Text: Verb Types

Active Verbs

Icon of figure doing flying kickActive verbs are the simplest type of verb: they simply express some sort of action. Watch this video introduction to verbs:

Let’s look at the example verbs from the video one more time:

  • contain
  • roars
  • runs
  • sleeps

All of these verbs are active verbs: they all express an action.


Identify the active verbs in the following sentences:

  1. Dominic paints the best pictures of meerkats.
  2. Sean’s hair curled really well today.
  3. Elephants roam the savanna.
  4. Billy ate an entire loaf of bread in one sitting.

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. This contrasts with intransitive verbs, which 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 said “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.
    • Again, leaving out the object would cripple the meaning of the sentence. We have to know that forms is what she hates filling out.
    • Hates is also a transitive verb. Without the phrase “filling out forms,” the phrase “She hates” doesn’t make any sense.
  • Sean hugged his brother David.
    • You can see the pattern. . . . Hugged in this sentence is only useful if we know who Sean hugged. David is the object of the transitive verb.

Intransitive verbs, on the other 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.

This video provides a more in-depth explanation of transitive and intransitive verbs and how they work:

Note: there are some verbs that can act as both transitive and intransitive verbs (the video defined these as bitransitive verbs):

Intransitive Transitive
The fire has burned for hundreds of years. Miranda burned all of her old school papers.
Don’t let the engine stop running! Karl ran the best horse track this side of the river.
The vase broke. She broke the toothpick.
Does your dog bite? The cat bit him.
Water evaporates when it’s hot. Heat evaporates water.


Read the following sentences. Are the verbs in each transitive or intransitive? How can you tell?

  1. Alba fell out of the car.
  2. Ian has written over four hundred articles on the subject.
  3. Javier sings really well.
  4. Marton wondered about a lot of things.
  5. Cate gave great gifts.

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 become similar to math equations. The verb acts as an equal sign between the items it links.

As the video establishes, to be verbs are the most common linking verbs (is, was, were, etc.). David and the bear establish that there are other linking verbs as well. Here are some illustrations of other common linking verbs:

  • Over the past five days, Charles has become a new man.
    • It’s easy to reimagine this sentence as “Over the past five days, Charles = a new man.”
  • Since the oil spill, the beach has smelled bad.
    • Similarly, one could also read this as “Since the oil spill, the beach = smelled bad.”
  • That word processing program seems adequate for our needs.
    • Here, the linking verb is slightly more nuanced than an equals sign, though the sentence construction overall is similar. (This is why we write in words, rather than math symbols, after all!)
  • This calculus problem looks difficult.
  • With every step Jake took, he could feel the weight on his shoulders growing.


Read each sentence and determine whether its verb is a linking verb or not:

  1. Terry smelled his yogurt to see if it was still good.
  2. Rosa looks intimidating.
  3. Amy looked over at the clock to check the time.
  4. Gina smelled like chrysanthemums and mystery.
  5. Raymond is a fantastic boss.

Helping Verbs

Icon of one figure helping another up stairsHelping 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, but he looked one more time to see if the forecast had changed.
  • What ever happens, do not let the water level drop below this line.

As you just saw, helping verbs are usually pretty short, and they include things like ishad, and do (we’ll look at a more complete list later). Let’s look at 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 emphasizes the distance in time of the date in the opening phrase.
  • 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.
  • He has given his all.
    • Has is a helping verb used in expressing the tense of given.

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 (the tense depends on the conjugation of to beis is present, was is past, will be is future, etc.) and a sense of continuity. He is sleeping.
Express tense (the tense depends on the conjugation of to beare is present, were is past, will be is future, etc.) 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 (the tense depends on the conjugation of to be; are is present, were is past, will be is future, etc.) and indicate 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 Text: Complex Verb Tenses.


Identify the helping verbs in the sentences below. What main verb to they accompany and what role do they play in each sentence?

  1. Damian can’t work tonight. Do you want to take his shift?
  2. Harper couldn’t afford to give up.
  3. Tim was exercising when Cassie finally found him. He had completed three circuits of his work out.