The Grammar Guide


Verbs are one of the two main parts of a sentence, along with nouns. You need a noun and a verb to make a complete sentence.

What is a verb?

Verbs are action words, like shout, jump, run, and eat. They tell us what’s happening in the sentence. They also sometimes tell us about a state of being.

There are three types of verbs:

  • Action verbs (which can be transitive or intransitive),
  • Modal verbs (sometimes called helping verbs), and
  • Auxiliary verbs (sometimes called 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. They can be split into two categories:

1) Transitive verbs.

This verb is always followed by a noun that’s receiving 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.

2) Intransitive verbs.

When an action verb has no direct object, it’s called an intransitive verb. Intransitive verbs can be followed by an adverb or adverb phrase, but there will never be a direct object.

Matthew runs quickly away.

The verb is “runs,” and the phrase “quickly away” tells us more about the verb, but there is no object here 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.

What is a Modal Verb?

Modal verbs help us understand more about the verb in question. They give us hints on the possibility of something happening (can, should, etc.) or time (has, did, was, etc.). When you add a modal or helping verb to your sentence, you’ve created a verb phrase.

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 words 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

Juliet is changing trains at the station.

Daniel had eaten everything on his plate.

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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 is the various forms of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, etc.). Sometimes, the forms of “to be” are helping verbs, as you learned in the previous section.

“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

Linking: The seafood smelled funny.

Action: I smelled the seafood before eating.

Verb Tenses: A Primer

Verbs come in three tenses: past, present, and future. These are called the simple tenses, and they’re fairly straightforward.

What’s past is past.

Past tense verbs show action that happened in the past:

  • My daughter played football last spring.

  • We skated on the frozen pond last weekend.

The time is now.

Present tense verbs tell us what’s happening now:

  • My daughter plays football.

  • We skate on the frozen pond.

Tomorrow is another day.

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.

Where things start to get dicey.

There’s something called “perfect tenses,” and they come in present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tense. They are all formed with helping verbs (e.g., have, has, had, will, shall) and the past participles of the verb. Past participles are simply one of four principal parts of a verb, which is discussed in another article.

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. For example:

  • 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 some indefinite time in the past.

  • 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.”

  • By noon today, my daughter will have played football.

  • By tomorrow evening, we will have skated on the frozen pond.

Progressive forms show actions in progress.

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. Simply add one of the forms of “to be” with the present participle that ends in –ing.

  • My daughter is playing football right now. (present progressive)

  • My daughter was playing football yesterday. (past progressive)

  • We are skating on the frozen pond right now. (present progressive)

  • We have been skating on the frozen pond before. (past progressive)

A cheat sheet to make it easier

Following is a nifty cheat sheet from Perfect English Grammar that shows you how to form each aspect of past, present, and future tenses. Plus it shows you how to form negative sentences and questions. Great stuff to keep at your fingertips when writing your next novel or blog post.

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