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Ministry of Education.

Word Class: Verbs

As far as we know, verbs are a word class found in all languages. In Latin, the word verbum means "word", which shows the importance of verbs. Verbs have traditionally been called "doing words".

Verbs give information about whether they are happening in the present, past, or future.

  • The Mona Lisa smiles. The Mona Lisa smiled.

The different forms of the verb - smiles, smiled - can tell us whether something is happening in the present or in the past.

The technical name for this information is tense.

In English, all verbs show tense.

This makes tense a useful clue for recognising verbs.

In the sentence "Harry looks cheerful today", the verb look is in the present tense.

In the sentence "Harry looked cheerful yesterday", the verb look is in the past tense.

The regular way to show the past tense is by adding -ed.

Benny yelled, Sarah sniffed, Megan packed her backpack, Joseph laughed, Mum iced the cake.

Some English verbs have irregular forms of the past tense.

Present Past
I ride I rode
I dig I dug
I speak I spoke

The following verb is referred to as the verb BE. Its different forms are highly irregular.

I am I was
you are you were
he/she it is he/she/it was
we are we were
you are you were
they are they were

Verbs can have more than one element:

I am jumping; I have jumped;
I will jump; I was jumping.

The main verb in these groups is jump.

In the above examples, am, have, will, was are auxiliary verbs. Their task is to "help" other verbs. (The Latin word auxilium means "help".)

Auxiliary verbs carry information about tense: the time of the event.

The auxiliary verb can be followed by not or the shortened form -n't:

I am not jumping; I haven't jumped;
I will not jump;  I wasn’t jumping.

Verbs can have more than one auxiliary.

The Girl Guides should have arrived by now.
  should + have + arrived
  aux + aux + main verb.
They might have been waiting in the tent.
  aux + aux + aux + main verb.

More about Verbs

Verb forms that show tense are called finite verbs.

These are finite verb forms:

  • We walked. They rode. He was. I am studying. He was studying.
  • Where there is more than one verb, only the auxiliary verb shows the tense.
  • He was walking. She is walking.
  • aux. = past tense aux. = present tense

By itself, the verb form walking is called a non-finite verb. The sentence "He was walking" uses he + was (aux.) + walking (non-finite verb).

When the auxiliary was and the non-finite verb form walking are put together, they make up a finite verb form was walking.

There are three kinds of non-finite verb form:Verbs ending in -ing. These are called present participles.

  • I was parking my car.
  • While parking his car, he scratched someone's new BMW.

Verbs that follow the auxiliary verb HAVE. In regular verbs, this non-finite verb form ends in -ed; many also end in -en. These are called past participles.

  • I have parked the car.
  • I have written her a testimonial.

The infinitive. This non-finite verb form also does not show tense.The infinitive does not have a special ending, and it can be thought of as the base form of the verb.It can appear in two different forms:The infinitive in a base form with to in front of it.

  • They wanted to skate.
  • They seem to have skated all the way.
  • They love to be skating.
  • To fight and not to yield.

The infinitive without the word to. In this form, it can come after verbs like can, will, let, and so on.

  • He can think of a good example.
  • Let me be your friend.
  • She will write a note to the teacher.

A note on the Split Infinitive

It used to be seen as a grammatical crime to split an infinitive, although the rationale for this view is not clear.

Henry Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, refers to Those who do not know but do care [about a split infinitive] would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive, but have only hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette ...

A split infinitive has another word placed between the to and the base verb, such as to sometimes fight and to never yield or to boldly go where no man has ever gone before.

This ban on the split infinitive was misguided. There are many adverbs that need to be placed immediately before the verb.

I ought to flatly refuse. We have to always be careful.

If you put the adverb somewhere else, you change the emphasis, and the sentence is awkward.

I ought flatly to refuse. I ought to refuse flatly.

You have always to be careful. You have to be careful always.

Whether you put an adverb between the to and the verb is a matter of style and meaning. We have to sometimes revise old grammatical terminology.

Summary of Terms

verbs tense: present tense and past tense regular and irregular verbs
auxiliary verbs main verbs finite and non-finite verb forms
present participle past participle infinitive

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Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009