect|
|I have been||We have been||I had been||We had been||I shall have (been)||We shall have (been)|
|You have been||You have been||You had been||You had been||You will have (been)||You will have (been)|
|He has been||They have been||He had been||They had been||He will have (been)||They will have (been)|
Shall and Will
Most Americans say and write “I will” when “I shall” is the grammatical form for first person future conjugations. Likewise, it is proper to use “I should” and “he / she / we / they would.”
It is also common to misuse shall as a command auxiliary. Replace “shall” with “will” when a command or obligation is intended. The verb “shall” means someone “ought to” something, not that the person “must” complete the action in a sentence.
You shall clean your room.
You will clean your room.
Despite the rules, we do not plan to use “I shall” because it seems “I will” is becoming acceptable through usage.
Verb Voices: Active & Passive
Verbs indicate the voice of the sentence. If the subject performs an action, the sentence is considered active voice. When the subject of a sentence receives an action, a conjugation of the verb “to be” begins the passive voice verb phrase. Not all sentences have action; some describe the subject.
John wrote the story.
The story was written by John.
While John wrote the story in both examples, the second sentence places an emphasis on the object, the story. Most teachers tell students to write in the active voice at all times. Unfortunately, an entirely “active” story sounds odd. Consider a sentence in the active voice, before leaving it passive.
There are times when the noun acted upon or created is more important than the person or thing acting. When would you leave something passive?
The Washington Monument was targeted by vandals last night.
A newspaper reporter would recognize that the famous symbol is the “lead” of the story. The unknown vandals would not grab a reader’s attention. Leaving this sentence passive makes sense. The “actor” in a passive sentence often hides within a prepositional phrase. Notice the vandals in our example are within such a phrase.
Verbs can indicate action or introduce a description. The transitive verbs indicate an action by one thing upon another. The intransitive verbs describe subjects, usually nouns or pronouns.
A transitive verb indicates an action on a noun or pronoun. The action may be expressed in active voice or passive voice. For a verb to be transitive, something must be done to an object or idea. The object receiving the action is the direct object of the sentence.
The cat caught the mouse.
An intransitive verb introduces a description of a subject. Descriptive sentences are not active or passive — they add information about nouns or pronouns. Some writers and editors mistake descriptive sentences for passive sentences because conjugation of “to be” introduce many descriptions.
Marta writes a lot
The court adjourned for the day.
Notice that the first sentence does not state what is written. There is no object of the verb, so “writes’ is intransitive in the example. The second sentence simply states an action, with no object.
Some grammarians do not consider linking verbs intransitive, so we give them a separate heading, just in case.
Linking verbs are intransitive verbs that connect a subject to a descriptive predicate. In sentences with linking verbs, the primary verb or verb phrase is a perception, not an action. Linking verbs are:
- forms of “to be” when followed by a description or definition
- sensory verbs, including synonyms for look, smell, taste, feel, and sound
- empathic verbs, including seem, feel (emotion), and appear
- transformation verbs, including become, evolve, grow, keep, and remain
The following sentences are descriptive, using linking verbs:
The house is white.
The house was pink, until we painted it.
It looks terrible.
His cooking tasted like charcoal.
They seem quite in love.
Recall that a predicate is the part of a sentence following the simple verb. If an intransitive sentence renames or defines the subject using a noun or pronoun, the predicate is known as a predicate nominative form. If the predicate describes the subject using an adjective, it is in the predicate adjective form.
Some grammar texts refer to the auxiliaries other than be, have and do, as modals or modal auxiliaries.
Auxiliaries, or helping verbs, precede another verb. The group of verbs including auxiliaries and the primary verb are known as a verb phrase.
Auxiliaries in the “to be” family indicate a state of action or receiving action. They do not link a subject to a description when serving as auxiliaries.
Jonothan is arriving soon.
The “to have” auxiliaries indicate a complete action, also known as perfect tense.
The “to do” auxiliaries emphasize the primary verb. In the present tense, this is referred to as the emphatic form.
Sally does write daily.
Conditional auxiliaries indication what “might be” possible or what “may be” permitted. Writers often confuse these verbs, using verbs of permission for those of possibility.
I asked, “May I use the phone?”
She might be too young to use the phone.
There are three special forms of verbs: infinitives, participles, and gerunds.
The infinitive form of a verb is the word “to” followed by the first person, present tense form of the verb. The first person, present tense form is also the “primary form” of a verb.
We are planning to write a book on cola can art.
Notice the infinitive in the example is part of the verb phrase, “are going to write.” Infinitives often appear within verb phrases. Infinitives can act as various parts of speech.
To write is her life’s ambition. (Subject)
His goal is to teach about writing. (Subject complement of “goal.”)
Her first novel is one to admire. (Modifies “one” to describe the novel.)
The students came to class to study. (Explains why or how the students arrived in class.)
A participle is a verb conjugation used as a verb or an adjective. Participles acting as adjectives are a form of double, a word or phrase acting as two parts of speech.
Present tense participles generally end in ing and follow a conjugation of “to be.” The present tense participle can appear before a noun or pronoun.
The trotting horse is trained for English riding.
Past tense participles usually end in d/ed, n/en, or t and follow the auxiliary verbs have or had.
Verbs ending in ing and acting as nouns and are known as gerunds.
Walking is good exercise.
The tense of a verb relates an action or state of being to time. Some events are happening, while others have or have yet to happen. Writers should know there are two schools of thought: keep everything in the past, the traditionalists argue, while modern writers tend to mix the tenses within a work.
The present tense refers to events in progress or current conditions. The present tense is more complex than other tenses because it has many uses beyond indicating a current action. Uses for the present tense include:
- Stating a current fact or “truth”
- Describing a custom or tradition
- Indicating a repeating event
- “Historical” descriptions for emphasis
- Colloquial for the future tense
Jill is the most popular local author.
Don sings Tuesdays at the jazz club.
Alan writes every day.
Poe is at his poetic best with The Raven.
Avoid using the present tense to indicate future events. Unfortunately, this is common in spoken English. The following samples are considered incorrect by some grammarians:
We leave tomorrow.
The bookstore opens Monday.
Past tense verb conjugations place actions or conditions in the past.
He was the most popular local author.
He wrote for hours every day.
The future tense refers to events or conditions that will happen or will be, but are not yet the case. The future tense is often a verb phrase with “will.”
You will be a popular writer.
You will write daily, if you are serious.
The word “perfect” means “complete.” An action is perfect when it is finished, will be finished, or might someday be finished. Perfect verb phrases include have, has, or had within them. The primary verb conjugation used is the third principal part, meaning it indicates a completed action and ends in ed or an irregular form. Perfect tenses also have progressive forms using the ing form of verbs.
Present perfect actions or conditions began in the past and might or might not be in progress.
Basic Form: have or has + -ed (or irregular third principal)
I have written for hours.
I have walked for miles.
He has threatened her in the past.
In the examples, though the action has started in the past and a past tense verb appears in the phrase, there is no indication that the condition or action has stopped. Do we know if the writer is still writing? Maybe the walk has ended, maybe not.
Progressive Form: has or have been + -ing
Have you been walking?
I have been writing.
Past perfect actions or conditions were started in the past and were completed at some point in the past. Some texts suggest another action or condition must be stated to show a current status. Writers don’t always state what is, only what was. The verb phrase begins with had.
Basic Form: had + -ed
She had taught school, but prefers to write now.
He had walked for several miles.
She had debated what to do.
These are completed actions, usually leading up to other events or actions.
Progressive Form: had been + -ing
I had been searching for hours.
She had been waiting for an opportunity.
Future perfect actions or conditions will be completed in the future. Some texts claim these actions must also begin in the future, but we have encountered examples of current actions cited as future perfect.
Basic Form: shall or will have + -ed
She will have sailed around the globe.
I shall have said enough by then.
The primary use of the future perfect is to tell when something will be complete.
Progressive Form: shall or will + have been + -ing
I will have been writing continuously for three days.
In the example, the condition has yet to be met: three days of writing. The action will be “perfect” soon, and it is a current action. To confuse grammar teachers more, the writing might not stop – only the time estimated will be perfect.
See our list of irregular verbs.
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Ellsworth, Blanche and John A. Higgens. English Simplified. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004. (ISBN: 0321104293)
Mulvey, Dan. Grammar the Easy Way. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron’s, 2002. (ISBN: 0764119893)
Scholastic Writer’s Desk Reference. New York: Scholastic, 2000. (ISBN: 0439216508)