We can look at verbs in two different ways when trying to define them: their place in relation to other words, and the types of meaning the word covers. Let’s look at its relation to other words first.
The subject and the predicate are the two fundamental aspects of a sentence. The subject is the part of the sentence being spoken about and the predicate is the part of the sentence telling us something about the subject. Can we find the verb via its proximity to the subject? Let’s try with the sentence:
The dog bit the man.
Here the subject is ‘The dog’, and the predicate is ‘bit the man’. Therefore, we know the verb is somewhere in the predicate ‘bit the man’. If we forget about meaning and just think about where verbs and subjects usually are in relation to each other, we commonly have something like:
subject + verb + object
In our simple sentence this would give us:
subject: The dog
object: the man
In this situation, this would be right. However, it isn’t always so simple because there are often other word classes in between this structure, like adjectives, adverbs and prepositions, to name a few. So, for example:
The dog angrily bit the man.
Now if we simply say it is subject + verb + object we have a problem. We would still have ‘The dog’ as the subject, but is the verb ‘angrily’? And does that mean the object is ‘bit’? This is only a simple example, but it already thwarts just looking at words in relation to each other. The answer here is that ‘angrily’ is an adverb – which is a word class we look at later that modifies verbs.
The same problem occurs with where the object is in the sentence. However, could we use what we have learnt about objects so far to figure out where the verb is? When there is a direct object of the verb, this verb will be telling us what the subject is doing to this object. Therefore, one idea might be to find the object, then see which word, or phrase, is telling us what the subject is doing to the object. However, the previously discussed method of finding the direct object involves finding the subject, then the verb and then adding ‘what?’ or ‘whom?’ on the end of it (subject + verb + what/whom?). This is no use for finding the verb because because we need the verb to do it, and it is the verb we are trying to find!
So finding the verb purely by its relation to other words is a bit problematic. The best way to find a verb is to combine the knowledge of its place, and function, in a sentence, with an understanding of the different types of meanings we see in verbs.
Verbs often express some form of action. This might be physical as in ‘jump’ ‘run’ or ‘hide’, or it might be mental as in ‘contemplate’ ‘agree’ or ‘forgive.’ If we think back to ‘the dog bit the man’, this would suggest that ‘bit’ is the verb because it is the only ‘action’ happening in the sentence. And that would be right; ‘bit’ is the verb we are looking for. However, verbs can also express a state of being, or condition, which is a more confusing one to understand. This can involve words such as ‘is’ ‘was’ and ‘am.’ Some examples of this are:
The man is a professor.
Here, the verb ‘is’ is letting us know that the subject (‘the man’) is something (‘a professor’) rather than being something else. Does the term ‘a state of being’ describe the meaning of the verb in this sentence? While we are in the present tense, the here and now, we either are, or we are not; therefore, ‘is’ tells us the state of being we are in: we are, rather than not. Or perhaps this is better described as a condition, being either the condition that you are something, or that you are not. Once we start taking the past into consideration we then have different conditions such as:
The man was a professor.
The man was not a professor.
Then when we consider the future we have even more options for conditions.
The man will be a professor.
The man will not be a professor.
So perhaps ‘condition’ is a more easily understand way to describe the other types of verbs than ‘state of being.’ The verbs above are all giving us the correct condition of the subject (‘the man’) from a choice of the past, present and future. Furthermore, they are also giving us a choice between the condition of being a professor, or not.
Another reason it might be better to use the term ‘condition’ is it is easy to mix up ‘state of being’ with the general definition of a noun given earlier, which has the term ‘state’ in it. The example I used of ‘state’ when defining a noun was ‘anger.’ Now, that is different to this ‘state of being’ in verbs because the ‘being’ is alluding to these different conditions – but it could cause some confusion because of the similar wording.
Just like the nouns and pronouns we have explored so far, there are also many different types of verbs. To get a clearer picture of what a verb is, let’s explore them next.
2) Types of verbs
2.1 Transitive verbs
We learnt earlier about the two different types of objects: direct and indirect.
As a reminder, direct objects are objects which the verb is working directly on. For example, in:
The dog bit the man.
the verb ‘bit’ is working directly on the object ‘the man.’ One way of checking it is the direct object is finding the subject, then finding the verb and asking the questions ‘what?’ or ‘whom?’ next to both of them. So the formula for finding the direct object is:
subject + verb + what/whom?
‘The dog bit the man’
Subject: ‘The dog’
Verb = ‘bit’
Question = ‘The dog bit whom?’
Answer = ‘the man’
‘The man loves dogs’
Subject: ‘The man’
Verb = ‘loves’
Question = ‘The man loves what?’
Answer = ‘dogs’
Transitive verbs are verbs which need a direct object to complete their meaning. For example:
feels incomplete but:
Stephanie kicked the football.
feels complete. Here ‘kicked’ is the transitive verb and ‘the football’ is the direct object which it is working on. Let’s look at some examples of sentences with transitive verbs where the direct object is missing, then in.
The cat scratched.
The cat scratched the mat.
We can argue about whether the first sentence is a true sentence or not. While it has a subject and a predicate (with a verb in it), it does lack an object. As to whether it makes sense alone: on the one hand it isn’t telling us the full story, while on the other it does let us know something that the cat did. Rather than focus too much on this, let’s just think about how it feels without a direct object. I think it just feels like something should come after ‘scratched.’ That is because ‘scratched’ is a transitive verb which works within a sentence to modify a direct object. If we just had:
the cat the mat
it is clear that there is a space in the middle for a word to tell us what the cat did to the mat. For example:
The cat bit the mat.
The cat ate the mat.
The cat swallowed the mat.
The cat regurgitated the mat.
All of these words which complete this sentence are transitive verbs. They fit in perfectly by modifying the direct object because they complete the thought about what the direct object did. Therefore, ‘The cat scratched the mat.’ feels like it gives us a much more complete thought than ‘the cat scratched.’
However, this isn’t really an adequate explanation. Many of these transitive verbs can also be intransitive verbs, depending on the situation. Let’s look at intransitive verbs next to see what we mean.
2.2 Intransitive verbs
Intransitive verbs are verbs which can stand alone with the subject and therefore don’t need a direct object to complete their meaning. Let’s look at some examples:
Here ‘Michael’ is the subject and ‘dances’ is the predicate. There is no direct object, as there isn’t something being done to ‘dances’ by Michael. The way we usually check for the direct object is to find the subject and the verb and then add ‘what?’ or ‘whom?’ to the end of it (subject + verb + what/whom?). Well, in this case ‘Michael’ is the subject and ‘dances’ is the verb leading to either ‘Michael dances what?’ or ‘Michael dances whom?’ – which are both nonsensical. Here ‘dances’ is the intransitive verb, because it is able to stand alone with the subject, without needing a direct object. Let’s look at another example:
The cat sat down.
Here the subject is ‘the cat’ the intransitive verb ‘sat’ and then we have the adverb ‘down’ at the end. Adverbs – which will be discussed later – are words which can modify verbs. In this instance, ‘down’ is modifying the verb ‘sat.’ So we can see here that the intransitive verb ‘sat’ is able to function without a direct object. We can also try the direct object question test by finding the subject and verb then add ‘what?’ or ‘whom?’ The questions: ‘The cat sat what?’ and ‘The cat sat whom?’ are largely nonsensical, which suggests that there is no direct object, meaning ‘sat’ must be an intransitive verb. I suppose one could argue that the answer to ‘The cat sat what?’ is ‘down’. The problem with that is ‘down’ is an adverb modifying ‘sat’ rather than being an object that the cat is doing something to via the verb ‘sat. This just shows that we need to be careful when using this method to find direct objects, making sure to check if the answer is something which makes sense as an object.
If we were to add ‘himself’ next to ‘sat’ we could get:
The cat sat himself down.
‘himself’ could be said to be the direct object here, though it is a reflexive pronoun that refers back to the subject ‘the cat’ which kind of makes it weirdly both a subject and an object. Nevertheless, the question ‘The cat sat what?’ now has the answer ‘himself down’. In this case, ‘himself’ does make sense as an object because it is something (‘himself’) having something done to it (being sat down) by the subject (‘the cat’) via the verb (‘sat’)
I mentioned earlier that there are problems with these definitions, and that is because many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on the situation. I just showed that with ‘sat’ where it was intransitive in ‘the cat sat down’ and transitive in ‘the cat sat himself down’. Let’s explore this some more.
2.2.1 Examples of verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive
There are many verbs which can transitive or intransitive depending on the situation. Here is an example:
Transitive: ‘John reads novels.’
Intransitive ‘John reads regularly.’
In the first sentence, ‘John’ is the subject, and ‘novels’ is the direct object being worked on by the verb ‘reads’. This makes ‘reads’ a transitive verb. In the second sentence ‘John’ is the subject, ‘reads’ is the verb and ‘regularly’ is the adverb modifying ‘reads.’ This makes ‘reads’ an intransitive verb.
This can get confusing because both sentences begin with ‘John reads’. Furthermore, ‘John reads’ can stand as a sentence alone, yet it isn’t always an intransitive verb. Then, when we ask the direct object questions we get ‘John reads what?’ and ‘John reads whom?’ Both of these questions are answerable, showing that ‘reads’ can have a direct object. And yet, it can also not have a direct object. So, is the fundamental difference between the meaning of these two words just that one has a direct object and another doesn’t?
One way of getting to the bottom of this might be to look at intransitive verbs which cannot be transitive verbs, no matter the situation. A few examples of these are ‘lied’ , ‘joked and ‘listened’. Let’s try giving them a direct object in the form of a pronoun, to see if they might be able to take one:
He lied it.
He joked it.
He listened it.
None of these make much sense. Similarly, if we ask the direct object questions it is also hard to imagine an answer:
He lied what/whom?
He joked what/whom?
He listened what/whom?
There is something I have wilfully missed out of these examples though, which is using prepositions to extend the sentence. We could have:
He lied to her.
He joked to his friends.
He listened to the music.
In each of these the preposition ‘to’ has been used to link the verb with the noun, or noun phrase. However, the nouns ‘her’, ‘his friends’ and ‘the music’ are not considered direct objects of the verbs but objects of the preposition ‘to’. As we will see later, these nouns work as objects of the preposition ‘to’ in the prepositional phrases ‘lied to her’, ‘joked to his friends’ and ‘listened to the music’.
So what do ‘lied’, ‘joked’ and ‘listened’ have in common that make them different to transitive verbs? It seems they can only take an object as part of a prepositional phrase, and therefore cannot take a direct object. So, if we use transitive verb examples, you can punch, lift, push, drink or read someone, or something, but you can’t lie, joke or listen someone, or something – you have to lie to, lie at, lie about etc., someone or something – that is, you need one of these prepositions to move between the intransitive verb and the object.
2.3 Linking verbs
We mentioned linking verbs earlier when looking at predicate nouns: nouns which come in the predicate part of the sentence. When defining a verb I talked about words which express physical and mental action, like ‘ran’ and ‘contemplated’. Then I mentioned words which show a state of being, or condition, like ‘is’ and ‘was.’ It is these verbs, related to condition, or state of being, which are the linking verbs.
Why are they called linking verbs? This is because they act to link the subject and the rest of the sentence which has information about the subject. Let’s look at some examples:
His actions were immoral.
Here the subject is ‘His actions’ the linking verb is ‘were’ and the predicate adjective is ‘immoral’. The linking verb ‘were’ is being used to link the subject ‘his actions’ with the predicate adjective ‘immoral’ by telling us both that this happened in the past, and giving them the quality of being ‘immoral’. They weren’t just actions, they were ‘immoral actions’. The linking verb ‘were’ is a past tense version of the very common linking verb ‘to be.’ Let’s look at other examples of ‘to be’:
I am immoral.
Torture is immoral.
His actions are immoral.
I was immoral.
His actions were immoral.
His actions will be immoral.
Here we can see the many different conditions in the different tenses, and persons, where ‘to be’ is used. For example ‘I am immoral’ is telling us that we are in the present, that the person writing this is talking about themselves, and that person is renaming themselves as being ‘immoral’ (an ‘immoral person’).
In ‘torture is immoral’ the linking verb ‘is’ tells us that we are in the present, and ‘torture’ is being described as ‘immoral’.
With ‘His actions are immoral’ we are in the present, the author is talking about someone else, and this male is being described as being immoral.
In ‘I was immoral’ this is referring to the past, the person is talking about themselves and this past self is being described as ‘immoral.’
In ‘His actions will be immoral’ it is referring to the future, and therefore future actions of the subject are being described as immoral.
These are all examples of linking verbs with a predicate adjective (‘immoral’) on the end to describe the subject as ‘immoral’.
Linking verbs can also have predicate nouns on the end instead, renaming the noun rather than modifying it. For example:
That animal is a gorilla.
The location will be Paris.
I am a person.
In all of these examples the nouns at the end (‘a gorilla’, ‘Paris’ and ‘a person’) are renaming the subjects (‘the animal’, ‘the location’ and ‘I’) via the linking verbs (‘is’, ‘be’ and ‘am’). They aren’t adjectives modifying them, they are nouns renaming them. So if we call someone ‘immoral’, that is adding an extra quality about that person (modifying), but it isn’t completely renaming them. In contrast, if we call a location ‘Paris’, we have actually given it a new name from ‘the location’ to ‘Paris’ – it has been renamed.
As we will see later, the previous examples are all different forms of the verb ‘be’. However, not all linking verbs are forms of ‘be’. There are others which relate to the senses, as in:
The rose smells sweet.
The desert looked endless.
The grass felt wet.
The food tasted terrible.
The violin sounded out of tune.
But they aren’t all just senses. Others include:
Something seems wrong.
Something appears wrong.
What is the difference between these and the ‘be’ form ones? It is subtle, but these examples are more specific:
The rose smells sweet.
gives us a more descriptive, less all encompassing detail than:
The rose is sweet.
And there is a clear difference between:
The desert looked endless.
The desert was endless.
‘The desert looked endless.’ suggests the person knows it isn’t, but it just seems that way, whereas ‘The desert was endless.’ could literally mean that it never ends. Moreover, using something like ‘The desert was endless.’ perhaps gives a certain extra sense that the person saying it really feels like it. If we are thirsty, hot, and tired walking through the desert and I turn to you and say ‘The desert looks endless.’ it isn’t quite as powerful, and desperate, as me saying ‘The desert is endless.’
As well as noting they link the subject and the rest of the sentence about the subject, and that they represent a condition, or state of being, another way of recognising linking verbs is to note that they can be replaced with ‘equals.’ This is another area where ‘be’ form verbs and the other types show a a difference. Firstly, looking at the ‘be’ linking verbs:
I = immoral.
Torture = immoral.
His actions = immoral.
I = immoral.
His actions = immoral.
His actions = immoral.
What we lose here are the past, present and future tenses, but the modification of the subject still stands. In contrast, looking at the descriptive ones:
The rose = sweet.
The desert = endless.
The grass = wet.
The food = terrible.
The violin = out of tune.
Here we lose both the tense, and the specific detail.
There is another difference between these two types of linking verbs: the ‘be’ ones are always linking verbs; however, the more descriptive ones are only linking verbs if they also intransitive verbs (i.e., they can stand alone with the subject and therefore don’t need a direct object to complete their meaning) Let’s look at the senses again and show them both as action verbs and linking verbs:
Linking verb: The rose smells sweet.
Action verb: She smells the rose.
Notice how in ‘The rose smells sweet.’ the linking verb ‘smells’ is an intransitive verb? This is because it does not take a direct object. Remember, a direct object is usually a noun having something done to it by a verb. Instead, what is happening here is, the linking verb ‘smells’ is linking the subject ‘the rose’ with the adjective ‘sweet’ which is modifying it by describing its smell. In contrast, in ‘She smells the rose.’ the verb ‘smells’ takes the direct object ‘the rose’ and does something to it (smells it). Therefore, what is happening here is the rose is having something done to it. Let’s look at a few other examples:
Linking verb: The desert looked endless.
Action verb: He looked at the endless desert.
Linking verb: The grass felt wet.
Action verb: He felt the grass under his feet.
Linking verb: The food tasted terrible.
Action verb: She tasted the terrible food.
1) What are transitive verbs?
2) What are intransitive verbs?
3) What are linking verbs?
OK, let’s look at auxiliary verbs next.