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.
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.
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:
Action verbs (which can be transitive or intransitive)
Modal or helping verbs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If she had called the doctor, she would have felt better.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If the sun had been shining, they could have gone to the park.
They said it had been raining.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.