Verbs in English Grammar

What is a verb?

Verbs are doing words; they describe what the subject of a sentence is doing.

Kylie works on Saturdays.
subject: Kylie; verb: work

Verbs have different forms depending on how or where they appear in a sentence.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types and forms of verbs in English grammar.

The Infinitive

The infinitive is the basic form of a verb. It can be written with or without the preposition to. The infinitive without to is sometimes called a bare infinitive.

to be/be
to run/run

Verb Conjugation

Depending on the tense we are using, a verb must be conjugated into different forms. In the simple present an -s is added to the third person singular of regular verbs.

to eat → He eats.

In the simple past and past participle verb forms, -ed is added to regular verbs, but irregular verbs must be learnt by heart.

to wag → The dog wagged his tail happily.
to eat → I have never eaten an insect.

In the progressive tenses, -ing is added to a verb to form the present participle.

to speak → They are speaking on the telephone.

For more about verb conjugation check out Lingolia’s verb conjugator or the section about verb tenses in English grammar.

Finite and non-finite verb forms

Finite verbs give us information about tense, person and number and describe the action or state taking place in a sentence.

I am going to the supermarket to buy some milk.
I fell asleep at 9 pm.

Non-finite verbs do not provide information about tense, person and number. Non-finitive verbs include infinitives, gerunds (-ing form) and participles.

I went to the supermarket to buy some milk. (infinitive)
Shopping is fun way to spend a Saturday. (gerund)
Exhausted from a long day of shopping, I fell asleep at 9 pm. (past participle)

For more information about non-finite verb forms in English grammar and how to use them see infinitive/gerund and participles.

Main verbs and auxiliary verbs

Some English tenses are conjugated with more than one verb, for example the present progressive or present perfect. These tenses are known as compound tenses because they are conjugated using an auxiliary verb and a main verb.

The auxiliary verb helps us to conjugate the tense. It gives us information about person, number as well as the time or state of an action i.e. a negated action, a completed past action or action in progress. Auxiliary verbs are do, be, have and will. To learn more about auxiliary verbs and when and how to use them see auxiliary verbs.

My dog doesn’t bark.
negated action in simple present, third person singular
I have read the newspaper.
completed action in present perfect
Yesterday at 3 pm, they were speaking on the telephone.
action in progress in past progressive

The main verb tells us what the action in the sentence is. The main verb can be a present form, a bare infinitive, a past simple form, a past participle or a present participle. Sometimes the auxiliary verb and the main verb are the same.

She eats cereal for breakfast.
main verb in present form
My dog doesn’t bark.
main verb in bare infinitive
Yesterday at 3 pm, they were speaking on the telephone.
main verb in present participle
I haven’t had my breakfast yet.
main verb in past participle/auxiliary verb and main verb are the same

Active vs. stative verbs

English verbs can be classified as being either active or stative.

Most verbs are active (or dynamic). This means that they can be conjugated in all tenses.

Kelly runs five times a week.
She’s been running since she was 16.
She’s running a marathon next week.

Stative verbs generally express a long-term state or quality that doesn’t change easily.

Common examples include: be, believe, know, love, want …

Stative verbs cannot be used in the progressive tenses.

I am so happy right now.
not: I’m being

Transitive vs. intransitive verbs

The terms transitive and intransitive tell us whether a verb requires a direct object or not.

Transitive verbs are verbs that require a direct object. Common transitive verbs include buy, believe, catch, discuss, take, get, love, enjoy, etc.

John caught the ball.
He took the train.

Without a direct object, transitive verbs do not make sense.

John caught. → John caught what? A cold? A ball? A frisbee?

Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not take a direct object. Common intransitive verbs include appear, arrive, cough, die, happen, rain, snow, etc. These verbs can stand alone and still make sense.

Finally, my train has arrived!
you can’t arrive something
Last week, Jessie’s hamster died.
you can’t die something

Although intransitive verbs cannot be followed by a direct object (i.e. a noun), they may be followed by adverbs or prepositional phrases.

Jessie’s hamster died last week.
last week is not a direct object; it just tells us when the action happened
My train arrived at the station.
at the station is a prepositional phrase, not a direct object

Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on the context.

He sang. (no direct object = intransitive verb)
He sang my favourite song. (direct object (song) = transitive verb)

Some verbs can have different meanings depending on whether they are transitive or intransitive.

I ran.
ran = jogged
I ran a cafe for many years.
ran = managed

This is the case for several phrasal verbs.

We hung out.
hung out = spent time together
We hung out the laundry.
hung out = placed on the washing line

More Information: types of verbs and verb forms

For more information about a particular type of verb or verb form in English grammar including a detailed explanation, examples, word lists and exercises to practise, simply click on one of the topics below.