The verb truly is the heart of any sentence. Its central function is to tell us what is happening, whether it be an
action, a state of being or a feeling; but more than that it indicates the time and manner of what took place and
who or what caused it to happen. When you understand the grammatical role of the verb in a sentence, the
other grammatical elements of the sentence can be identified, and more is revealed about who or what the
sentence is about (the subject), and whether anything resulted from the action (the object). You will discover
that our discussion of verbs will involve other grammatical concepts, such as nouns, adjectives, or conjunctions,
all of which we will discuss in later units.
When we think of a verb as a grammatical form, we often use its most basic form, called the infinitive. This form
does not show who performed the action or when it took place, but it is used in a variety of ways, as we will
see in our discussion of verbs and again when we examine nouns. For now, think of it as the "family name" of
the verb or the jumping-off point for our look at verbs.
Verb functions are usually divided into the categories of
and we shall deal with each of these in detail in later pages. But first we must look at the notion of conjugation,
which gives verbs their characteristics within the sentence.
When a verb is conjugated it is changed to reflect the nature of the subject of the sentence. Compare the
The verb form in English is the same in each of these examples, regardless of who is performing the action. In
many foreign languages the verb must change to reflect the nature of the subject, for example to show respect
or express familiarity in grammatical person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular and plural).
As the following table shows, most English verbs change only in the 3rd person singular of the present tense.
Conjugation of the Regular Verb
1st person I swim we swim
2nd person you swim you swim
3rd person s/he swims they swim
The next table shows the irregular present tense conjugation of the verb to be. Here the verb form changes to
reflect person and number, indicating that the nature of the subject is changing with each verb change.
Conjugation of the Irregular Verb
1st person I am we are
2nd person you are you are
3rd person s/he is they are
Most verbs in English show change only in the third person singular in the present tense. Some, such as modal
verbs, show no change at all as person and number vary. We will return later to modal verbs, but this table
gives you an idea of how modal verbs behave:
Conjugation of Modal Verbs
can - to be able
1st person I can we can
2nd person you can you can
3rd person s/he can they can
In English we sometimes use a verb + preposition combination to express an action. The verb indicates the
action, while the preposition tells us the relationship of the verb to other words in the sentence. For example,
compare the following pairs:
to look for (a book) to look at (the scenery)
to climb up (a mountain) to wait for (the bus)
Frequently in other languages this kind of combination (called a phrasal verb in English) is expressed by a
single-word verb. Indeed, there is often a one-word equivalent in English corresponding to the one-word verb
in other languages, e.g.
to seek - to look for to regard - to look at
to ascend - to climb up to await - to wait for
I suggest that ESL writers remove phrasal verbs from their writing. Why? These are readily recognized.
Second, fewer words are needed. I stress economy in word usage. Think of words as money. Would you
pay 10 yen/dollar/yaun when 5 is required? Of course not!