(Use of verbs in English grammar)

Table of contents – verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. General use of verbs
  2. Semantic classes
  3. Forms of English verbs
  4. Further explanations and exercises

How are verbs used in English grammar? (Explanation)

In English grammar, verbs are a part of speech and the central element in a sentence, just as they are in many other languages too. They express processes, actions, and states. In general, one can say that the conjugation of English verbs is relatively straightforward because the verb forms in the different tenses do not usually need adaption to the grammatical person used as it may be the case in other languages.

  • Furthermore, English verbs fall into the following three subgroups:
    • First, main/full verbs: They bear the meaning and can occur alone in a sentence, which means as the only verb:
      • fly, eat, write, see, have, etc.
        • “I often write letters to my friend in China.”
        • “Jennifer never eats meat.”
    • Second, auxiliary verbs: Their purpose is ‘to help’ constructing specific grammatical structures. Therefore, they do not usually appear without a full verb in a complete sentence. However, in some sentences such as short answers, the respective full verb may also be omitted, which is then called ellipsis. Some auxiliary verbs in sentences:
      • do, have, be
        • “This bakery doesn’t open before 9 o’clock.”
        • “We are sitting on the couch.”
    • Third, modal verbs: They express modality (i.e., they show how an action is performed – the manner) and are a typical feature of spoken language. Modal verbs, just like auxiliary verbs, are almost never used alone (as the only verb in a proper sentence):
      • may, can, could, will, must, should, etc.
        • May I ask you a question?”
        • “Harry can’t swim very well.”
  • Careful: The three verbs ‘have, do’, and ‘be’ can assume the function of an auxiliary or full verb.
    • Compare the two different usages:
      • “Lucas has a red bike.”
        • to have’ (has) is a full verb here and indicates possession.
      • “They haven’t seen each other for a very long time.”
        • to have’ (haven’t) is an auxiliary verb here and serves to form the present perfect simple.
  • In addition, ‘have, do’, and ‘be’ can sometimes occur together in a single sentence. In such a case, one is the auxiliary and the other one the full verb:
    • “What do you do?”
    • “I haven’t had a cold for five years.”

What different meanings can verbs have?

Verbs can be further subdivided in terms of their meanings. This difference is relevant for learning English because (depending on the meaning) not all verbs can appear in all tenses or aspects. The primary semantic classes of verbs are:

  • Action or dynamic verbs: they describe activities and actions that are triggered by a (causal) agent. Typical examples are:
    • read, write, run, breathe, give, etc.
      • “Sue always writes a letter to her British penfriend.”
  • Process or inchoative verbs: In contrast, this type of verb describes processes that are not triggered or initiated by a causer. Some examples are:
    • smell, grow, age, etc.
    • In addition, you can recognise typical process verbs in English by the ending ‘-en’:
      • harden, darken, ripen, etc.
      • “Some of these bananas are still very green and need to ripen.”
  • State or stative verbs: They simply denote states, which also include feelings or mental attitudes, if you can call them that. Typical examples are:
    • be, believe, know, seem, etc.
      • “We have known each other for several years.”

Which forms do English verbs have?

Besides the above classifications, English verbs are subdivided according to their formation. Similar to other languages, there is a regular and an irregular conjugation. English verbs have only three forms at maximum (except for the verb ‘to be’) plus an ing form and one with ‘-s’. Compare both types:

  • English regular verbs always end in ‘-ed’ in the past tense and as the past participle. So, they are relatively easy to learn. Examples:
    • talktalkedtalked
    • listenlistenedlistened
  • Irregular verbs have particular forms that follow the rules only to some extent. They are listed and conjugated in the table of irregular verbs. Examples:
    • seesawseen
    • eatateeaten

Further explanations related to the topic ‘English Verbs’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Verbs in the English language’ and could be interesting too: