More on verbs

Verbs are the most complex part of our grammar.

OldLegal Tomes
Verbs, according to the law

Transitive and intransitive verbs

A verb is transitive or intransitive depending on its use in a sentence:

  • Transitive verbs take an object: I read the book. She values your criticism.
  • Intransitive verbs do not take an object: Andrea sings beautifully.

Further, consider the difference: Jack opened the door slowly (transitive). The door opened slowly (intransitive).

Finite verbs

Finite verbs are verbs that can stand on their own. They do not need auxiliary verbs to help them:

  • I eat carrots. I ran the race. They worked hard.

The infinitive

The infinitive is the simple present form of a verb. It normally has the word “to” in front of it: to eat, to run, to work.

The infinitive has to have another verb as the main verb in the sentence:

  • He likes to sing, I tried to learn, She wants to dance.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs, sometimes called “helping verbs”, help complete the form and meaning of main verbs. They include modal verbs, primary verbs, and a few special verbs like “dare” and “need”.

The modal verbs are: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. They are called modal because they express the mood of verbs.

The primary verbs are: be, do, and have. Primary verbs can function either as a main verb (act by themselves) or as auxiliaries:

  • l have a book (by itself)
  • I have done the work (as an auxiliary verb)

Modal verbs differ from primary verbs in the following ways:

  • They do not take word endings to form participles or agree with their subject. Thus, we say: ‘They may go to the party,’ but never, ‘She mays go to the party.’
  • They come before ‘not’ in negative clauses, and they do not use ‘do’ to form the negative: You might not like that. (On the other hand, a main verb uses ‘do’ to form the negative and follows ‘not’: You do not like that).
  • Model verbs come before the subject in a question: Can I have another apple? Would you like to go to the movies?
  • Main verbs must use ‘do’ and follow the subject to form questions: Do you want to go to the movies? They take the infinitive without ‘to’: I will call you tomorrow.
  • A main verb that takes an infinitive always uses ‘to’: I promise to call you tomorrow.

Parts of the verb

Verbs are words that express an action or a state of being.

All English verbs that are not auxiliary verbs have four principal parts (forms):

  • a base form – essentially a finite verb (that is, the infinitive without “to”);
  • a present participle, formed by adding -ing to the base form;
  • a past tense, usually ending in -ed;
  • and a past participle ( the past tense), and they need an auxiliary verb with them.

The parts of the verb are used to form tenses.

  • All present participles are formed by the addition of -ing to the base form: making, breaking, crying.
  • The past participle is used with an auxiliary verb and ends in -ed , -d , -en or-n: was smacked, has faded, was broken.

Verbs can also be classified as regular or irregular depending on how they form their past tense:

Regular verbs form their past tense and past participle by adding the suffix -ed to the base form. Thus, we say, I walked, I have walked, they plodded, they have plodded, she tried, we had tried, and so on.

Irregular verbs do not follow the –ed pattern of regular verbs when forming the past tense. Some irregular verbs, like burst, cast, cut, and split, do not change to form the past tense and past participle (He cut the bread. He has cut the bread).

  • A few verbs, like ‘burn’ and ‘spell’, have both regular (burned, spelled) and irregular (burnt, spelt) past tenses and past participles.
  • Some, like ‘mow’ and ‘saw’, have both regular and irregular past participles (sawed, sawn).

Since English has many irregular verbs, check your dictionary for their correct form and spelling!


Gerunds are verbs which end in -ing but act as nouns.

  • They can be the subject of a sentence (Sailing is his favourite pastime).
  • They can be the object of a verb (She enjoys skiing).
  • They can be the object of a preposition (She devoted her free time to skiing).

Gerunds can be modified like nouns (That book makes for difficult reading).

They can also act like verbs in that they can take an object (Convincing him was never easy)

They can be modified by an adverb (Walking daily can improve your health).

Active and passive voice

When a sentence is written in active voice the subject performs the action (The little girl cuddled the doll).

When a sentence is written in passive voice the subject has the action done to it. (The doll was cuddled by the little girl).

When changing a sentence from active to passive voice it is important that the tense is consistent:

  • The little girl is cuddling the doll. (active voice)
  • The doll is being cuddled by the little girl (passive voice)
  • The little girl was cuddling the doll. (active voice)
  • The doll was being cuddled by the little girl (passive voice)
  • The little girl will cuddle the doll. (active voice)
  • The doll will be cuddled by the little girl. (passive voice)

Agreement of subject and verb (Concord)

The subject and verb in a sentence must agree in number. This means that a singular subject must be followed by a singular verb:

  • Anthony (singular subject) was (singular verb) late for school.
  • John and Sheila (plural subject) were (plural verb) late for school.

However, combinations that go together are treated as singular:

  • Bread and butter is on the table.
  • Fish and chips is sold down the road.


Singular verbs are used with I, he, she and it: I am, he is she is, it is; I run, he runs, she runs, it runs (but notice the I “run”)

Plural verbs are used with we, you and they: we are, you are, they are, we run, you run, they run.

The following can cause problems:
  1. Amounts of money and units of measurement often take singular verbs:
  • Fifty cents was all I had left to spend.
  • Twenty metres was the length of the wall.
  • Thirty kilograms is the weight of the statue.
  1. Collective nouns are followed by a singular verb:
  • The fleet of ships was heading for the Mediterranean. (one fleet)


  • The ships were heading for the Mediterranean. (more than one ship)

More examples:

  • The flock of sheep is grazing in the field. (one flock)
  • The squadron of aeroplanes is flying overhead. (one squadron)
  1. Some nouns which end in -s, and which appear to be plural, are treated as singular nouns:
  • Measles is a highly infectious disease.
  • News of the accident has just arrived.
  • Mathematics was the last lesson before break.
  1. The following words are followed by a singular verb: every, each, everyone, everybody, nobody, somebody and someone:
  • Every girl is expected to be there.
  • Each of the glasses was individually wrapped.
  • Nobody has claimed the watch.
  1. Either.., or… and Neither… nor.., are followed by singular verbs when they refer to singular nouns and pronouns:
  • Either Erica or Joanne has won the prize.
  • Neither Phillip nor Andrew was responsible for the damage.
But note the following:
  • Either a boy or a girl is working in the hall. (both subjects are singular)
  • Either the boys or the girls are working in the hall. (both subjects are plural)
  • Either a boy or the girls are working in the hail. (one of the subjects is plural)
  • Either the boys or a girl is working in the hall. (one of the subjects is plural)

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive is the simple present form of a verb used as either a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. The verb of the infinitive is normally preceded by the word “to”: to run, to ride, to speak. When the infinitive follows some verbs as the direct object, the “to” may be dropped.

An infinitive phrase is the infinitive plus any complements and any modifiers of the infinitive and complements. For example:

  • As a Noun: He helped to write the program.
  • As an Adjective: Lydia was looking for a way to earn money.
  • As an Adverb: He shouted to get our attention.

Here the “To” is  Dropped: He helped write the program.

In the above examples, the infinitive is italicised, and the infinitive phrase is underlined.

Participle and Participial Phrase

A participle is a verb used as an adjective. There are two kinds of participles:

  • The present participle ending in -ing. Thus: the rising water, the setting sun.
  • The past participle usually ending in -ed, so has the past form of the verb and would go with the verb “have”: the boiled water, the hardened criminal.

A participial phrase also acts like an adjective, as underlined here. Thus: The boy riding his bike is my son.

Use a comma to separate introductory participial phrases and infinitive phrases used as modifiers:

  • Looking for help, the man fell on his knees to beg. (Participial phrase)
  • To raise enough money in time, Mary had to issue stock in her business. (The infinitive phrase is used as a modifier)

On the other hand this is incorrect: To ski, is exhilarating. (The infinitive is used as a noun, not a modifier.) Instead, this is obviously correct: To ski is exhilarating.

Prepositional Phrases and the comma

Generally, use a comma to separate a prepositional phrase of more than four words, especially when it comes a the beginning of a sentence. Otherwise, omit the comma (unless there are several phrases in a list). Consider these examples (phrase underlined):

  • Correct: Under the dining room table the dog cowered. (Single short, clear phrase. No comma needed.)
  • Correct: Under the heavy-duty truck, the mechanic struggled to find the oil leak. (Comma optional, but helpful due to length of phrase)
  • Correct: On the sand of the beach by the cove, we relaxed in the sun. (Do not separate the phrases since they are not in a series.)
  • Correct: Over hill, over dale, we hit the dusty trail. (The two phrases are in series here. We could say “Over hill and over dale.”)

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar

Last updated: Monday, 13th January 2020