Understanding the Types of Verbs in English Grammar

The part of speech describes an action or state of being

One of these nine words is never used as a verb (though it can be an adverb, an adjective, a conjunction, or a noun). MightyIsland / Getty Images

A verb is the part of speech (or word class) that describes an action or occurrence or indicates a state of being. Verbs and verb phrases usually function as predicates. Verbs can display differences in tense, mood, aspect, number, person, and voice.

There are two main classes of verbs: lexical verbs (also known as main verbs), which aren't dependent on other verbs, and auxiliary verbs (also called helping verbs). As with lexical versus auxiliary verbs, many types of verbs come in opposites.

Lexical vs. Auxiliary

Lexical verbs—also called full verbs—convey the semantic (or lexical) meaning in a sentence, such as:

  • It rained last night.
  • ran fast.
  • ate the entire hamburger.

The great majority of verbs in English are lexical verbs. An auxiliary verb, by contrast, determines the mood or tense of another verb in a phrase, for example:

  • It will rain tonight.

In this sentence, the verb will helps the verb rain by pointing to the future. In English, the auxiliary verbs are:

  • Is, am, are, was, were
  • Be, being, been
  • Has, have, had
  • Do, does, did
  • Will, shall, should, would
  • Can, could
  • May, might, must

Dynamic vs. Stative

dynamic verb is used primarily to indicate an action, process, or sensation as opposed to a state, such as:

  • I bought a new guitar.

 It is also called an action or event verb. There are three major types of dynamic verbs:

  • Accomplishment verbs: expressing action that has a logical endpoint
  • Achievement verbs: expressing action that occurs instantaneously
  • Activity verbs: expressing action that can go on for an indefinite period of time

A stative verb—such as be, have, know, like, own, seem, prefer, understand, belong, doubt, and hatedescribes a state, situation, or condition, as in:

  • Now I own a Gibson Explorer.
  • We are what we believe we are.

A stative verb primarily describes a state or situation as opposed to an action or process. It can be a mental or emotional state as well as a physical state of being. The situations are unchanging while they last and can continue for a long or indefinite time period. These words are also known as state verbs or static verbs.

Finite vs. Nonfinite

A finite verb expresses tense and can occur on its own in a main clause, as in:

  • She walked to school.

A finite verb shows agreement with a subject and is marked for tense. If there is just one verb in a sentence, that verb is finite. Put another way, a finite verb can stand by itself in a sentence. 

Nonfinite verbs, meanwhile, are not marked for tense and do not show agreement with a subject. 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, as in:

  • While walking to school, she spotted a bluejay.

The main difference between finite and nonfinite verbs is that the former can act as the root of an independent clause, or full sentence, while the latter cannot. For example:

  • The man runs to the store to get a gallon of milk.

The word runs is a finite verb because it agrees with the subject (man) and because it marks the tense (present tense). The word get is a nonfinite verb because it does not agree with the subject or mark the tense. Rather, it is an infinitive and depends on the main (finite) verb runs

Regular vs. Irregular

A regular verb forms its verb tenses, especially the past tense and past participle, by adding one in the set of generally accepted standardized suffixes. Regular verbs are conjugated by adding -d, -ed, -ing, or -s to its base form, unlike irregular verbs which have special rules for conjugation.

The majority of English verbs are regular. These are the principal parts of regular verbs:

  1. The base form: the dictionary term for a word like walk
  2. The -s form: used in the singular third person, present tense like walks
  3. The -ed form: used in the past tense and past participle like walked
  4. The -ing form: used in the present participle like walking

Regular verbs are predictable and always function the same regardless of speaker. An irregular verb does not follow the usual rules for verb forms. Verbs in English are irregular if they don't have the conventional -ed ending (such as asked or ended) in the past tense and/or past participle forms.

Transitive vs. Intransitive

transitive verb takes an object (a direct object and sometimes also an indirect object): 

  • She sells seashells.

An intransitive verb doesn't take a direct object:

  • She sat there quietly.

This distinction is especially tricky because many verbs have both transitive and intransitive functions, depending on how they are used. The verb break, for instance, sometimes takes a direct object (Rihanna breaks my heart) and sometimes does not (When I hear your name, my heart breaks).

Phrasal vs. Prepositional

phrasal verb is a type of compound verb made up of a verb (usually one of action or movement) and a prepositional adverb—also known as an adverbial particle. Phrasal verbs are sometimes called two-part verbs (take off and leave out) or three-part verbs (look up to and look down on).

There are hundreds of phrasal verbs in English, many of them (such as tear off, run out [of], and pull through) with multiple meanings. Linguist Angela Downing points out in "English Grammar: A University Course" that phrasal verbs are "one of the most distinctive features of present-day informal English, both in their abundance and in their productivity." Phrasal verbs often appear in idioms.

prepositional verb, by contrast, is an idiomatic expression that combines a verb and a preposition to make a new verb with a distinct meaning. Some examples of prepositional verbs in English are care for, long for, apply for, approve of, add to, resort to, result in, count on, and deal with.

The preposition in a prepositional verb is generally followed by a noun or pronoun, and thus prepositional verbs are transitive.

Other Types of Verbs

Since verbs describe all action or indicate all states of being in English, it's not surprising that there are other types of verbs, which are important to know.

Catenativecatenative verb can link with other verbs to form a chain or series. Examples include ask, keep, promise, help, want, and seem.

CausativeA causative verb is used to indicate that some person or thing makes—or helps to make—something happen. Examples of causative verbs include make, cause, allow, help, have, enable, keep, hold, let, force, and require, which can also be referred to as causal verbs or simply causatives.

Compoundcompound verb is made up of two or more words that function as a single verb. Conventionally, verb compounds are written as either one word (housesit) or two words joined with a hyphen (water-proof).

Copularcopular verb is a specific type of linking verb that joins the subject of a sentence or clause to a subject complement. For example, the word is functions as a copular verb in the sentences, "Jane is my friend" and "Jane is friendly."

IterativeAn iterative verb indicates that an action is (or was) repeated, such as, "Philip was kicking his sister."

LinkingA linking verb is a traditional term for a type of verb (such as a form of be or seem) that joins the subject of a sentence to a word or phrase that tells something about the subject. For example, is functions as a linking verb in the sentence: The boss is unhappy.

Mental-statemental-state verb is a verb with a meaning related to understanding, discovering, planning, or deciding. Mental-state verbs refer to cognitive states that are generally unavailable for outside evaluation. For example: Tom's teaching ability is known by all his colleagues.

Performativeperformative verb conveys the kind of speech act being performed—such as promise, invite, apologizepredict, vow, request, warn, insist, and forbid. It is also known as speech-act verb or performative utterance. 

Prepositionalprepositional verb is an idiomatic expression that combines a verb and a preposition to make a new verb with a distinct meaning. Some examples are care for, long for, apply for, approve of, add to, resort to, result in, count on, and deal with.

Reportingreporting verb (such as say, tell, believe, reply, respond, or ask) is used to indicate that discourse is being quoted or paraphrased, such as: I highly recommend that you get a better lawyer. It is also called a communication verb.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the Types of Verbs in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/verb-definition-1692592. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Understanding the Types of Verbs in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/verb-definition-1692592 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the Types of Verbs in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/verb-definition-1692592 (accessed March 28, 2023).

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