Verbs have person, number, tense, voice and mood. Sometimes even the
most obvious errors (typos) can creep in, as in this headline:
Donors goes public and criticise Gordon Brown -- Mail On-line 30th June 2008
The verb should, of course, be go.
A verb shows an action, or a state or condition. The verbs in the table
below are in bold.
The elephant trumpeted.
is what the elephant did.
The store is
tells us the state of the store.
The point strikes
you at once.
tells us what the point
tells us I am in a good condition.
tells us she is in a wrong state.
We can identify verbs in sentences by asking the question: What is (the
subject) doing (or being)?
Only a verb can follow a personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, it) and
we can test whether a word is a verb by seeing if it makes sense when
it following I, you, he, she, it. However, it might not be a verb in
the given sentence. The test shows the word can be a verb sometimes.
However, if we replace the subject of the sentence (or clause) with a
personal pronoun, the word following must be a verb.
The lost boys returned
In the sentence,
we can replace "The lost boys" with the pronoun They to get "They
follows a pronoun in the given sentence, returned is a verb
in that sentence.
In addition, we can ask "What did they
do?". Here we are applying the definition of a verb. The answer, "They
returned", shows returned is the verb.
The main parts of a verb are:
The infinitive, which is
normally the to- form: to be, to have, to work, to feel, to think. The
infinitive often functions as a noun.
The present participle,
which is the -ing form: being, having, working, feeling, thinking. This
is sometimes called a gerund,
when it acts as a noun. It can also act as an adjective.
The past participle,
which is regularly the -ed form: been, had, worked, felt,
thought. It can function as an adjective.
There are verbs that help other verbs to form verb phrases. The primary
auxiliary verbs are: be, do and have.
In these sentences:
I did answer
I have eaten
The auxiliary verbs help other verbs to make a verb phrase.
The three main auxiliary verbs in English can also be main verbs, when
they can stand alone:
There are 11 other auxiliary verbs, called modal auxiliary verbs:
can, could, will, would,
shall, should, may, might, must, and ought to and used to
These help other verbs to indicate certainty and uncertainty, and in
various ways show time.
A verb phrase is the verb part of a sentence. It can have one verb or
He could have run.
The dog isbeing stroked
The words in bold above are verb phrases.
We have two verb tenses in English: present and past; the future is
formed by using auxiliary verbs. There is no future verb tense in
The present simple is simply the present tense of the verb.
The simple present is used to indicate something that is always true,
or a present state or disposition. The following examples are
statements that are always true, now, yesterday, and in the future, so
we use the present simple:
The sun rises every
is the science of number.
the lightest gas.
Scientific truths and principles are often stated in the simple
The next statements are ones that are true habitually, or under
certain circumstances, but not necessarily at the time they are said:
I seek the truth. Do you play
The army moves
on the enemy.
The statements may not be true at the time they are uttered. For
instance, a person might claim they play tennis, but this does not mean
they are playing it at the time. Similarly, a scientist might seek the
truth, but might not be seeking it at the time the statement is made.
We use the present progressive to say what we are doing at the moment.
The present simple is used to indicate a present state:
I feel good.
I am full.
She is happy
These statements are true at the time they are uttered. In speaking of
feelings we often use the present simple to refer to the present state.
(This is an exception because normally we use the present progressive
for reporting on the present.)
The simple present can be used to refer to the future:
The bus leaves in 5
Or the past:
The car drives at me. I
scream and try to avoid it. There is a screech of brakes...
This is sometimes called the historic past and is meant to dramatize
the action, making the reader think it is happening now.
Progressive (Present Continuous)
This is formed by using the present tense of the verb to be and the present participle.
The present progressive is used to refer to what is happening at the
The sun is rising.
The birds are chirping.
Share prices are dropping.
Sometimes it is used to refer to something that is true temporarily:
I live in London, but I am
living in New York (temporarily, at the moment).
I am coughing a lot. (As I have a cold at the moment.)
She is travelling to work by horse, while here car is in the garage.
The present perfect is formed from the present tense of have and the past participle.
The present perfect form of the verb is used to refer to something that
has been happening up to the present, but has now stopped.
I have eaten the food.
I have played sport this morning.
I have studied physics.
I have had a cold.
These refer to past events which have now finished.
and has gone
Consider these sentences:
He has been to America.
He has gone to America.
The first means has has travelled to America and returned. The second
means he has travelled to America, but has not yet returned. These are
two forms of the past participle of the verb to go.
The present perfect progressive is formed from the present tense of
(the past participle of be) and the past
participle of the verb. It is used to refer to something that
has been going on in the past and is still going on.
It has been snowing all
The road works have been
going on for ages.
I have been waiting
The simple past tense is formed from the past tense of the verb. For
He went home.
I wrote a story.
It was late.
The simple past often refers to an event which occurred at a definite
time in the past.
It is also used to refer to unreal present or future time:
If I were king, then I
would stay in bed till lunchtime.
If I studied harder, I would do better.
Progressive (Past Continuous)
The past progressive form is formed using was or were and the present participle.
This is used to refer to a past time when some state or activity was
temporarily going on.
I was eating a
hamburger and listening to the radio.
They were laughing
and joking when he arrived.
It is also used to refer to unreal present and future time:
I would be happier if we
were making more money.
The captain said "If the ship were sinking, I would not be standing
The past perfect is formed by using had and the past participle. It is
used to refer to an action or state that was completed before a past
He had finished the book
by the time they came.
They had completed the work before the owners returned.
The past perfect is also used to refer to the unreal past.
If I had not studied hard,
then I would not have passed the exam.
If you had paid, you could have gone in.
If it had not snowed, you wouldn't have been able to ski.
Perfect Progressive (Past Perfect Continuous)
It had been raining for
some time, when the lightning started.
Most of the staff had been working hard up to lunchtime.
Only a few people had been eating in the restaurant when the manager
I had been feeling bored, when I noticed an interesting film was on the
The past perfect progressive refers to a state or activity that was
going on before something else in the past.
lie and lay
between the verbs lie and lay may cause confusion. The verb 'to lie'
means 'to recline', 'to be situated' or 'put in a certain state'. The
verb 'to lay' means 'to place' (something). Their main forms are as
The verb 'to lie' does not take an object; the verb 'to lay' does.
Examples using lie and lay
lie (no object)
lay (takes an object)
She lies on the floor The islands lie to the south. Our future lies in their hands.
He lay the cat on the floor. Will you lay the table.
She is lying on the floor. In autumn, the leaves lie everywhere. We lay at their mercy.
He is laying it on the floor. This was a difficult task to lay on anyone.
She lay down on the floor. The rubbish lay everywhere.
He laid it on the floor. They laid the victim on the bed.
She has lain on the floor for ages. The snow has lain over the land for some months.
They have laid the foundations.
There isn't a future tense of English verbs. The future can be formed
in various ways, some of which have been mentioned under the past and
present tenses. Here we will simply mention the use of the future
auxiliary will. The use of shall as a future auxiliary seems to have
disappeared in English since about the 1950s. Some people, however,
think the future auxiliary will should not be used with the first
person and shall
ought to be be used.
I will go shopping
I'll go shopping tomorrow.
As will is contracted in speech, no one knows whether the speaker meant
will or shall.
Progressive (Future Continuous)
Next week, I will be going
week, I'll be going shopping.
By this time next week, I
will have started my new job. By this
time next week, I'll have started my new job.
By this time next month,
I'll have been working at my new job for a week.
verbs join the subject of the sentence to an adverb, noun or phrase,
which describes the subject. The main linking verb is the verb to be.
The linking verbs in the table below are in bold.
in a pensive mood.
The scientist feels
The music sounds
The spy must keep
out of sight.
the examples, the verbs link the subject with a phrase that describes
the subject, rather than receives the action of the subject. The verbs
are therefore linking verbs. The phrase is called a complement, rather
than an object.
and Passive Voice
verbs (and clauses) are in active voice. The subject of the sentence is
the agent that performs the action of the verb. Sometimes clauses are
in the passive voice, where the subject receives the action of the
verb, and is not the agent.
The dog bit the man.
The man was bitten
by the dog.
The scientists disputed the inferences.
The inferences were disputed
by the scientists.
He is stroking the dog.
The dog isbeing stroked
I will eat the crisps.
The crisps will
eaten by me.
The boss fired Henry.
He had had a good time.
A good time had
had by him.
The form of the passive is a form of the verb to be plus a past participle.
Is it Passive
When the state or
condition of something is indicated by the verb to be, it
is often followed by an adjective. For instance:
The cat is hungry.
When the adjective has the same form as the past participle, some
confusion can result.
She is educated.
is an adjective. If we try to convert the sentence into an active
voice, we have:
They educated her.
is not what we mean! We are not referring to an activity or process of
educating, but to her state, or one of her characteristics. The word educated is
therefore an adjective, and the sentence, She is educated,
The following may be confusing (they are all active):
Example Active Voice
He was tired.
tired is an
adjective. And is
is a linking verb.
The shop is closed.
A bit tricky. We do not
mean "The shop was closed by the shopkeeper. But, who knows, it might
be open now". closed
is an adjective, not part of a verb.
She is enraged.
Again, is is a linking
verb, and enraged
is an adjective.
The plane is
damaged is an
Sometimes we need to know the context to be sure whether an expression
is actually passive.
or Passive - More.
When the verb to be
occurs with a word in the form of a past participle and it means the
state or condition of something, it might not be passive,
but might be an adjective.
While a passive sentence can be
identified by noting the presence of the verb to be and the past
participle, not all sentences having this form
are in the passive voice. The past participle form can sometimes be an
adjective, not a part of a verb phrase.
The shop is closed, so we
cannot get any milk till tomorrow.
The word closed,
which is in the form of a past participle, is an adjective, not a verb.
We are sympathetic to those who argue it is in the passive voice, but
ask them to consider the sentence:
The shop is open, so we
can get some milk now.
The word open
is an adjective. If we use the passive in the first sentence, why not
use it in this sentence?
The shop is opened, so we
can get some milk now. [This
is not English! No one would say this.]
it is not the activity of closing or opening the shop that we are
referring to, but the state of the shop - whether it is open or closed
[These questions were raised by a beginner in English as a foreign
The tyres were worn.
It is difficult to convert this into a passive. For instance:
The road wore the tires.
This does not seem right. It doesn't capture the meaning of the state
of the tyres. Even more, in the following sentence:
They were lost in the
If we try to convert it to an active form, it seems we would have:
They lost themselves in
Which seems a very strange thing to say, and does not sound like
I suggest the words worn
in the above sentences are really adjectives, and the sentences aren't
in the passive voice. [Controversial statement!]
of Passive Voice
In the above examples, the past participle and the verb to be appear in all
the examples, except the one with got.
The agent in a passive sentence may be mentioned in a by + noun phrase.
If the sentence has a to
be form followed by a past participle, you determine
whether a sentence is in the passive, by asking the following questions:
Comment and Questions
He is going to town.
This sentence does not
have a past participle, so it isn't passive.
can ask "Who is doing the going?", and the answer is he, and he is the
subject of the sentence. The sentence isn't in the passive.
The king was crowned by the
The sentence has a to be form (was)
and a past participle (crowned), so it could be passive.
Ask "Who was doing the crowning?", and the answer is the bishop. The
bishop isn't the subject of the sentence, so the sentence is in passive
The house was built.
The sentence has a to be form (was)
and a past participle (built), so it could be passive.
"Who was doing the building?", and the answer is not mentioned in the
sentence, but we can guess it was the builders. The subject of the
sentence isn't the builders, so the sentence is in the
It is a house designed by Mary and built by Tom.
Supplying missing words, we have:
It is a house (that was) designed by Mary and (that was) built by Tom.
The sentence has a form of the verb to be, and a past participle.
Ask: Who did the designing? It was Mary. She designed it. However, Mary
is not the subject of that
(the house) was designed.
Who did the building? It was Tom. Also, Tom is not the subject of the
clause that was built.
The sentence is therefore in the passive voice.
The book will be completed
The sentence has a to be form (be) and
a past participle (completed), so it could be passive.
Ask "Who will be doing the completing?", and the answer is not
the sentence, but we can guess an author is completing it. The subject
of the sentence isn't the author, so the sentence is in the
Tom has been there
The sentence has a to be form (been)
"Who was doing the being (there)?", and the answer is Tom, the subject
of the sentence. The sentence is in the active voice, and is in the present perfect tense.
The story is an allegory of justice delivered by Angelo
and embodied in the Duke.
We see the sentence may be passive when we add some
The story is an allegory of justice (which is) delivered by Angelo and
(which is) embodied in the Duke.
So, Angelo delivered it, and the Duke embodied it are the active forms.
The table below illustrates the passive voice in the past and present
tenses and in the future.