A Guide to Lexical Verbs

These "main" verbs do the heavy lifting in English

List of most common lexical verbs: say, get, know, think, see, go, make, come, take, want, give, mean
The most common lexical verbs. Illustration by Ivan Leung. © 2018 ThoughtCo. 

In English grammar, a lexical verb is the main verb in a sentence. Lexical verbs—also called full verbs—convey the semantic (or lexical) meaning in a sentence, such as "I ran fast" or "I ate the entire hamburger." Not surprisingly, the great majority of verbs in English are lexical verbs, which are those that are not auxiliary (or helping) verbs.

Lexical vs. Auxiliary Verbs

Lexical verbs are the doing verbs, while auxiliary verbs are their helpers, as eNotes explains:

"Lexical verbs indicate the main action taking place in any sentence and therefore the intention of the sentence becomes clear; whereas, auxiliary verbs have a more subtle function because they often complete a sentence without the reader being aware how they contribute to [its] structure."

An auxiliary verb determines the moodtensevoice, or aspect of another verb in a verb phrase. Put another way, a helping verb comes before the main (lexical) verb in a sentence. Together, they form a verb phrase. 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

Lexical verbs constitute all the rest. Lexical verbs can be grouped according to four types: transitive and intransitivelinkingdynamic and static (or stative), as well as regular and irregular.

Transitive and Intransitive

transitive lexical verb expresses action and needs a direct object to receive that action, notes Dictionary.com, which gives the sentence “Alice sees the candle” as an example. In the sentence, sees is the lexical verb and is transitive, while the candle is the direct object because it receives the action of the lexical verb sees. Intransitive verbs, by contrast, express action but don’t affect a direct object. For example, if you say “Alice dances,” the word dances is the lexical verb, but it is intransitive because it doesn’t require a direct object.

Linking Verbs

A linking verb is an important lexical 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." Note that to be verbs such as is can also serve as auxiliary verbs depending on how the sentence is constructed. In the sentence, "Alice is helping Victor with his homework," is serves as the auxiliary verb because it helps the lexical verb helping

Dynamic and Static

dynamic verb—also called an action verb—is used primarily to indicate an action, process, or sensation. An example of dynamic verbs in action is this saying uttered by Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Mays in describing the game:

"They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it."

By contrast, a static (or stative) verb is used primarily to describe a state or situation. An example would be, "We are what we believe we are." Note that as in the linking verbs section, the to be verb—in this case are—can be a lexical verb, describing a state of being.

Regular and Irregular

A regular verb is one that forms its 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 either -d, -ed, -ing, or -s to their base form. An irregular verb, meanwhile, does not follow the usual rules for verb forms.

In the sentence, “She looks in the mirror,” the main verb looks is a regular verb, Dictionary.com explains, adding that the past tense of look is looked. So in the past tense, the sentence would read, "She looked in the mirror."

In comparison, an example of irregular verbs in a sentence would be: "The bridge they ​built brought traffic in both directions." The present tense of the first verb in the sentence is build, but in the past tense, it is built. Similarly, the present tense of the second verb would be bring, but in the past tense as used in the sentence, it's brought.

Hard-Working Verbs

Clearly, lexical verbs do much of the heavy lifting in English. They provide the action (intransitive and dynamic verbs), explain what is happening to various direct objects (transitive verbs), and describe states of being (static) among their many duties. Learn the lexical verbs in English and you will master the very heart of what it means to speak and write the language correctly, effectively, and in an engaging manner