ultimate guide to verbs

A Simple Explanation of a Verb

A verb is a word that denotes action or a state of being. As a part of speech in grammar, a verb is the action in the sentence. Along with a noun, the verb is a critical component of a complete sentence. Somebody (noun) does something (verb).

In grammar, the doer is the subject, and the action is the predicate (the part of the sentence containing the verb and describing the subject).

Those two elements form a complete sentence: Jim grins.

You may want more in your sentence, like an object: Jim grins at Sally.

You may add subordinate clauses; Jim grins at Sally when she fumbles the ball.

However complex your sentence, the verb is the action.

examples of strong verbs from A–O

How to Use Verbs in Writing

You use verbs every day when you talk. Because verbs denote action, they connote feeling to your reader.

For writing, your verb choice delivers a punch to your prose. Choose a strong verb to connect what you have to say with your reader.

Since every verb indicates action, your verb choice matters, depending on the type of writing.

Choose a strong verb to make your writing direct and clear. The right verb eliminates the need for adverbs because of specificity.

Using the right verb also increases readability for your audience because you don’t need to describe the action, lengthening the sentence. The verb does all the work.

Don’t Hide Your Verbs

Many writers unintentionally hide their verbs by turning them into nouns accompanied by a weak verb.

Take these two sentences:

"We will decide tomorrow.”

“We will make a decision tomorrow.”

The first sentence is shorter and more direct. In the second sentence, the strong verb "decide" is changed into the weaker "make," diluting the meaning.

How can you spot hidden verbs? Look for words ending in -ment, -tion, -sion, and -ance. Also, if you’ve used weak verbs like give, have, make, reach, and take, this could be a sign of a hidden verb.

Reading through your whole document to find these word endings takes time. ProWritingAid automatically highlights your hidden verbs so you can change them with a click.

hidden verb suggestion in ProWritingAid

Free your verbs with ProWritingAid.

The Three Types of Verbs

There are three types of verbs. Familiarity with verb types will help you understand when to use each type and when to avoid a verb type.

The three verb types are:

  1. Action verbs (which can be transitive or intransitive)
  2. Modal or helping verbs
  3. Auxiliary or linking verbs

What Is an Action Verb?

When a person or thing is doing something, that’s an action verb.

Action verbs are the best ones to use in your writing to move your story forward and create tension. Action verbs can also clarify articles and papers by indicating direct action.

Action verbs are split into two categories: transitive and intransitive verbs.

1) Transitive Verbs

A transitive verb is always followed by a noun that receives the action, called the direct object.

I patted my dog’s head.

The verb is “patted,” and the noun that’s receiving this action is “my dog’s head,” which is the direct object of the action verb.

Sometimes an object can be indirect, such as when you’re expressing to whom the action is being done.

Mary gave Angelina a kiss on the cheek.

The verb is “gave,” and the object given was “a kiss.” To whom it happened was Angelina, the indirect object of the sentence.

Transitive verbs act on an object, whether directly or indirectly. They act on something.

transitive vs intransitive verbs examples

2) Intransitive Verbs.

When an action verb has no direct object, it’s called an intransitive verb. An adverb or adverb phrase can follow intransitive verbs, but there will not be a direct object.

Matthew runs away quickly.

The verb is “runs,” and the phrase “away quickly” tells us more about the verb, but there is no object in the sentence to receive the action.

An easy way to tell the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb is to ask the question, “What is receiving the action from this verb?”

If you can name a noun that’s on the receiving end, it’s a transitive verb. If you can’t name a noun, whether a direct or indirect object, then the verb is intransitive.

Either way, transitive or intransitive, active verbs lend immediacy to your sentence, drawing in the reader.

What is a Modal Verb?

A modal or helping verb modifies the action in the main verb. The modifications help readers to understand the main verb.

A helping verb provides hints on the possibility of something happening (can, should, would, etc.) or time (has, did, was, etc.). When you add a modal or helping verb to your sentence, you’ve created a verb phrase.

Helping verb phrase examples:

Laura is (helping verb) writing (main action verb) her life story.

Her story might (helping verb) be (main verb) embarrassing for some of her friends.

examples of helping verbs

These verbs always function as modal verbs or helping verbs:

• can • could • may • might • must • ought to • shall • should • will • would

In addition, you can have helping verbs consisting of the forms of to be, to do, and to have. Keep in mind though the following words can also serve as linking verbs (which we’ll discuss next):

• am • are • be • been • being • did • do • does • had • has • have • is • was • were

Examples of be, do, have helping verbs:

Juliet is changing trains at the station.

Daniel had eaten everything on his plate.

Every cyclist does dismount at the crossing.

Verb phrases composed of helping verbs define the time or possibility of the root verb, so they “help” the reader understand the action.

What is an Auxiliary Verb?

Linking verbs connect the subject of your sentence to a noun or adjective that describes your subject. The noun or adjective is called the “subject complement.”

My daughter is a marketing major.

We are your new neighbors.

The most common linking verb can be found in the various forms of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, etc.). Sometimes, the forms of “to be” are helping verbs.

“To become” and “to seem” are always linking verbs. The following verbs, however, can sometimes be linking verbs and other times be action verbs:

• to appear • to continue • to feel • to grow • to look • to prove • to remain • to sound • to stay • to smell • to taste • to turn

Example of the difference between a linking verb and an action verb.

Linking: The seafood smelled off. (The verb smelled links seafood to off)

Action: I smelled the seafood before eating. (The verb refers to the action of smelling)

Why Are Verbs Important?

Your reader’s brain processes action in reading as if they were actually performing the action.

That’s why the right verb eliciting an emotional response works in marketing and advertising as well as narrative fiction. Verbs connect your reader to your text.

examples of strong verbs from O–W

Using Verbs in Academic Writing

Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) at the University of Arizona understands the connection between verbs and thinking. That’s why they prepared a list of verbs to use in different writing disciplines. A quick look at the list shows how different actions (verbs) work well according to the subject matter.

If you are new to thinking about verb use, this list is a great starting point for essays, papers, and articles.

Using Verbs in Fiction Writing

Fiction writers use verbs with exactitude to prompt reader engagement, sparking emotions and a desire to keep reading. Dull verbs make for lackluster reading. Finding the right verb for your character’s action brings your story to life.

Writers Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi at Writers Helping Writers compiled a list of action-verb alternatives to spark up your fiction. Access the complete list here.

alternatives for the verb say

Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, specific verbs spark emotions in your readers and keep them engrossed in what you write.

Strengthen Your Verbs

Sometimes it’s easy to skip over weak verbs in your writing when you’re self-editing.

Taking time to focus directly on your verbs helps you make sure you’re always using the best word for your sentence.

ProWritingAid’s Thesaurus Report highlights all of the verbs in your writing so you can get an overview of the strength and specificity of your word choices throughout your document.

screenshot of prowritingaid’s thesaurus report

Hover over a verb to see synonyms and click to replace weak verbs in your text with more powerful alternatives.

Verb Tenses

Actions can happen in the past, present, and future. This means you’ll need to use verbs in different tenses to demonstrate actions in different time phases.

There are two major tense-types to look out for:

  • Simple verb tenses reflect the time period

  • Perfect verb tenses describe either complete or incomplete (continuing) actions

Simple Verb Tenses

Verb tenses reflect the time the action happened: past, present, and future. These three are called the simple tenses because they’re fairly straightforward.

Past Tense Verbs

Past tense verbs show action that happened in the past.

Examples of verbs in the past tense:

My daughter played football last spring.

We skated on the frozen pond last weekend.

Verbs In the Present Tense

Present tense verbs tell us what’s happening now, in the present. They describe a current action.

Examples of verbs in the present tense:

My daughter plays football.

We skate on the frozen pond.

Future Tense Verbs

Future tense verbs show us what is going to happen in the future:

My daughter will play football.

We will skate on the frozen pond.

It’s easy to know what simple verb tense you are using. If it happened before, it’s the past tense. If it’s happening now, it’s the present tense. If it will happen, it’s the future tense.

A grammar guru, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.
Try it for free!

Perfect Verb Tenses

Verbs in the perfect tenses indicate completed actions. They can reflect past, present, or future actions.

They are formed with helping verbs (e.g., have, has, had, will, shall) and the past participles of the verb.

The past particle is the form of a verb, indicating an action in the past, with endings like -en, -t, -d, -n, and -ed.

how to use Past Participles of verbs

Examples of past participles:

The past participle of look is looked: Have you looked in your locker?

The past participle of lose is lost: She delved through the lost property box.

The past participle of swell is swollen: The river was swollen with melted snow.

Now that you understand the verb form of a past participle let’s look at how they combine with helping verbs to form perfect tenses.

Past Perfect Tense

These verbs describe an action that came directly before another action in the past or happened for a definite amount of time in the past.

The past perfect is used to express:

  • completed action before another begins (both in the past)

After she had called the doctor, she felt much better about her symptoms.

  • conditional statements

If she had called the doctor, she would have felt better.

  • reported speech

My husband asked if I had called the doctor.

  • dissatisfaction with the past

I wish I had called the doctor.

More examples of the past perfect tense:

My daughter had played football before she played rugby.

We had skated on the frozen pond until sunset.

how to use past perfect tense verbs

Present Perfect Tense

Present perfect tense tells us what happened recently or at some indefinite time in the past.

The present perfect is used to express:

  • actions in the past of indefinite time

I have visited this museum.

  • actions that started in the past but continue to the present

My father has mentioned that to her before.

More examples of the present perfect tense:

My daughter has played football as well as rugby.

We have skated on the frozen pond before.

how to use Present Perfect Tense verbs

Future Perfect Tense

These show us what will happen before some other future action takes place. Future perfect tense uses “will have” and “shall have.”

The future perfect is used to express:

  • actions that will be finished at some point

By the time your plane lands, we will have gone to sleep.

  • actions that occur in the future and will continue beyond a certain point in the future

He will have studied in Paris for three years this spring.

More examples of the future perfect tense:

By noon today, my daughter will have finished her exam.

By tomorrow evening, we will have finished all the garden work.

how to use Future Perfect Tense verbs

Perfect Progressive or Imperfect Tense

Progressive forms show actions in progress. Use the perfect progressive tense for actions that were ongoing over a period of time in the past, ongoing actions from the past that continue in the present, or ongoing actions that will continue in the future.

Simple and perfect verb tenses are also used in forming a progressive verb form that shows us what’s taking place at the moment or is continuing. Add one of the forms of “to be” with the present participle of the verb that ends with –ing.

Examples of the present participle:

  • I am singing.

  • He was laughing.

  • They have been walking.

Past Perfect Progressive

The past perfect progressive is used to show actions in the past that were in progress before other actions.

The past perfect progressive is used to express:

  • duration of a past action (only up to a specific endpoint)

The dog had been digging in the garden for 20 minutes before we found all the holes.

  • showing cause of an action

They could not cross the lane to the park because it had been raining.

  • conditional statements

If the sun had been shining, they could have gone to the park.

  • reported speech

They said it had been raining.

how to use Past Perfect Progressive Tense verbs

Present Perfect Progressive

The present perfect progressive tense expresses actions that began in the past and continue into the present and actions that have recently stopped.

The present perfect progressive is used to express:

  • actions that began in the past but continue to present

The commuters have been waiting at the depot for thirty minutes.

  • actions that have recently stopped

You have been waiting for me.

how to use Present Perfect Progressive verbs

Future Perfect Progressive

The future perfect progressive tense expresses ongoing actions that will be completed at a specific moment in the future.

The future perfect progressive is used to express:

  • actions that will have a specific timeframe in the future

In June, I will have been working as a nurse for eight years.

She will have been reading for two hours by the time we go to bed.

PRO TIP: When you choose to use perfect tense in your writing, know why. Editors of both fiction and non-fiction may want you to use a simpler verb form to enhance readability. Be ready to defend your verb-tense choice. ProWritingAid will highlight these verbs for you so you can check you’re using the best verb form.

examples of Future Perfect Progressive verbs

Subjunctive Mood

A subjunctive mood is the form of a verb used to express a wish, desire, hope, possibility, doubt, or uncertainty. Use the subjunctive after certain expressions that contain an order or a request, a hypothetical, or a wish.

Although the subjunctive mood is used infrequently, writers who compile procedure documents may use the subjunctive mood.

Use the subjunctive after a phrase like:

  • it is recommended that
  • ask that
  • it is important that
  • we insist that

Form the subjunctive mood in the third person present but drop the ending -s.

It is important that he prepare the document according to guidelines.

We ask that each visitor remove their shoes.

The Verb to be In the Subjunctive

Use the subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical situation or a wish. Use the verb form were instead of was.

Examples of the verb to be in the subjunctive.

If I were you, I’d tread carefully over those rocks.

If she were rich, she’d buy a retreat home by the ocean.

Fred wishes he were taller.

using subjunctive verbs

If you need help forming your verbs, use this chart at Perfect English Grammar to form past, present, and future tenses, plus negative sentences and questions.

Verbs Spark Your Writing

Verbs are the words that bring writing alive for readers. Choose strong verbs to be specific. By eliminating adverbs with strong verbs, you reduce wordiness. Sentence clarity engages readers. Verbs transform writing—fiction or non-fiction—into powerful prose.

Take your writing to the next level:

20 Editing Tips From Professional Writers

20 Editing Tips From Professional Writers

Whether you are writing a novel, essay, article or email, good writing is an essential part of communicating your ideas.

This guide contains the 20 most important writing tips and techniques from a wide range of professional writers.

Your Personal Writing Coach

A grammar guru, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.

Try for free today