The Verb in English grammar

In the previous sections we noted that the verb is central to the English clause and that it is a word which describes an ‘action’ of some sort. But there are also other types of verbs. Would you, for example, categorise becomesmellresemble and possess as ‘action’ verbs? Clearly we need a more accurate and extended definition of a verb so that we can identify this word class with more precision. One common classification of the main types of verb is given below with examples:

  • Activity: play, speak, run, telephone, bathe, organise, read, raise, look at, listen to, refuse, scratch. The vast majority of verbs are included in this class and are what we normally understand an ‘action’ word to be.
  • Process: ripen, change, strengthen, grow, deteriorate, become, die, go, come, fall. This class of verbs is used to indicate a change from one state to another.
  • Sensation: hurt, ache, sting, smart, itch. This is a small class of verbs that are used to refer to bodily sensations.
  • Momentary: knock, beat, tap, nod, hop, jump. These verbs, although closely related to the first category, have a shorter duration of action.
  • Cognition: know, remember, perceive, prefer, want, forget, understand. These verbs have less to do with an overt action since they involve mental or cognitive processes.
  • Perception: see, smell, feel, taste, hear. This small class of verbs is closely linked with verbs of cognition, but centre on the senses rather than cerebral activity.
  • Relational: be, consist of, own, have, seem, resemble, appear, sound, look (good), belong to. This category of verbs is used to connect two closely related concepts, usually either through equivalence or possession.

These seven categories cover, by and large, the main verb types in English and also constitute the sub-classes of a broader grammatical division of verbs into dynamic verbs and stative verbs. In the list above, categories 1 to 4 consist of dynamic verbs, while 5 to 7 contain stative verbs. Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate what is meant by the dynamic/stative contrast. Study the following pairs of sentences:

  • I stay with friends every year.
  • I am staying with friends at the moment.
  • He eats sandwiches for lunch.
  • He is eating a sandwich.
  • We listen to Radio 1 in the morning.
  • We are listening to Radio 1.

All of the sentences contain dynamic verbs taken from category 1 in the list above. The odd numbered sentences are all examples of the Present Simple tense which, in these cases, indicates an activity that occurs with regular frequency, namely every yearevery lunchtime, and every morning. The even numbered sentences, however, limit the time of the activity to the moment of speaking and are therefore temporary in nature. The verbs are, therefore in the Present Continuous tense. Dynamic verbs, then, can be found in both simple and continuous tenses.

Now look at the following pairs of sentences which contain stative verbs taken from categories 5 to 7:

  • I want to go home.
  • *I am wanting to go home.
  • We all love chocolate.
  • *We are all loving chocolate.
  • This bag belongs to me.
  • *This bag is belonging to me.

The first sentence of each pair, with the Present Simple tense is grammatically acceptable, but the second sentence of each pair is not. As a general rule, then, stative verbs are not found with the continuous tenses, but there are specific times when most of the stative verbs can be used with a continuous tense. However, these situations are limited to specific uses or entail a change in the basic meaning of the verb, for example: I think you’re right and I’m thinking of you. In the first example I am giving you my opinion and so the verb refers to cognition, whereas in the second, the thinking is much more akin to an activity. You will probably find that this kind of distinction can be made for most of those stative verbs that can be used with both simple and continuous tenses.

How is the verb incorporated into larger grammatical structures, and how is its meaning and function extended?

The Verb Phrase

The following sentences help to illustrate the possible range of structures in the English verb phrase (in bold).

  • play the piano.
  • The family left early.
  • He is talking rubbish.
  • Sarah can sing opera.
  • have been painting the lounge.
  • We might be seeing each other next week.
  • You should have been watching the baby.
  • The wallet might have been lost at the party.
  • The report must have been being prepared by the boss.

From these examples we can see that there may be up to four, possibly even five, separate words in the verb phrase of a clause and they all have a particular part to play in the overall meaning.

So, what are the individual elements of the verb phrase and how does each of them contribute to the meaning? Let’s first analyse some of the sentences above as an illustration:

auxiliary verb
auxiliary verb(s)
Main verbObject
Iplaythe piano.
Ihave beenpaintingthe house.
Youshouldhave beenwatchingthe baby.

You will notice that the various parts of the verb phrase have been divided into two main categories: auxiliary verbs and main verb. The former has been further sub-divided into modal auxiliary and primary auxiliary.

You may also have noticed that there are a number of different possible configurations of these elements; e.g. main verb only, modal auxiliary plus main verb, one primary auxiliary plus main verb, two primary auxiliaries plus main verb and so on. However, the only indispensable element of the verb phrase is the main verb, because it is here that the basic, unchanging meaning of the verb phrase lies.