What Is a Verb? | Definition, Types & Examples

A verb is a word that describes what the subject of a sentence is doing. Verbs can indicate (physical or mental) actions, occurrences, and states of being.

Examples: Verbs in a sentence
Jeffrey builds a house.

Anita is thinking about horses.

True love exists.

Every sentence must have at least one verb. At the most basic level, a sentence can consist solely of a single verb in the imperative form (e.g., “Run.”). In this example, the implied subject is “you.”

Verb conjugation

Verbs can change form depending on subject, tense, mood, and voice. This is called conjugation.

Subject

There are six subject forms in English:

I First person singular
You Second person singular
He/she/it Third person singular
We First person plural
You Second person plural
They Third person plural

Verbs and subjects must agree in number. If the subject is singular, the verb must also be singular. Similarly, if the subject is plural, the verb must be plural. This is called subject-verb agreement.

Examples: Subject-verb agreement
  • She talks a lot.
  • She talk a lot.
  • We talk a lot.
  • We talks a lot.

Tense

Verbs are also conjugated based on tense. There are three main tenses in English:

  • Past (an action has taken place)
  • Present (an action is taking place)
  • Future (an action will take place)

Each tense has a simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive aspect with its own rules for conjugation.

The forms a verb takes in each aspect depend on the subject and on whether the verb is regular or irregular. Below is a table illustrating the various forms the regular verb “look” takes in the first person singular when conjugated.

Past Present Future
Simple I looked at the painting. I look at the painting. I will look at the painting.
Progressive I was looking at the painting. I am looking at the painting. I will be looking at the painting.
Perfect I had looked at the painting. I have looked at the painting. I will have looked at the painting.
Perfect progressive I had been looking at the painting. I have been looking at the painting. I will have been looking at the painting.

Mood

The mood of a verb indicates the tone and intention of a sentence. There are five grammatical moods in English:

Grammatical mood Function Example
Indicative Express a fact “Tony likes chocolate.”
Imperative Express a command or a request Wash the dishes.”
Interrogative Ask a question Did you do your homework?”
Conditional Express a condition “If you want to borrow that book, you can.”
Subjunctive Express a wish, demand, doubt, or hypothetical situation “If I were rich, I would buy an island.”

Active and passive voice

Most sentences can use either the active or the passive voice. An active sentence is one in which the subject performs the action.

Example: Active sentence
Lucas broke a chair.

A passive sentence is one in which the subject is acted upon. Passive sentences are constructed using a form of the auxiliary verb “be” (e.g., “was,” “is,” “were”) followed by the past participle of the main verb (e.g., “eaten,” “taken”).

Passive sentences are useful for emphasizing the outcome of an action rather than the action itself.

Example: Passive sentence
A chair was broken (by Lucas).

Participles

Participles are formed from verbs. There are two types of participles:

  • Past participles are typically used in combination with an auxiliary verb (e.g., “has,” “have,” “had”) for perfect tenses (connecting a past action or event to a later time). Past participles are typically formed by adding the suffix “-ed” (e.g., “worked”).
  • Present participles are used for continuous tenses (describing an action that is ongoing). They are formed by adding the suffix “-ing” (e.g., “reading”).

Participles are often used as adjectives (e.g., “running shoes”).

Regular vs. irregular verbs

Regular verbs follow the standard conjugation rules for English verbs—most verbs are regular. A verb is considered regular if its simple past and past participle are formed by adding the suffix “-ed” (or “-d” if the word already ends in the letter “e”).

Example: Past simple and past participle of “finish” in a sentence
Sarah finished her work.

Claude had finished his dinner when James called.

Jock has finished writing in his journal.

Tina will have finished her course by the end of next month.

Irregular verbs form their simple past and past participles in some way other than by adding the suffix “-ed.”

Example: Past simple and past participle of “swim” in a sentence
Andre swam in all five of the Great Lakes last summer.

I had swum almost a mile when the island came into view.

Melissa has swum every Saturday for the last three years.

If he succeeds next week, Antonio will have swum the English Channel ten times!

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Transitive and intransitive verbs

A transitive verb is a verb that acts on someone or something and therefore takes a direct object (the thing being acted upon).

Examples: Transitive verbs in a sentence
Kelly asks a question.

Toby buys groceries.

Intransitive verbs do not act on someone or something and therefore do not take a direct object.

While an intransitive verb does not take a direct object, it can be used along with an adverb or prepositional phrase (as can a transitive verb).

Examples: Intransitive verbs in a sentence
Rita coughed.

Rita coughed loudly.

Rita coughed on me!

Some verbs are ditransitive, meaning they have two objects: a direct object and an indirect object (usually the person for whom the action is being performed).

Example: Direct and indirect object in a sentence
Amira reads me a book.

Stative and dynamic verbs

Dynamic verbs (also called action verbs) describe specific, temporary actions or events (e.g., “eat,” “sleep,” “write”).

Examples: Dynamic verbs in a sentence
Amy kicks the ball.

Lydia is running to school.

Stative verbs describe a state of being or perception (e.g., “she is,” “it seems,” “they belong”). They can also be used to describe a mental, emotional, or physical state (e.g., “I believe,” “you hear”).

Stative verbs are typically used for a state of being that is general or unchanging, so they can’t be used in the progressive (continuous) tense.

Examples: Stative verbs in a sentence
  • Karl believes in himself.
  • Karl is believing in himself.

Linking verbs

A linking verb (also called a copular verb) connects the subject of a sentence with a “subject complement” (i.e., a noun or adjective that describes it). Common linking verbs include the verbs “be,” “seem,” “become,” and “feel.”

Example: Linking verbs in a sentence
Fionn is proud.

The pillow feels soft.

Most linking verbs can also be used as action verbs, describing a specific action  rather than a state (e.g., “Sofie feels the pillow”).

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs (also called helping verbs) include verbs such as “be,” “do,” and “have.” They’re used in combination with another (main) verb to modify its meaning. Auxiliary verbs can be used to indicate tense, mood, and voice. They’re also used to form negative statements when used with words such as “not,” and “never.”

Auxiliary verbs must be conjugated for tense and person (e.g., “I am,” “she was”).

Example: Auxiliary verbs
I am waiting.

Did you enjoy the meal?

The door was locked.

Alicia has not spoken to me for a week.

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that are used along with another (main) verb to express ability, permission, possibility, necessity, or obligation. The main modal verbs are can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, and would. Modal verbs do not change form.

Examples: Modal verbs in a sentence
I can read Arabic and Hebrew.

Martin should speak a little louder.

Talia ought to perform at the talent show.

Phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is a phrase made up of two or more words that acts as an individual verb. Phrasal verbs typically combine a verb with an adverb or preposition to create a meaning independent of the original words. For example, the verb “kick” and the preposition “off” combine to form the phrasal verb “kick off,” which means “begin.”

Example: Phrasal verb
I’m going to move out next month.

Gerunds

A gerund is a noun that takes the present participle (“-ing”) form of a verb. Gerunds typically describe the same action as the verb from which they are formed.

Example: Gerund in a sentence
Eating fruits and vegetables is good for you.

Frequently asked questions about verbs

What is the definition of a verb?

A verb is a word that indicates a physical action (e.g., “drive”), a mental action (e.g., “think”) or a state of being (e.g., “exist”). Every sentence contains a verb.

Verbs are almost always used along with a noun or pronoun to describe what the noun or pronoun is doing.

What are the different types of verbs?

There are many ways to categorize verbs into various types. A verb can fall into one or more of these categories depending on how it is used.

Some of the main types of verbs are:

What’s the difference between regular and irregular verbs?

Regular verbs are verbs whose simple past and past participle are formed by adding the suffix “-ed” (e.g., “walked”).

Irregular verbs are verbs that form their simple past and past participles in some way other than by adding the suffix “-ed” (e.g., “sat”).

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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.