The Fundamentals of Verbs

By Mark Nichol

This post outlines the basic principles of the verb, the workhorse of language.

A verb describes an action (talk), an occurrence (become), or a state of being (live). Verbs are complicated by their many variable states, based on inflection depending on functions. For example, an action might, depending on the number of talkers, be described with the word talk or the word talks. (This quality is called agreement.)

Based on the tense of the sentence, the verb, accompanied by an auxiliary, or helper, could appear in the phrases “will talk,” “has talked,” or “was talking.” (Tense is one of several similar qualities; the others are aspect, how the action or state occurs through time, and modality, the expression of the speaker’s attitude toward the action or state.)

Other qualities of verbs are the voice (such as active voice, as in the form of the verb saw in “Many saw it as a turning point,” or passive voice, as exemplified by the syntax in “It was seen by many as a turning point”) and the valency — whether the verb is intransitive (accompanied by a subject alone, as in “It moves”), transitive (accompanied by a subject and a direct object, as in “We went to the store”), or ditransitive (accompanied by a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object (“I brought him the report”).

The six types of verb follow:

An intransitive verb is one that does not precede a noun or an adjective. If any part of speech follows an intransitive verb, it is usually an adverb (“I walked quickly”) or a preposition (“I walked in”).

A linking verb precedes a noun (“She remained home”) or an adjective (“He appeared tired”); an adverb may not follow a linking verb. In these sample sentences, home is an example of a predicate noun, and tired exemplifies predicate adjectives.

A transitive verb — sometimes, to distinguish it from two other types described below, called a one-place transitive — precedes a noun (“We watched the movie”) or a noun phrase (“They talked in the dark”). In this case, the noun or noun phrase is called a direct object because it is the thing being acted on in the manner indicated by the verb.

Two types of verbs are called two-place transitive verbs. The first, labeled the Vg type (the letters stand for verb and give), precedes two nouns or noun phrases (“I bought my wife a bouquet of flowers”) or a noun or noun phrase and a prepositional phrase (“I bought a bouquet of flowers for my wife”) in succession. The first word or phrase after the verb is an indirect object (a recipient) and the second is a direct object.

The second type of two-place transitive verb, the Vc type (c is for consider), precedes a noun or noun phrase and another one (“I consider the chairman an arrogant person”), or an adjective (“I believe that the chairman is arrogant”) or an infinitive phrase (“I found the chairman to be arrogant”). The first word or phrase after the verb is a direct object, and the second is a complement, so called because it teams up with the direct object to complete the thought.

A to-be verb is one that is a form of the phrase “to be,” such as is, were, or being. A to-be verb precedes a noun (“I am a fool”), an adjective (“I was foolish”), or an adverb of place, a class of adverb that describes where something occurs (“I am in the doghouse.”) These other parts of speech are sometimes referred to as predicate nouns, predicate adjectives, and predicate adverbs.

As is the case with nouns, a sentence need not include a verb (for example, “Right” spoken or written as an affirmation), but not much can happen in communication without reference to an action, an occurrence, or a state.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


9 Responses to “The Fundamentals of Verbs”

  • Tony Hearn

    Mark, this is not as clear as I would have liked.

    “A linking verb precedes a noun (“She remained home”) or an adjective (“He appeared tired”); an adverb may not follow a linking verb. In these sample sentences, home is an example of a predicate noun, and tired exemplifies predicate adjectives.”

    “She remained home” is a (predominantly U.S) colloquial ellipsis for “She remained at ,home”, in which “(at) home” is adverbial. In which case “remained” by your definition, cannot here be a linking verb.

    “The second type of two-place transitive verb, the Vc type (c is for consider), precedes a noun or noun phrase and another one (“I consider the chairman an arrogant person”), or an adjective (“I believe that the chairman is arrogant”) or an infinitive phrase (“I found the chairman to be arrogant”). The first word or phrase after the verb is a direct object, and the second is a complement, so called because it teams up with the direct object to complete the thought.”

    ” or an adjective (“I believe that the chairman is arrogant”)”: the direct object of “believe here is the clause beginning “that…”. The adjective lies within it.

    “A transitive verb — sometimes, to distinguish it from two other types described below, called a one-place transitive — precedes a noun (“We watched the movie”) or a noun phrase (“They talked in the dark”). In this case, the noun or noun phrase is called a direct object because it is the thing being acted on in the manner indicated by the verb.”

    In “They talked in the dark”, “in the dark” is an adverbial phrase. The verb “talked in that sentence has no direct object and is, therefore, surely intransitive?

    “Two types of verbs are called two-place transitive verbs. The first, labeled the Vg type (the letters stand for verb and give), precedes two nouns or noun phrases (“I bought my wife a bouquet of flowers”) or a noun or noun phrase and a prepositional phrase (“I bought a bouquet of flowers for my wife”) in succession. The first word or phrase after the verb is an indirect object (a recipient) and the second is a direct object.”

    Well, yes, but in the second example (“I bought a bouquet of flowers for my wife”) it is the second word or phrase that is the indirect object, not the first!

    I just feel that if we are explaining the finer points of grammar and syntax it is important to be strict, lest we inadvertently mislead.

  • Reed

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the verb “went” in the sentence “We went to the store” is actually an intransitive verb. The prepositional phrase “to the store” functions in that sentence as an adverbial, not as a direct object, no? (Same thing there with “in the dark” in the sentence “They talked in the dark,” as pointed out by Tony.)

  • thebluebird11

    Wow, if these are the fundamentals, I can’t wait to see the post on the advanced stuff…and I’m a New Yorker born and bred…this is WAAAAY too confusing for me! I feel so bad for anyone who must learn English as a second (or more) language.

  • Carol Covey

    This post is most-helpful. Thank you so much!

  • Fessy

    Well, Thebluebird11, I’m one of those (learning English as a second language), and I must say it’s really confusing.

    I’m just wondering whether a prepositional phrase is also called an adverbial, or why these phrases are referred to as adverbial: “in the dark”, “for my wife”, and “to the store”?

    On the other hand, I also tend to agree with Tony on this: “Well, yes, but in the second example (“I bought a bouquet of flowers for my wife”) it is the second word or phrase that is the indirect object, not the first!”

  • Sally

    As others have pointed out, you’re complicating things excessively, Mark.

    For example, ‘talk,’ ‘become’ and ‘live’ are all ‘actions’ (defined, by my dictionary, as “the process or state of acting or being active” or simply “something done.”)

    Another possible way of describing Aspect is to say that it shows how the action is viewed (‘ad-spectare = to look at” in Latin). In English, this is easiest to see in the past. “I was walking,” “I walked,” “I was going to walk” “I used to walk” and all describe actions that occurred in the past, but the first considers the action in progression, the second views it as a whole unit (which may or may not be synonymous with its being completed), the third as prospective and the fourth as a habitual action. In present time we have “I am walking,” “I walk” and “I am going to walk” but the habitual has to be expressed by, e.g., “I walk every day.”

    And then there is the Perfect Aspect, which can be thought of as describing “present state resulting from a past action,” e.g., “I have eaten (and am now satisfied).” It too can be used in the past or present, and can describe action as ‘progressive’ or ‘unitary,’ e.g., “I have been walking / have walked” and “I had been walking / had walked.”

    In English, Aspect and Tense are linked (hence the comment that Aspect reflects development through time) but this is not the case in other languages.

    Tense marks when an action takes place in time. In English (as originally in most Indo-European languages) there are only two tenses, Past and Present. Future action is indicated either by the Present + adverb (“I go to America tomorrow”) or by a compound form using a different verbal idea in each language (English “I will” is cognate with German ‘willen – to wish, want,’ German ‘werden = become’). Some languages have separate forms for all three time slots (and some have even more, e.g., “Just Past, Not Too Long Ago, A Long Time Ago and In Mythical Times).

    A Transitive verb is one whose action “passes through” (Latin ‘trans-ire’) to an Object. In traditional grammar the ‘dual-object’ type is said to have a Direct and an Indirect Object, e.g., “I gave him the book” is “I gave the book (Direct) to him (Indirect). Modern descriptions of English tend to see Transitivity as a category that attaches itself to a verb rather than being inherent in it. Thus in “I walk” the verb is ‘intransitive’ while in “I walk the dog,” it is ‘transitive.’ Once again other languages differ, some having different forms for transitive and intransitive.

    I wonder whether the distinction you are trying to draw with ‘Vg’ and ‘Vc’ verbs is worth the trouble. Both ‘give’ and ‘consider’ are simply verbs with Transitivity attached – “I give something” and “I consider something.” Both “a bouquet of flowers” and “the chairman’s arrogance” can be seen as the Direct Objects of the verbs. What you are doing is describing the different structures in which they occur because one describes a physical activity and the other a mental one – but this does not make the verbs fundamentally different IMO.

    A “link-verb” and a “to-be verb” should be considered the same. In your example “She remained home,” the word ‘home’ is a shortened form of “at home” – an adverbial phrase –and is no different from “She remained / is here”

  • Sally

    “English “I will” is cognate with German ‘willen – to wish, want,’ German ‘werden = become’”

    should read

    “English “I will” is cognate with German ‘willen – to wish, want’ and / while German ‘werden = become’”

    My point was that different auxilliary forms are used for the “Future Tense” in each derived language.

  • Warsaw Will

    Surely the verb ‘to be’ is the archetypal linking verb. Linking verbs are also known as copula verbs, and ‘to be’ as THE copula. It is certainly listed as a linking verb in both Oxford and Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionaries.

    And as far as I can see, VG verbs are simply transitive verbs that take an indirect object, and VC verbs are transitive verbs that take an object complement, terms in rather greater use than VG and VC verbs, I would have thought (except perhaps in Wikipedia!).

    @Sally – Yours may be one definition of tense, but in TEFL and ESL we teach that there are12 active tenses – each being a combination of time and aspect – 3 times, 4 aspects – simple, continuous (or progressive), perfect and perfect continuous, so ‘We’ll have been waiting for an hour’, we’d call Future perfect continuous tense. Then we have additional constructions like ‘used to’ and ‘going to’ (which is surely about future time, not present time).

  • Marc

    I see that some people are confused by this article, and I’m not surprised, since it’s not very well written. For example, there is no such thing as a “predicate adverb.” In the sentence “I am in the doghouse,” if you construe the prepositional phrase “in the doghouse” as an adverb, then it simply modifies the verb “am.” If you want to construe it as a predicate, then it would have to modify the pronoun “I,” in which case it would by definition be an adjective (as only adjectives can modify pronouns), so it would be a predicate adjective.

    The breakdown of “six types of verbs” is also not well done. For example, in the sentence “The football was kicked by him,” the verb doesn’t seem to fit any of the six types. (Of course it is a one-place transitive verb in the passive voice, but it doesn’t meet the definition given in the article, since it does not precede a noun or noun phrase.)

    I haven’t looked through the rest of this website, but if you want a good explanation of verbs, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Leave a comment: