3.3 Verbs


This section covers the following topics:

Verbs may be the most important part of speech.  Why?  Because every sentence has to have at least one verb.  For example:


That is a complete sentence.  It has what is called a “you understood” subject (the subject is not written, but we “understand” the command is directed at someone).  It has a verb: “stop.”  And it expresses a complete thought.

You can’t have a sentence without a verb, no matter how many words you write.  For example:

The small black dog in my backyard with floppy ears and a long tail.

That’s a fragment.  Why?  Because it doesn’t have a verb.


  • Learning about verbs will help you avoid writing sentence fragments.

What Is a Verb?

A verb shows action or a state of being.  The verb in a sentence is what the subject is doing.  (More about subjects in Ch. 4.1.)

Action verbs are easy:  they are words like “walk,” “study,” “wait,” and “dance.”  They describe something happening.  For example:

The raccoon ate the pizza box.  (“ate” is what the raccoon did.  “ate” is the verb.)

But after that, it gets more complicated.

A verb can also link subjects with words that describe them.  Think of “linking” as an action.  Common linking verbs include “is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “seem,” “became,” and “look.”  For example:

Emmett is a small black dog. (“is” links the subject “Emmett” with the description “a small black dog.”  Therefore “is” is a verb.)

Often a verb is one word, but a verb can also be two or more words.  These are called verb phrases.  For example:

We have taken many trips together. (“have taken” is a verb phrase.)

Verb Tense

Verbs not only tell us what is happening, they tell us when it is happening.  This is called verb tense.  For example:

  • I walk to school.  (present tense: I am doing it now.)
  • I walked to school.  (past tense: I used to do it.)
  • I will walk to school.  (future tense: I am going to do it.)

When the action is happening is communicated by the form of the verb: “walk,” “walked,” “will walk.”

Generally, verb tense should remain consistent in a piece of writing.  If you start in present tense, stay there, or if you start in past tense, stay there.  For example:

I walked to school on Tuesday.  When I arrived, I saw my teacher.  She told me to get to class quickly.  I ran through the door, sat in my chair, and took a deep breath.  (Notice that all of the bolded verbs are past tense.)

However, there are times when we want to shift tense to let a reader know things happened at different times.  For example:

To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s most famous book.  It received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.  Lee died in 2016, but her book will remain one of the most compassionate novels in American literature.

Her book is currently famous.  She received a prize and died in the past.  Her book will remain great into the future.  All those events happened at different times and we change the form of the verb to let the reader know when.

Exercise 1

Irregular Verbs

The most troublesome thing about English verbs is that many are “irregular.”

Regular verbs change to past tense by adding “d” or “ed.”  For example:

walk → walked

type → typed

dance → danced

But irregular verbs change in irregular ways.  For example:

sell → sold

is → was

think → thought

The best way to learn about irregular verbs is simply to get familiar with them.  Read through the list below, and notice any verbs which have caused you problems in the past:

Present → Past Present → Past Present → Past
be → was, were give → gave sell → sold
become → became go → went send → sent
begin → began grow → grew set → set
blow → blew have → had shake → shook
break → broke hear → heard shine → shone (shined)
bring → brought hide → hid shrink → shrank (shrunk)
build → built hold → held sing → sang
burst → burst hurt → hurt sit → sat
buy → bought keep → kept sleep → slept
catch → caught know → knew speak → spoke
choose → chose lay → laid spend → spent
come → came lead → led spring → sprang
cut → cut leave → left stand → stood
dive → dove (dived) let → let steal → stole
do → did lose → lost strike → struck
draw → drew make → made swim → swam
drink → drank mean → meant swing → swung
drive → drove meet → met take → took
eat → ate pay → paid teach → taught
fall → fell put → put tear → tore
feed → fed quit → quit tell → told
feel → felt read → read think → thought
fight → fought ride → rode throw → threw
find → found ring → rang understand → understood
fly → flew rise → rose wake → woke
forget → forgot run → ran wear → wore
forgive → forgave say → said win → won
freeze → froze see → saw wind → wound
get → got seek → sought

Exercise 2

We are using the exercise from Chapters 3.1 and 3.2

  • Identify which words in the sentences are verbs by highlighting.
  • Hint: The verbs are what the nouns and pronouns are doing.
  • Nouns = red
  • Pronouns = green

Toby studies film at the University of New Mexico.

I spend time in the garden because it is so peaceful.

Blues guitar is my very favourite music. Rats!

The noisiest dog on our block just had puppies.

John lives in Oregon now, but he previously lived in California, Alaska, Texas, and Massachusetts.

Exercise 2 Activity

Key Takeaways

  • Using verbs correctly is challenging but important to writing clearly.
  • Verb tense helps a writer express when an event takes place.
  • Regular verbs follow regular patterns when shifting from present to past tense, but irregular verbs do not.


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