Verb Types

Learning Objectives

  • Effectively identify verb types

Active Verbs

Icon of figure doing flying kick.

Figure 1. A verb like the verb “to kick” is an example of an action verb.

Active verbs are the simplest type of verb: they simply express some sort of action: e.g., contain, roars, runs, sleeps.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Active verbs can be divided into two categories: transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb is a verb that requires one or more objects. In contrast, intransitive verbs do not have objects.

It might be helpful to think of it this way: transitive verbs have to be done to something or someone in the sentence. Intransitive verbs only have to be done by someone.

Let’s look at a few examples of transitive verbs:

  • We are going to need a bigger boat.
    • The object in this sentence is the phrase “a bigger boat.” Consider how incomplete the thought would be if the sentence only read, “We are going to need.” Despite having a subject and a verb, the sentence is meaningless without the object phrase.
  • She hates filling out forms.
    • Hates is also a transitive verb. Without the phrase “filling out forms,” the phrase “She hates” doesn’t make any sense.

Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, do not take an object.

  • John sneezed loudly.
    • Even though there’s another word after sneezed, the full meaning of the sentence is available with just the subject John and the verb sneezed: “John sneezed.” Therefore, sneezed is an intransitive verb. It doesn’t have to be done to something or someone.
  • My computer completely died.
    • Again, died here is enough for the sentence to make sense. We know that the computer (the subject) is what died.

Note: there are some verbs that can act as both transitive and intransitive verbs. Here are a few examples:

Intransitive Transitive
The fire has burned for hundreds of years. Miranda burned all of her old school papers.
The engine is running fine. Karl ran the best horse track this side of the river.
The vase broke. She broke the toothpick.

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Multi-Word Verbs

Multi-word verbs are a subclass of active verbs. As you might guess, they are comprised of multiple words. They include things like stirfrykickstart, and turn in. Multi-word verbs often have a slightly different meaning than their base parts. Take a look at the difference between the next two sentences:

  • Ben carried the boxes out of the house.
  • Ben carried out the task well.

The first sentence uses a single word verb (carried) and the preposition out. If you remove the preposition (and its object), you get “Ben carried the boxes,” which makes perfect sense. In the second sentence, carried out acts as a single entity. If you remove out, the sentence becomes “Ben carried the task well,” which doesn’t make much sense.

Let’s look at another example:

  • She’s been shut up in there for years.
  • Dude, shut up.

Can you see how the same principles apply here? Other multi-word verbs include find outmake off with, turn in, and put up with.

Linking Verbs

A linking verb is a verb that links a subject to the rest of the sentence. There isn’t any “real” action happening in the sentence. Sentences with linking verbs are similar to math equations. The verb acts as an equal sign between the items it links.

While to be verbs are the most common linking verbs (is, was, were, etc.), there are other linking verbs, as well. Here are some illustrations of other common linking verbs:

  • Since last summer, Charles has become a new man.
    • It’s easy to reimagine this sentence as “Since last summer, Charles = a new man.”
  • I feel sick to my stomach.
    • The linking verb feel expresses the following relationship: I = sick to my stomach.”
  • That word-processing program seems adequate for our needs.
    • Here, the linking verb is slightly more nuanced than an equals sign, though the overall sentence construction is similar. (This is why we write in words, rather than math symbols, after all!)

Helping Verbs

A figure helping another figure up the stairs.

Figure 2. Helping verbs can help to express tense when the tense of a sentence is otherwise unclear.

Helping verbs (sometimes called auxiliary verbs) are, as the name suggests, verbs that help another verb. They provide support and add additional meaning. Here are some examples of helping verbs in sentences:

  • Mariah is looking for her keys still.
  • Kai had checked the weather three times already.

As you just saw, helping verbs include words like is and had (we’ll look at a more complete list later). Let’s consider some more examples to examine exactly what these verbs do. Take a look at the sentence “I have finished my dinner.” Here, the main verb is finish, and the helping verb have helps to express tense. Let’s look at two more examples:

  • By 1967, about 500 U.S. citizens had received heart transplants.
    • While received could function on its own as a complete thought here, the helping verb had conveys information about the time frame in which the action (receiving heart transplants) occurred.
  • Do you want tea?
    • Do is a helping verb accompanying the main verb want, used here to form a question.
  • Researchers are finding that propranolol is effective in the treatment of heartbeat irregularities.
    • The helping verb are indicates the present tense, and adds a sense of continuity to the verb finding.

The following table provides a short list of some verbs that can function as helping verbs, along with examples of the way they function. A full list of helping verbs can be found here.

Helping Verb Function Examples
be Express tense and a sense of continuity. He is sleeping.
Express tense and indicate the passive voice They were seen.
can Express ability I can swim. Such things can help.
could Express possibility That could help.
do Express negation (requires the word not) You do not understand.
Ask a question Do you want to go?
have Express tense and a sense of completion They have understood.
might Express possibility We might give it a try.
must Express confidence in a fact It must have rained.
should Express a request You should listen.
Express likelihood That should help.
will Express future tense We will eat pie. The sun will rise tomorrow at 6:03.
would Express future likelihood Nothing would accomplish that.

The negative forms of these words (can’t, don’t, won’t, etc.) are also helping verbs.

Note: The helping verbs to beto have, and would are used to indicate tense. We’ll discuss exactly how they function in more depth in Complex Verb Tenses.

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