Verbs are an essential part of English grammar. Without them, you couldn't make a sentence. But what exactly are these tiny words, and how should you use them? That's what you'll learn in this article.
The short version is that verbs enable you to express an action, a thought, or a state of being. Verbs fit into a number of different categories according to how they interact with the other words in the sentence, and you can use them in the past, present, and future tenses.
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
So, first of all, what are verbs? At school, we're often taught that they're "action words," but that's oversimplifying things. In reality, verbs can do a lot more than show an action. In fact, often, verbs aren't an action at all. Sometimes they describe a thought, a state of being, or a feeling.
Verbs are the only kind of word that you can't create a sentence without. If there’s no verb, it’s not a sentence (it might be a phrase or a clause). You can even make a sentence with just a word, like, for example, this imperative sentence:
In this article, you'll learn all about how verbs interact with these other parts of speech, how to conjugate them so they form the correct tense, and best practice tips for using them.
Let's begin by familiarizing ourselves with what exactly verbs do and the sort of activity that each one describes. Because unlike we are often taught in school, verbs don't just describe an action.
Dynamic verbs - also known as action verbs - describe an activity. They explain what the subject is doing. For example, in the following sentence, the subject "Danny" is doing the action of "throwing."
Danny throws the ball to his brother.
There's notable activity going on. Somebody is doing something. This action might have ended, still, be happening right now, or be planned for the future.
Some examples of dynamic verbs include:
Dynamic verbs, although known as action verbs, can also happen in the mind, so they're actually not always an action. For example, "stay," "dream," and "achieve" are all dynamic verbs. How will you know they are dynamic verbs? They still describe an activity. If a sentence contains a dynamic verb, you can usually ask the question, "What happened?".
Stative verbs are pretty much the opposite of dynamic verbs. Instead of describing an activity, they describe a state of being or a feeling. Nobody is actively doing anything. They relate to emotions, relationships, senses, possessions, feelings, thoughts, or measurements.
Stative verbs typically can’t be conjugated in the present continuous tense. That's right: McDonald's famous catchline "I'm Lovin' It" is grammatically incorrect.
I'm sure you'll be overjoyed to learn that some verbs can be both dynamic and stative.
The trick is to determine whether there's activity happening. Let's use the verb 'have' as an example. Take a look at the two following sentences:
I have a red Mercedes Benz.
I'm having lunch with my boss.
Both examples use the verb "have," but in the first example, "have" is a stative verb since there's no activity happening; it's just a state of being. In the second example, it's a dynamic verb since it describes an activity that's currently taking place. Hence why you can use it in the present continuous tense (you could, in fact, use it in any tense).
Now that we've learned about the three different types of verbs let's take a look at the different roles they play in a sentence. The way a verb interacts with other words in the sentence determines whether the verb is transitive, ditransitive, intransitive, or ambitransitive.
Transitive verbs work alongside a direct object. That means that the effect of the verb happens directly to a person or thing. For example:
Can you clean the dishes?
In the above sentence, "clean" is the transitive verb, and "dishes" is the direct object. It's the thing the verb is happening to.
Note that transitive verbs don't need to have a direct object, but they can. Here's an example where "clean" doesn't have a direct object:
Can you help me clean?
Here are some more examples of transitive verbs:
A nifty trick to know whether you're dealing with a transitive verb is to take the verb and ask the question "what?" or "whom?" about it. If the question makes sense and you can answer it, it's a transitive verb.
Let's try that with the verb "clean," which I used in the above sentence example. We can ask: "What would you like to clean?". That question makes complete sense, and the answer is "the dishes."
Let's try it with those other examples of transitive verbs I listed above.
These questions all make sense and can be answered, so the verbs are all transitive.
Ditransitive verbs go one step further than transitive verbs in that they use not only a direct object but also an indirect one. The direct object is the recipient of the activity from the verb, and the indirect object is the thing that receives the direct object. For example:
I'm reading a book to my daughter.
In the above sentence, "read" is the verb, "book" is the direct object and "daughter" is the indirect object.
Just like with transitive verbs, you can ask the question "what/whom?". Not only that, but you can also ask, "to what/whom?". Let's try that with the above example:
What are you reading? My book.
To whom are you reading it? My daughter.
Both questions make sense and have an answer. The answer to the first question - my book - is the direct object. the answer to the second question - my daughter - is the indirect object. The fact that you can ask and answer both questions makes "reading" a ditransitive verb.
The main thing to know about intransitive verbs is that they don't have an object at all. This means the verb doesn't have an effect on a particular person or thing. It just acts alone in a sentence and doesn't need a direct or indirect object to make sense. Here are some examples of intransitive verbs:
You can't ask the question "To whom" or "to what"? for these verbs. Take, for example, the verbs listed above. You can't ask, "What did you laugh to?" or "To whom did you hurt?".
Ambitransitive verbs are sometimes transitive and other times intransitive. In other words, sometimes they have no object, sometimes they have a direct object only, and sometimes they have both a direct and indirect object.
I find that these days, it's rare to find verbs that are exclusively intransitive. Most verbs are actually ambitransitive. Here are some examples of ambitransitive verbs, accompanied by a sentence where they're transitive and one where they're intransitive.
There are different types of verbs, and they are categorized based on the role they play in a sentence. It's important to categorize them this way because depending on the type of verb, the sentence might be structured differently, or the way other words in the sentence interact with the verb might be affected.
Auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, support another verb in the sentence. It's handy to refer to them as helping verbs because that's what they actually do - help. Because of their helping role, they're not the main verb of the sentence. In any sentence with an auxiliary verb, there'll be another verb that steals the limelight.
So what exactly do they help with? Mostly, they help with building more complex grammatical tenses. So you'll see lots of them in one of the later sections of this article on verb conjugation. Take the following sentence, for example:
Julia is hoping to pass her exams.
"Is," from the verb "be," is the auxiliary verb. Its presence helps to show that the verb "hope" is in the present continuous tense, which means the hoping is happening in the present moment and not in the past or future.
Auxiliary verbs also help express mood. There are five verb moods in the English language:
Auxiliary verbs mostly come in handy for the subjunctive and interrogative mood. For example:
Don't move a muscle! (Imperative)
Do you think about her often? (Interrogative)
Auxiliary verbs can also be used to construct the passive voice. That's when the subject is acted upon rather than performing the action. Here are a few examples of sentences in the passive voice, with the auxiliary verb underlined and the main verb in bold:
My bike was stolen.
The goal was scored by Montiel.
Don't be fooled!
While the verbs "be," "do," and "have" take up most of the space when it comes to auxiliary verbs, there's a specific category of auxiliary verbs that comprise that diverge from this rule. These are called modal verbs.
Modal verbs express possibility, impossibility, intent, obligation, permission, or certainty. Here's a list of modal verbs:
Let's take a look at some sentence examples that use these modal verbs. Again here, I'll underline the modal verb and bolden the main verb.
I can't find my keys anywhere; they must be somewhere in the house!
We might grab a bite after this.
Can we help you with that?
You know how I mentioned earlier that not all verbs are action verbs? It turns out, there's a specific name for verbs that, rather than express an action, describe the quality of the subject. Those are called "linking verbs'. They're also sometimes referred to as copula or copular verbs.
They basically provide the connection between the subject and a certain state of being. Here are some examples with the linking verb underlined:
You seem tired today; are you okay?
He's becoming a fine young man.
My dog is always hungry.
Phrasal verbs are verbs that are made up of more than one word - usually two or three. A bit like idioms, their meaning is unrelated to the individual words; you have to take the meaning as a whole. Here are some examples of sentences that contain phrasal verbs:
Oh come on, it's been two years. Get over it!
My car broke down again.
I don't know how you put up with him.
She's tidying up after last night's party.
I'm running late but please go ahead without me.
Let's take a look at the first example with the phrasal verb "to get over." "Get" is a verb that means to acquire something, and "over" is an adverb that expresses movement at a higher point in space. As you can imagine, the verb "to get over" does not mean to acquire something moving at a higher point in space. Rather, it has an altogether new meaning: to recover from an upsetting experience.
To conjugate phrasal verbs, take the actual verb of the phrase and conjugate that the way you'd conjugate any verb (more on that later), and keep the rest of the words as they are. Using the example of "get over" once more, let's look at this phrasal verb in different tenses and even with different pronouns:
I've long gotten over his betrayal.
She will get over him in no time.
They were just getting over their last crisis when tragedy struck again.
I mentioned verb moods in passing earlier when discussing auxiliary verbs, but thought it deserved its own section. While verb tenses give information with regard to time - when something happened - verb moods provide information about the kind of sentence it is, from the tone to whether or not the situation described is real or imaginary.
Let's take a look at each mood in more detail.
The subjunctive mood is hypothetical. It's used to express a wish, a suggestion, or a demand, or even to speculate on what you would do in a certain situation. For example:
We could have ordered pizza if the restaurant was open.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
I wish you were here with me now.
The imperative mood serves to give someone an order or make a demand. Imperative sentences are often punctuated with an exclamation mark, as they often are used when people are in a state of anger, surprise or urgency. For example:
Turn the music down, please.
Come here at once!
Don't scare me like that ever again!
The indicative mood simply states facts. It's the most common type of mood, and it doesn't have specific features that make it stand out. Therefore, if you don't see any evidence of subjunctive or imperative mood in a sentence, then you can assume that it's in the indicative mood. Here are some examples:
This table is made of beautiful wood.
I usually get a massage once a month.
We're having lunch at 1pm.
Depending on the source, you might hear about two other moods in the English language. Some say there are only three - the ones mentioned above - and others say that the interrogative and conditional are also moods.
The interrogative mood is pretty straightforward: it's when you ask a question. For example:
What are you doing for New Year's Eve?
Why is Jenny heading home early?
Do you have a favorite dish?
Note that the interrogative mood makes use of auxiliary verbs.
So why isn't the interrogative mood always recognized? Because some categorize it as the indicative mood.
The conditional mood is a little more complex because it closely resembles the subjunctive. The conditional mood is used to discuss scenarios that are contingent on something else happening first. Or in other words, certain conditions would have to be met before something can become a reality. A sentence in the conditional mood usually follows the template if x, then x. For example:
If I were rich, then I would buy a mansion.
The verb 'would' here is in the conditional mood. Note that the use of the word 'then' is actually optional. You could just as well say:
If I were rich, I would buy a mansion.
You can also reverse the order of each phrase. You could say:
I would buy a mansion if I were rich.
So what exactly is the difference between the conditional and the subjunctive? The conditional is the part of the sentence that expresses the condition in order for the wish to come true. I.e., in the above sentence, the condition is "If I were rich." The subjunctive part of the sentence is what would happen if the condition were in place. I.e., in the above example, "I would buy a mansion" is the part of the sentence that is in the subjunctive mood.
Here are some more examples with the conditional verb underlined:
If I were you, I wouldn't do that.
If I had the grades you do, I'd apply for a scholarship.
Had I known what you were going through, I could have supported you.
You can use the conditional mood in different tenses, also. Like this sentence which is a past conditional:
Mike might have been able to help if we had been able to find him.
Or this sentence which is a future conditional:
My business will thrive if I make careful decisions.
Some believe that the conditional is a tense as opposed to a mood because it gives information about when something takes place. I would argue that it isn't a tense because to build a sentence in the conditional mood, you use tenses that already exist, like the present simple and past participle. However, whether you deem the conditional to be a tense or a mood does not matter as much as knowing how to use it correctly.
Now that we've established what a verb is, what they do, what they convey, the different types of verbs that exist, and the variety of moods they can express, now we get to the juicy bit: how to conjugate a verb.
This section is important because while the previous sections were more theoretical, this one is more practical. It will teach you how to actually use a verb in a sentence or conversation. It's where you'll learn how to determine the tense a verb should take and how to conjugate the verb appropriately according to that tense and the noun or pronoun enacting the verb.
Anyone who knows even a little about English grammar knows that there are rules, and for each rule, there's an exception. With verbs, the exception is irregular verbs. You're about to learn about conventions around different tenses and how to conjugate verbs.
However, I can only teach you how to conjugate a regular verb. For each tense, there are irregular verbs that do not follow the rules laid out. My best advice to you is to memorize each irregular verb by practicing using it as often as possible or by reading high-quality English content. Here are some of our articles on irregular verbs to get you started:
A conjugated verb can tell us a lot about the sentence. For example, if I see the verb "has lived", I'll already know three things before I've even seen the rest of the sentence. I'll know that it's an event that started in the past but continues to be true today. I'll also know that it's referring to the third-person singular pronoun. I'll also know that it's in the passive voice.
The first thing to know about conjugating is that there are three time periods:
Each time period has four main tenses:
And there are six categories of pronouns. This is important to ensure subject-verb agreement (more on that later).
Every verb is in its infinite (or root) form before it's conjugated.
Let's have a chat about participles before we dive in. It's important for you to know about these because they come in handy when building other tenses.
I'll keep it pretty brief here, and you can visit our participles blog if you want to learn more.
In short, a participle is a part of speech that looks like a verb but doesn't function as one. Participles can be used as:
There are present participles and past participles. Present participles use the -ing ending form and look like this:
Past participles take the -ed ending form and look like this:
That's just for the regular verbs. There are always exceptions. We cover those in the participles blog, so check that out if you're interested.
Now we've covered the basics, let's dive in.
We'll begin with the simple tenses for each of the three time periods.
The present simple - or present indefinite - tense is the most basic tense in English, and it's used to state a general fact that's true in the present moment. For example:
Sally is a tall girl.
Sally is tall. It's a fact. It's true today and probably will never change. So we use the present simple. Here are some more examples:
The gallery opens at noon.
I wear my favorite dress every Tuesday.
It is quite easy to build because it's almost identical to the infinitive form of a verb, except for the third-person singular, which takes an extra -s at the end. Let's take a look at the verb "climb" as an example.
Infinitive: to climb
The past simple can be used to talk about an event that began and ended in the past or a fact that used to be true but is no longer. For example:
She left the party quite early.
What's great about this sentence is that the only thing telling us the party was in the past is the verb itself. We could change it to "She will leave the party quite early," and the sentence would be in the future tense. Here are more examples of sentences that use the past simple tense:
I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers when I was in college.
We just wanted to understand the reason why you rejected our proposal.
To build the past simple - or past indefinite tense - just take the infinitive of the verb and add ‘ed,’ or simply ‘d’ if the verb already ends with an ‘e.’ We'll use the same verb for the example: the verb "to climb."
The future simple is employed to state something will become true at a future point in time. In other words, it hasn't happened yet. For example:
The weather will change from next Monday.
Next Monday is in the future. We use the future simply to talk about the weather change because it's in the future. Here are some other examples:
She is well aware it will be difficult to change her habits.
I will learn the language once I'm there.
With the future simple, the formula is:
[will] + [root verb]
With the verb "climb," that's:
I will climb
You will climb
It/he/she will climb
We will climb
You will climb
They will climb
Continuous tenses (also known as progressive tenses) are used to express something ongoing - whether that's in the past, present, or future.
The present continuous expresses something that is currently ongoing, either in this exact moment or "these days." For example:
Please keep the noise down, Jonny is sleeping.
Jonny is sleeping right now. It's an activity that is currently ongoing. That's why we use the present continuous. Let's take a look at some other examples:
I am reading Pride and Prejudice at the moment.
We are hiding under the blanket.
It can also be used to talk about something that'll happen in the future. For example:
I am going to my mom's today.
We are getting Italian for dinner.
She is meeting with the boss tomorrow morning.
To form the present continuous, the formula is this:
[to be] + [present participle]
With the verb "climb", it looks like this:
I am climbing
You are climbing
He/she/it is climbing
We are climbing
You are climbing
They are climbing
Top tip! You can use the contracted form with the verb "to be," i.e. "I'm" instead of "I am," "You're" instead of "you are," and so on.
The past continuous is used to talk about actions that were ongoing in the past but have now stopped or something that was taking place when another event happened. For example:
Anna was living in California when she got divorced.
What was the situation when the event of Anna's divorce took place? What was she doing? That's what the past continuous can help us know. Let's look at some more examples:
I was waiting for you outside the cinema.
We were always listening to that song back in our Junior year.
To form the past continuous, follow this simple formula:
[was/were] + [present participle]
With the verb "climb," you'll get:
I was climbing
You were climbing
He/she/it was climbing
We were climbing
You were climbing
They were climbing
The perfect tenses are used to talk about activities that have already happened and therefore are finished but are still true today. The past and future perfect are especially helpful for talking about what was going on or will be going on when another thing happens. What had you done when x happened? What will you have done when x happens?
Let's dive in a little deeper.
Use the perfect tense to talk about a fact or truth that happened in the past and is finished but still has a bearing on the present moment.
Sally has lived here for two years.
Sally still lives there. The event started in the past and is still true today. Here are some more examples:
I have read that book three times.
He has lost his keys.
The reason these events continue to have a bearing on the present is that they are not set in stone. They can still change. For example, in the second example, Sally has lived here for two years, but that number will continue to increase because she still lives here. That's different from saying, "Sally lived here for two years," which you would say if she no longer lives here.
This is how you build the present perfect:
[have/has] + [past participle]
And with the verb "climb," that'll look like this:
I have climbed
You have climbed
It/she/he has climbed
We have climbed
You have climbed
They have climbed
Use the past perfect to talk about a fact or event which happened or was true before something else happened. For example:
Hannah had lived here 20 years when the hurricane took her house.
Hannah did live there before. Now she no longer does. This event is over. So is the hurricane. Both are things of the past. That's why we use the past perfect. Here are some more examples:
We hadn't even started dinner when the guests arrived.
She had left the party by the time the clock struck midnight.
The formula for creating the past perfect tense is:
[had] + [past participle]
With the example of the verb "climb," it'll look like this:
I had climbed
You had climbed
He/she/it had climbed
We had climbed
You had climbed
They had climbed
The future perfect is used to talk about an activity that will have been completed once a future event occurs. For example:
You're not coming until 11 pm? Joe will have left by then!
Although we're talking about a future event, we're talking about a moment in time when that future event will be over. 11 pm is in the future, but when that time arrives, Joe will be gone. Here are some more examples:
Next month we will have known each other for fifteen years.
If you carry on this way you'll have traveled to more countries than me by the time you retire.
The formula for creating the future perfect is:
[will] + [have] + [past participle]
Still using the verb "climb" as an example, it'll look like this:
I will have climbed
You will have climbed
He/she/it will have climbed
We will have climbed
You will have climbed
They will have climbed
You can use the perfect continuous tenses to talk about activities that have been ongoing for a while and are still happening today, were ongoing for a while in the past but are now finished, or are ongoing now and will continue into the future.
It's very useful for talking about two different events on a timeline and their relationship to one another. For example, what were you doing when x happened? Or what will you be doing when x happens? Or even, what are you doing now while x is happening?
If this seems a little complex, bear with me. All will become clearer when we go over some examples for each tense.
The thing to remember about the perfect continuous tenses is that the activities have an ongoing nature rather than being one-time events.
Just as the present perfect refers to a fact or truth that happened in the past and is finished, the present perfect continuous refers to a fact or truth that happened in the past and is still continuing now.
Dylan has been reading this book for 3 months.
Dylan is still reading the book. The reading is not over. She will continue to read that book for some time still. That's why we use the present perfect continuous. Here are some more examples:
We've been thinking about going to the Canaries for a while now, but we can't afford it.
They have been waiting for us outside since they texted us.
The formula for creating the present perfect continuous is as follows:
[have/has] + [been] + [present participle]
This is what it looks like with the verb "climb:"
I have been climbing
You have been climbing
She/it/he has been climbing
We have been climbing
You have been climbing
They have been climbing
The past perfect continuous describes an activity that was ongoing at the time another event took place. But the activity is over now. For example:
Sue had been getting her hair cut there for over a decade when it closed down.
In the above example, Sue no longer gets her hair cut there, and the salon has closed down. Both events are over. Here are some more examples:
He had been driving for four hours before he decided to take a lunch break.
She had been enjoying the show up until the point she realized it was a musical.
To create a sentence in the past perfect continuous tense, use the following structure:
[had been] + [present participle]
It'll look like this with the verb "climb:"
I had been climbing
You had been climbing
It/she/he had been climbing
We had been climbing
You had been climbing
They had been climbing
Just like the future perfect tense, you can use the future perfect continuous to talk about facts that will be true when another event happens in the future. But the difference is that with the continuous, that event will be ongoing and not a one-time event. For example:
When 5 o'clock comes around, John will have been waiting here 45 minutes.
As you can see in the sentence above, when 5 o'clock comes around, John won't stop waiting. He will keep on waiting. This is why we use the future perfect continuous, and not simply the future perfect. Here are some more examples:
We will have been chatting online for 3 weeks by the time we meet.
John will have been playing football for 25 years when he retires.
The formula for making the future perfect continuous tense is:
[will have been] + [present participle]
We've pretty much covered the bulk of what you need to know about verbs, but there are a few other things that can be useful to understand.
When conjugating verbs, it's important to ensure subject-verb agreement. That means you should make sure that the form of the verb reflects the subject it's related to. For example, if the verb is "ask" and the subject is "dad" (that's the third person singular), the verb should be "asks." For example:
Dad asks the teller for a receipt.
If you were to say, "Dad ask," that would be an incorrect subject-verb agreement because it's the wrong ending for the pronoun "he."
Pretty straightforward so far, right?
Well, yes. There are certain situations where it can get more complex, like with noun phrases, but most of the time, it remains pretty simple. I just thought it would be worth mentioning.
Base and root verbs are the same things, and they stand for verbs in their most standard form before they've been conjugated. Here are some examples of the roots of common verbs:
An 'infinitive' verb is simply the root verb but with the word "to" before it. Like:
Gerunds look like a verb. Specifically, they look like the present participle. But they don't function as a verb. They're used as nouns instead. Any action verb can be made into a gerund. Here are some examples of gerunds (underlined) in a sentence:
It's common knowledge in the English language that it's almost always better to use the active voice if you can. It makes your writing sound stronger and the message clearer. It also helps keep your sentences concise, which is always preferred.
However, there are situations where the passive voice is actually preferred.
Like the sentence that I just wrote.
When writing about a general truth, you're best off using the passive voice. If we were to write the above sentence in the active voice, it wouldn't make much sense since there isn't an actual person or thing doing the action of preferring.
Here are some other situations where the passive voice is more appropriate:
The English language is very rich in vocabulary. There is no shortage of verbs. So, where possible, instead of modifying a verb, try to find a more specific verb to use. For example, instead of saying "drove fast," you might say "raced."
Here are some other examples of modified verbs you can replace with one verb:
- touch gently → stroke
- walk quietly → tiptoe
- pull out of the groun → unearth
That concludes this lengthy article on verbs. I know it's a lot, so don't worry about taking it all in in one go, and instead, come back whenever you need to. Got a sentence to conjugate? Trying to decide on the perfect tense to use? Can't remember what a participle is? No worries! Just come back to this article and find the section you need using the table of contents at the top.
And if you found this article helpful, we have written many others, covering all different aspects of English grammar. Head to our Grammar Book to check them out. And remember, practice makes perfect!