Verbs depict action, connect two sides of a sentence, and show state of being. While they may not be the focus of every sentence, verbs may be the most important part of speech.

Action, Linking, and State of Being Verbs
Action Verbs:
walk, run, and sleep
Linking Verbs (state of being): be, seem, and become

Some verbs can act as both action and linking verbs. Take the verb feel, for example. In the sentence “the cushion feels soft,” the verb feels describes the texture of the pillow, showing its state of being. However, in “the girl feels the cushion” the verb feels shows the action the girl takes in touching the pillow.

The trick to telling the difference is to replace the verb with an an equal sign. If it’s a linking verb, the meaning of the sentence will stay the same:

The flowers are beautiful: the flowers = beautiful
The trees seem tall: the trees = tall


If it’s an action verb, the sentence won’t make sense:

The boy walked the dog: the boy = a dog
You baked a cake: you = a cake

Those examples don’t make sense: The boy isn’t a dog, and you aren’t a cake.

Why does it matter?
Clarity of communication. Verbs are flexible little buggers; they have a tendency to belong to more than one category, so it’s helpful to recognize what they’re doing. Also, the way we use adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns can vary depending on the type of verb in a sentence.

Transitive versus Intransitive
Action verbs can be further divided into transitive verbs and intransitive verbs, which is an easier distinction than it seems.

Transitive verbs take a direct object; intransitive verbs don’t.

If you wrote the sentence “Bob placed” your reader would be left wondering “Bob placed what?” The verb placed needs a direct object (book) to complete the sentence, so placed is a transitive verb.

In the sentence “Bob sneezed,” the verb sneezed doesn’t need anything else to complete the sentence, so sneezed is an intransitive verb.

Some verbs can be transitive OR intransitive.

Since both “I ate a sandwich” and “I ate” are complete sentences, ate can be either transitive or intransitive.

The word transitive comes from the Latin trans + ire, which means to go across. I think of transitive verbs as ones which have go across to a direct object to be a complete idea.

Why does it matter?
Knowing whether a verb is transitive or intransitive can help you make sure your sentences have completed ideas. It can also be helpful to remember the difference between certain confusing verbs, i.e.: lay and lie. Tip: “lay” is transitive, while “lie” is intransitive.

Helping Verbs
Helping verbs (also called auxiliary verbs) are used to form tenses, passive verbs, and subjunctives.

In “I was running,” the verb phrase was running has the helping verb was and the main verb running.

In “Bob did sing a song,” the verb phrase did sing uses the helping verb did and the main verb sing.

In “You have been eating,” the verb phrase have been eating uses the helping verbs have and been and the main verb eating.

Why does it matter?
Sometimes auxiliary verbs are necessary (forming questions, etc.), but they can slow pace. If you can identify them, you can learn when to use them and when to cut them.

Modal Verbs
A subcategory of Helping Verbs, Modal Verbs show permission, obligation, ability, and possibility.

This can be an odd thing to wrap your head around, especially for native speakers, so bear with me.

Let’s start with a basic sentence: I am writing. This helping verb am and the main verb writing show that I am, in fact, currently writing. Easy, right?

Now look at the sentence “I can write.” This doesn’t tell the reader what I’m doing, instead it tells what I’m capable of doing, so can is a modal verb which shows ability.

In the sentence “I could write,” the modal verb could tells the reader about possibility: while sometime in the future, there’s a chance that I might write, it’s not what I’m doing now.

If we change could to should, we’ll have a sentence that shows obligation: “I should write.” This doesn’t tell the reader what I am doing, what I can do, or what I could do, but what I OUGHT TO do.

When we change the helping verb to may we’ll have a sentence about permission. Though, may sometimes walks a fine line between possibility and permission. “I may write” could mean either “I might write” or “I am allowed to write.”

Why does it matter?
Clarity of communication (hint, that’s why most of this matters). As writers, it’s imperative for us to make sure we’re getting our meaning across to our readers. We want them to understand our narratives without being confused. The first line of defense is verbs.

Any questions?

See more of my grammar guide.

NB: There’s plenty more to discuss about verbs (tenses, moods, etc. so stay tuned for Verbs 2.0)


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