Your sentences would lie dead in the water without a verb. Verbs are the most important part of your sentence. But how do you select the right verb to get across your meaning? By understanding the different types of verbs and how they’re used.
What is a verb?
Verbs are action words. They tell us what’s happening in your sentence. They also sometimes tell us about a state of being. There are three types of verbs for use:
- Action verbs (which can be transitive or intransitive),
- Modal verbs (sometimes called helping verbs), and
- Auxiliary (sometimes called linking verbs).
Action verbs get you going.
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:
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 for whom or 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, which is an indirect object.
When an action verb has no direct or indirect 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 or indirect object.
Matthew runs quickly away from the fire.
The verb is “runs,” and the phrase “quickly away from the fire” 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.
Sometimes verbs need a little help.
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.
Let’s link our thoughts together.
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.*
And in conclusion…
There you have it—verbs explained. Now that you understand the various forms they can take, use verbs wisely to create movement, tension, and momentum in your work. Make your verbs the strongest possible, and your readers will be happy.