English Verbs: a brief tutorial

English Verbs: a brief tutorial

Why do language interventionists need to know about the structure of the English verb system?  Because English verb structure is particularly complex, its analysis can be revealing. Documentation of later-developing forms such as inflected verbs (e.g., Dog running), auxiliary forms (e.g., I can do it.), verbal modifiers (e.g., Max is in his dog house.), and the formation of complex sentences (e.g., Before he can eat Max has to come out.) can help us pinpoint a child's stage of linguistic development, diagnose language problems, and develop targeted treatment plans. This process requires that we accurately identify and count these elements in language samples.

What is a verb?

Verbs signify the action (The dog ran.) or state of being or occurrence (Max is a dog.).

What are the types of verbs in English?

  1. Main verbs: The main description of the action or state of being. (The dog ran. Max is a dog.)
  2. Auxiliary (Helping) verbs: Verbs that are conjoined with the main verb to provide more information about person, tense, mood, etc. (Max is running. I will run. You could run, too.)

What is meant by the valency of the verb?

Valency or valence refers to the capacity of the verb to bond to other elements in the sentence.

  1. Transitive verbs require an object (the action must bond with an object). (Max wants a bone.)
  2. Intransitive verbs stand by themselves and do not need to bond with an object. (Max runs.)
  3. Ditransitive verbs take two objects (one direct and one indirect). (I gave Max a bone.)

For more about this feature see:

What are the main forms of English verbs?

The verb packs information that goes beyond just the action or state of being. The verb form also provides information about:

  1. Number: Is the subject singular or plural? (The deer are eating.) See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_number
  2. Person: Is the subject first, second or third person? (I am running, and he is running.) See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_person
  3. Tense: The form of the verb tells when the action takes place. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verb_tense
  4. Voice: There are two ‘voices’ in English, active and passive. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_voice
  5. Mood: There are three ‘moods’ of English verbs that reflect the speaker’s state of mind or level of intention. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_mood

What are the types of auxiliary verbs in English?

  1. Be, have, do: These are the most common auxiliary verbs in English. (Max has been running way too much.) See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_verbs
  2. Modals: A special class of auxiliary verbs that are used with a main verb to clarify the action’s certainty, intention, command, and emphasis (modal mean 'mood'). (We should run.) See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_verb

What are the forms of the verb be?

Be can take these word forms: be, being, been, am, is, are, was, were. The verb be is highly irregular: its form depends on both the subject and the tense. (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_verbs )

Be is used as both a main verb and an auxiliary verb. It is the most frequently used auxiliary verb in English. When it is a main verb it is called the copula and is used to link the subject to the subject 'complement' in the verb phrase (Max is a dog.). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copula

What are verbals?

Verbals are derived from verbs but they do not function as the main verb in the sentence. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-finite_verb
Here are three types of verbals:

  1. Infinitives (Max wants to run.)
  2. Gerunds (Running is what Max likes best.)
  3. Participles (The present participle, <-ing>, forms progressive tenses and the past participle, <-ed>, forms perfect tenses


Jacobs, R.A. (1995) English Syntax: A grammar of English language professionals.

Justice, L.M. and Ezell, H. K. (2002) The Syntax Handbook: Everything you learned about syntax but forgot. Eau Claire: Thinking Publications.

Master, (1995) Systems in English Grammar. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.


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