Notes on Verbs

Facts and Figures About the Most Active Part of Speech

Country Road in Rainstorm
An auxiliary verb (also know as a helping verb) determines the mood or tense of another verb in a phrase: "It will rain tonight.". Ed Freeman / Getty Images

When we talk about the different kinds of verbs, it generally makes more sense to define them by what they do rather than by what they are. Just as the “same” word (rain or snow, for example) can serve as either a noun or a verb, the same verb can play a number of different roles depending on the context. And verbs can play many different roles. Here are just some of them.

Does that cover everything verbs can do? Far from it. Catenative verbs, for example, join with other verbs to form a chain or series. Causative verbs show that some person or thing helps to make something happen. Copular verbs link the subject of a sentence to its complement. And we haven't even touched on the passive or the subjunctive.

Different Types of Verbs

  • Auxiliary Verbs and Lexical Verbs
    An auxiliary verb (also know as a helping verb) determines the mood or tense of another verb in a phrase: "It will rain tonight." The primary auxiliaries are be, have, and do. The modal auxiliaries include can, could, may, must, should, will, and would.
    A lexical verb (also known as a full or main verb) is any verb in English that isn't an auxiliary verb: it conveys a real meaning and doesn't depend on another verb: "It rained all night."
  • Dynamic Verbs and Stative Verbs
    A dynamic verb indicates an action, process, or sensation: "I bought a new guitar."
    A stative verb (such as be, have, know, like, own, and seem) describes a state, situation, or condition: "Now I own a Gibson Explorer."
  • Finite Verbs and Nonfinite Verbs
    A finite verb expresses tense and can occur on its own in a main clause: "She walked to school."
    A nonfinite verb (an infinitive or participle) doesn't show a distinction in tense and can occur on its own only in a dependent phrase or clause: "While walking to school, she spotted a bluejay."

What are the Most Common Verbs in English?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, these are the 25 most commonly used verbs in English: 1. be, 2. have, 3. do, 4. say, 5. get, 6. make, 7. go, 8. know, 9. take, 10. see, 11. come, 12. think, 13. look, 14. want, 15. give, 16. use, 17. find, 18. tell, 19. ask, 20. work, 21. seem, 22. feel, 23. try, 24. leave, 25. call. The editors at the OED offer these observations:

Strikingly, the 25 most frequent verbs are all one-syllable words; the first two-syllable verbs are become (26th) and include (27th). Furthermore, 20 of these 25 are Old English words, and three more, get, seem, and want, entered English from Old Norse in the early medieval period. Only try and use came from Old French. It seems that English prefers terse, ancient words to describe actions or occurrences.

What's the difference between a "weak verb" and a "strong verb"?

The distinction between a weak verb and a strong verb is based on how the past tense of the verb is formed.

Weak verbs (also called regular verbs) form the past tense by adding -ed, -d, or -t to the base form--or present tense form--of the verb (for example, call, called and walk, walked).

Strong verbs (also called irregular verbs) form the past tense or the past participle (or both) in various ways but most often by changing the vowel of the present tense form (for example, give, gave and stick, stuck).

Learn more about Weak Verbs and Strong Verbs.

Are there any examples of English verbs that are both weak and strong?

One that comes to mind is the verb "to fly." In most cases, "fly" is an irregular verb: fly, flew, flown. But in the jargon of baseball, "fly" is a regular verb: fly, flied, flied. So we say that "Derek Jeter flied out to center to end the inning." If Jeter ever "flew out to center," we'd have quite a different story.

See also: The Language of Baseball.

What is Verbing?

In a single work day, we might head a task force, eye an opportunity, nose around for good ideas, mouth a greeting, elbow an opponent, strong-arm a colleague, shoulder the blame, stomach a loss, and finally hand in our resignation. What we're doing with all those body parts is called verbing--using nouns (or occasionally other parts of speech) as verbs.

Verbing is a time-honored way of coining new words out of old ones, the etymological process of conversion (or functional shifting). Sometimes it's also a kind of word play (anthimeria), as in Shakespeare's King Richard the Second when the Duke of York says, "Grace me no grace, and uncle me no uncles."

Learn more about Verbing.

What is the difference between the present progressive and the present participle?

present participle is a verb form with an "-ing" ending (for example, "tapping"). The present progressive aspect is a form of the verb "to be" plus a present participle (for example, "is tapping").

Here is how each one is used:

A present participle by itself can't serve as the main verb of a sentence. This word group, for instance, is incomplete: "Sadie, tapping her cane to the music." Here, "tapping" begins a present participial phrase that modifies the noun "Sadie." One way to make this word group into a sentence is by adding a subject and a predicate: " I remember Sadie, tapping her cane to the music."
In contrast, a verb in the present progressive tense may itself serve as the predicate of a sentence: "Sadie is tapping her cane to the music." The present progressive is used for ongoing actions--that is, for actions occurring at the moment of speaking and for actions that take place over a short period of time.

So we could have a sentence that contains both a present participial phrase ("tapping her cane to the music") and a main verb in the present progressive tense ("is singing").

Learn more about The Present Participle and the Present Progressive.

What's the difference between passed and past?

Passed is both the past and past participle form of the verb pass. Past is a noun (meaning "a previous time"), an adjective (meaning "ago"), and a preposition (meaning "beyond").

In fact both words are derived from the verb pass, and at one time past was commonly used for the past tense and the past participle. The editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) offer several examples:

Nowadays past has lost its status as a verb form (it's busy enough serving as a noun, adjective, adverb, and preposition), leaving passed to fill the role of past tense. But who knows? Perhaps this, too, shall pass.

Learn more about Passed and Past.

  • I did not tell you how I past my time yesterday.
    (Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 25 Jan. 1711)
  • . . . he was much offended . . . that he past the latter part of his life in a state of hostility.
    (Samuel Johnson, Preface to Johnson's edition of Shakespeare, 1765)
  • I know what has past between you.
    (Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer, 1773)