A Guide to Lexical Verbs

List of most common lexical verbs: say, get, know, think, see, go, make, come, take, want, give, mean
The most common lexical verbs.

In English grammar, a lexical verb is any verb that is not an auxiliary verb (or helping verb). Also called a main verb (definition #1) or a full verb.

Because a lexical verb conveys a semantic (or lexical) meaning, it may be informed by the semantic meaning of words that precede or follow it. The great majority of verbs in the language are lexical verbs. 

Examples and Observations

  • "Verbs can be divided into lexical and auxiliary verbs. A VP [verb phrase] contains one lexical verb and (optionally) up to four auxiliaries. . . . Examples of lexical verbs are arrive, see, walk, copula be, transitive do, etc. They carry a real meaning and are not dependent on another verb. In addition to a lexical verb, the VP [verb phrase] may contain auxiliaries. Auxiliaries depend on another verb, add grammatical information, and are grouped together with the lexical verb in a Verb Group."
    (Elly van Gelderen, An Introduction to the Grammar of English. John Benjamins, 2000)
  • "A full VP must contain a lexical verb and it may contain auxiliary verbs. In the following, the lexical verbs are in [italics] and the auxiliary verbs are in [bold].
    [1a] Diana plays the piano. [1b] Diana played the piano.
    [2] Anders is explaining his generalization.
    [3] Maggie should have recycled those bottles.
    [4] Wim may have been preparing his lecture.
    (Noel Burton-Roberts, Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2011)
  • "I made an appointment with my doctor that afternoon, and he referred me to a psychiatrist. I got pills, I had about a dozen sessions with her. All of that helped. It was useful to me, yes. But secondary, I felt. Secondary to my yanking the steering wheel, my pulling sharply left as I braked, to my wanting so desperately and reflectively to be in life, to be still moving and doing, those wonderful verbs."
    (Sue Miller, The World Below. Random House, 2005)
  • The Most Common Lexical Verbs
    "The LGSWE [Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English] compares a variety of lexical features across spoken and written registers and reports that almost one-third of all content words in spoken interaction are lexical verbs (also known as full verbs, e.g., eat, dance). Lexical verbs are extremely common in both conversation and fiction but quite rare in written registers such as news and academic prose. The single-word lexical verbs say, get, go, know, and think are the five most common verbs occurring in British and American conversation. The 12 most common lexical verbs identified in LGSWE (say, get, go, know, think, see, make, come, take, want, give, and mean--occurring over 1,000 times per million words), account for 'nearly 45% of all lexical verbs in conversation.'"
    (Eric Friginal, The Language of Outsourced Call Centers. John Benjamins, 2009)
  • Similarities Between Lexical Verbs and Auxiliary Verbs
    "English auxiliary and lexical verbs . . . are semantically, syntactically, and lexically similar . . .. For many auxiliaries there is a lexical verb counterpart with an extremely similar meaning—e.g., the pairs can/is able to, will/is going to, and must/have to). Auxiliary and lexical verbs are syntactically similar in that both types often take verbal endings, follow subject noun phrases, and lack the grammatical properties of nouns, adjectives, and other syntactic categories. Moreover, auxiliary and lexical verbs typically have identical forms (e.g., copula and auxiliary forms of be, possessive and auxiliary forms of have, lexical verb and auxiliary forms of do). The remarkable degree of similarity can be appreciated by comparing pairs of sentences such as he is sleepy and he is sleeping, he has cookies and he has eaten cookies, and he does windows and he does not do windows."
    (Karen Stromswold, "Language Acquisition." The New Cognitive Neurosciences, 2nd ed., edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga. MIT Press, 2000) 
  • Catenative Verbs
    "A number of lexical verbs are semantically very similar to auxiliaries. We see this in pairs like must : have got to (Must we do that? : Do we have to do that?) or will : want (He won't go : He doesn't want to go). These lexical verbs, which, like auxiliaries, are followed by non-finite verb forms (infinitives, gerunds, participles) or by indirect statements and questions in the form of finite that- and wh- clauses, are here called catenative verbs."
    (Stephan Gramley and Kurt-Michael Pátzold, A Survey of Modern English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004)