Show Me the Action (and the Being): Verbs

Verbs are divided into two main categories: action verbs and verbs of being (or linking verbs). Let's start with the easier of the two, action verbs.

The Movers and the Shakers: Action Verbs

Verbs that express action are action verbs (not too difficult to understand, is it?). Action verbs are the more common verbs, and they're easy to spot. Look at these sentences:

Lynn petted the puppy when Mike brought it home to her.

(Petted and brought both show action.)

The frog sits on top of the lily pad in the lake.

(Sits shows action — well, not much action, but you get the picture.)

Action verbs are divided into two categories: transitive and intransitive. The textbook definition of a transitive verb is “a verb that takes an object.” What does that mean? If you can answer whom? or what? to the verb in a sentence, then the verb is transitive.

I carried the injured boy to the waiting ambulance.

Carried whom or what? Since boy answers that question, the verb carried is transitive in that sentence.

Exhausted, I sank into the sofa.

Sank whom or what? Nothing in the sentence answers that, so the verb sank is intransitive in that sentence.

Knowing about transitive and intransitive verbs can help you with some easily confused verbs, such as lie and lay, and sit and set. You'll be able to see that lie is intransitive (I lie down), lay is transitive (I lay the book down), sit is intransitive (I'll sit here), and set is transitive (Beth set the vase here).

Just “Being” Verbs: Getting Linked

Granted, the action verb is easy to spot. But what in the world is meant by a definition that says a verb “expresses being”? That usually means the word is a form of the verb be. But that's another problem because, except for been and being, most forms of be don't look remotely like be.

It would be nonstandard to say, for instance:

I be sitting on the dock of the bay.

You should say:

I am sitting on the dock of the bay.

In that case, am is a form of be. Looking at the past tense, it would be nonstandard to say:

Yesterday she be sitting on the dock of the bay.

Instead, you should write:

Yesterday she was sitting on the dock of the bay.

So was is a form of be.

Here are the forms of be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. These forms also include has been, have been, had been, should have been, may be, might have been, will have been, should be, will be, may have been, and might be.

Unusual Linking Verbs and Helping Verbs

Notice that the definition for “be verbs” says they “usually” are forms of “be.” Just to complicate the situation, the words in the following list can sometimes be used as linking verbs.

The following verbs can be either linking verbs or action verbs:

appear

become

feel

grow

look

prove

remain

seem

smell

sound

stay

taste

So when are these twelve verbs action verbs, and when are they linking verbs? Use this test: If you can substitute a form of be (am, is, was, and so on) and the sentence still makes sense, by golly, you've got yourself a linking verb. Look at these examples:

The soup tasted too spicy for me.

Substitute was or is for tasted and you have this sentence:

The soup was (is) too spicy for me.

It makes perfect sense. You have a linking verb. Now look at this one:

I tasted the spicy soup.

Substitute was or is for tasted and you have this sentence:

I was (is) the spicy soup.

That doesn't make much sense, does it? Since the substitution of a be verb doesn't make sense, you don't have a linking verb. You can try the same trick by substituting a form of seem:

The soup tasted too spicy for me.

Substitute seemed and you have the following:

The soup seemed too spicy for me.

The sentence makes sense, so tasted is a linking verb.

If you try the same trick with this sentence:

I tasted the spicy soup.

You get:

I seemed the spicy soup.

That doesn't make sense, so tasted isn't a linking verb in this sentence.

Another type of verb that may appear in a sentence is a helping (auxiliary) verb. This can join the main verb (becoming the helper of the main verb) to express the tense, mood, and voice of the verb. Common helping verbs are be, do, have, can, may, and so on. (The first two sentences of this paragraph have helping verbs: may and can.)

Breaking It Down: The Principal Parts of Verbs

You may be familiar with the phrase “the principal parts of verbs,” a reference to basic forms that verbs can take. English has four principal parts: the present infinitive (the one that's the main entry in a dictionary), the past tense, the past participle, and the present participle. Take a look at the principal parts of these verbs:

<tgroup cols="4" align="center"> <colspec colnum="1" colname="col1" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="1" align="left"/> <colspec colnum="2" colname="col2" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="1" align="left"/> <colspec colnum="3" colname="col3" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="1" align="left"/> <colspec colnum="4" colname="col4" colwidth="25%" colsep="0" rowsep="1" align="left"/> <thead> <tr> <td><p>Present Infinitive</p></td> <td><p>Past Tense</p></td> <td><p>Past Participle</p></td> <td><p>Present Participle</p></td> </tr> </thead> <tbody> <tr> <td><p>hammer</p></td> <td><p>hammered</p></td> <td><p>hammered</p></td> <td><p>hammering</p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>bring</p></td> <td><p>brought</p></td> <td><p>brought</p></td> <td><p>bringing</p></td> </tr> <tr> <td><p>rise</p></td> <td><p>rose</p></td> <td><p>risen</p></td> <td><p>rising</p></td> </tr> </tbody> </tgroup> </table> <p>The first three examples all form their past and past participle by adding -<emphasis>d</emphasis> or -<emphasis>ed</emphasis> to the present infinitive. Most English verbs do this; they're called regular verbs. The last three examples, however, aren't formed in the regular way; these are called (surprise!) irregular verbs. 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