If a noun was the first word you ever spoke (Mama or cookie), a verb probably followed just as soon as you learned that “Give cookie” got you better results than “Cookie.” In a sentence, the verb expresses what the subject does (She hopes for the job) or what the subject is (She is confident). All verbs are one of three types:

  • Action verbs
  • Linking verbs
  • Helping verbs

Action verbs
In a sentence, an action verb tells what the subject does. Action verbs express physical or mental actions: thinkeatcolliderealizedance. Admittedly, some of these seem more active than others. Nevertheless, realize is still as much a verb as collide:

I finally realized my mistake.
The outfielder collided with the second-baseman.
She dances every Friday night.

(In the present tense, statements with subjects of heshe, or it, we add an s to the verb: I go downstairs, we go downstairs, and ballplayers go downstairs, but he goes downstairs and Loren goes downstairs. For more, see the TIP Sheet “Subject-Verb Agreement.”)

Linking verbs
Linking verbs are the couch potatoes of verbs, that is, not very active at all. In a sentence, a linking verb tells what the subject is rather than what it does; linking verbs express a state of being. For example, all the forms of the verb to be are linking verbs:

1st person (I; we)2nd person (you)3rd person (she, he, it; they)
presentam; areareis; are
pastwas; werewerewas; were
participle[have] been; [had] been[have] been; [had] been[has] been; [had] been

These verbs connect a subject, say, Loren, with more information about that subject: Loren is an athlete, or Loren was glad.

Another set of linking verbs are those pertaining to our five senses–seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling–and how we perceive the world: the verbs appearseemlookfeelsmelltaste, and sound, for example. When used as linking verbs, they connect the subject with a word offering more information about that subject:

Loren seems anxious about the test.
The well water tastes wonderful.
My carpet still feels damp.
You sound hoarse.
The curtains smell a little smoky.

As linking verbs, these “sense” verbs have about the same meaning as is. Loren seems anxious is roughly equivalent to Loren is anxiousthe curtains smell smoky is about the same as the curtains are smoky. However, these same “sense” verbs can sometimes be action verbs instead. The real test whether one of these verbs is or is not a linking verb is whether it draws an equivalence with the subject, almost like a math equation: Loren = anxious; curtains = smoky. Consider the sentence I can’t taste my lunch because I have a coldTaste here does not draw an equivalence between I and lunch; rather, here it is an action verb, something the subject does. In the sentence Can you smell smoke? smell does not describe what the subject is, but what the subject does; it is an action verb.

Other common linking verbs include becomeremain, and grow, when they link the subject to more information (either a noun or an adjective) about that subject:

You will soon become tired of the monotony.
Pha has become a very responsible teenager.
I remain hopeful.
Daniel grew more and more confident.

Again, these verbs might be action verbs in other sentences, such as in I grew carrots.

Helping verbs…
Verbs often appear with helping verbs that fine-tune their meaning, usually expressing when something occurred. The complete verb is the main verb plus all its helping verbs.

Verb tense is the name for the characteristic verbs have of expressing time. Simple present tense verbs express present or habitual action, and simple past tense verbs express actions that were completed in the past; neither simple present nor simple past tense verbs require helping verbs. However, most other verb tenses require one or more helping verbs. Moreover, some helping verbs express more than just time-possibility, obligation, or permission, for example.

…have, has, had
Every verb has three basic forms: present or simple form, past form, and participle form. All participle forms require a helping verb that fine-tunes the time expression:

Comets have collided with earth many times.
Stan had known about the plan for some time.

The table below demonstrates these three forms with their required helping verbs:

present or simple formpast formparticiple formparticiple + helper
collidecollidedcollidedhas, have, had collided
iswasbeenhas, have, had been
choosechosechosenhas, have, had been
knowknewknownhas, have, had been

Participles used as verbs in a sentence must be used with hashave, or had. Participles used without helpers become adjectives: The early explorers sailed beyond the known world.

…to be: am, are, is, was, were, been

Verbs with -ing endings require a helper from the to be family of verbs. These progressive verb tenses express ongoing present action, continuous past action or future planned action:

They are still working on the contract.
Phanat was studying all night.
Holly had been reviewing her notes since the day before.
We are holding student elections next September.

Verbs with -ing endings must be used with one of the to be helpers; an -ing word without a helper is ineligible to act as the verb of a sentence. It can, however, be a noun (Hiking is fun) or an adjective (The hiking trail is closed)., does, did
The helping verbs dodoes, and did may be used optionally to add emphasis: She certainly does like her morning mocha.

While adding emphasis is optional, these helpers must be used when forming questions: Does Andrea ski every weekend? They must also accompany the verb in sentences that combine not with an action verb: Don’t you want to take the train? Do not wait for me past 4:30.

When do and does are used, they change form to match the subject while the main verb remains in simple form: instead of She likes coffee, we would say, She sure does like her coffee. Similarly, for questions, we change the form of the helper and leave the main verb in simple form: Does Andrea ski? The negative is Andrea does not ski, even though the statement would have been Andrea skis. (In the past tense, with did, the verb never changes form.)

…will and shall
Future tense verbs require a helper, will or shall, and express intention, expectation, or action that will happen later.

We shall drive to Santa Barbara in August.
Krista will not attend.
We will be holding student elections in September.

…would, could, should, can, may, might…
The verb helpers wouldcouldshouldcanmaymightmustsupposed toought toused to, and have to are examples of modal helpers. (Will and shall are technically modals as well.) Modal helpers are little different from real verbs because they never change form. They are easy to use because they always are used with the simple form of the verb:

I may want to change my flight.
You can cash your check at the grocery store.
Paul must notify his employer soon.

Instead of expressing time, modals help verbs express a variety of other things:

ExpressesFor example…
past habitI never used to eat breakfast; I would never eat breakfast.
requestsHe would like us to clean up; could you clean up? Can you do it?
permissionYes, you can go. You may change the channel. He could leave early.
necessity, advisabilityYou must see that movie! We ought to go soon; we will have to call later.
possibilityI might pay with cash; we may write a check. That could be true.

For more information on the various possible meanings of some modals

(Grammar geek note: Sometimes, when words like would and could express a statement of possibility or desire, or when they state something contrary to fact, a special verb form, the subjunctive, is required. For example, If he had known, he would have come sooner is an expression contrary to fact. So in this example, the subjunctive form causes the helper to change to have instead of the expected has–for more information, check a grammar and usage guide for “subjunctive mood.”)


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