The verb is king in English. The shortest sentence contains a verb. You can make a one-word sentence with a verb, for example: “Stop!” You cannot make a one-word sentence with any other type of word.
Verbs are sometimes described as “action words”. This is partly true. Many verbs give the idea of action, of “doing” something. For example, words like run, fight, do and work all convey action.
But some verbs do not give the idea of action; they give the idea of existence, of state, of “being”. For example, verbs like be, exist, seem and belong all convey state.
A verb always has a subject. (In the sentence “John speaks English”, John is the subject and speaks is the verb.) In simple terms, therefore, we can say that verbs are words that tell us what a subject does or is; they describe:
- action (Ram plays football.)
- state (Anthony seems kind.)
There is something very special about verbs in English. Most other words (adjectives, adverbs, prepositions etc) do not change in form (although nouns can have singular and plural forms). But almost all verbs change in form. For example, the verb to work has five forms:
- to work, work, works, worked, working
Of course, this is still very few forms compared to some languages which may have thirty or more forms for a single verb.
We divide verbs into two broad classifications:
Imagine that a stranger walks into your room and says:
- I can.
- People must.
- The Earth will.
Do you understand anything? Has this person communicated anything to you? Probably not! That’s because these verbs are helping verbs and have no meaning on their own. They are necessary for the grammatical structure of the sentence, but they do not tell us very much alone. We usually use helping verbs with main verbs. They “help” the main verb. (The sentences in the above examples are therefore incomplete. They need at least a main verb to complete them.) There are only about 15 helping verbs.
Now imagine that the same stranger walks into your room and says:
- I teach.
- People eat.
- The Earth rotates.
Do you understand something? Has this person communicated something to you? Probably yes! Not a lot, but something. That’s because these verbs are main verbs and have meaning on their own. They tell us something. Of course, there are thousands of main verbs.
In the following table we see example sentences with helping verbs and main verbs. Notice that all of these sentences have a main verb. Only some of them have a helping verb.
|helping verb||main verb|
English verbs come in several forms. For example, the verb sing can be: sing, sang, sung, singing or sings. This is a total of 5 forms. Not many, considering that some languages (French, for example) have more than 30 forms for an individual verb. English tenses may be quite complicated, but the forms that we use to make the tenses are actually very simple! With the exception of the verb be, English main verbs have only 3, 4 or 5 forms. Be has 8 forms. Helping verbs have even fewer forms as most of them never change.
In this lesson we look at the forms of main verbs and helping verbs followed by a quiz to check your understanding.
Forms of Main Verbs
Main verbs (except the verb “be”) have 3, 4 or 5 forms. The verb “be” has 8 forms. In the table below, the # column shows the actual number of forms for the given verb.
We use these forms to make all the tenses and other verb structures, in all moods, aspects and voices.
|present participle||3rd person singular present simple||#|
|past participle||present participle||present simple|
In the above examples:
- cut has 3 forms: cut, cutting, cuts
- work has 4 forms: work, worked, working, works
- sing has 5 forms: sing, sang, sung, singing, sings
- be has 8 forms: be, was, were, been, being, am, is, are
Note that in dictionaries the headword for any given verb entry is always in the base form.
There are two possibilities for the infinitive:
- base form(the “bare infinitive”)
- to + base form(the “to-infinitive”)
For example, sing and to sing are both infinitives. As they are identical in form to the base form, and “to” is not part of the verb, we do not list the infinitive as a separate form.
Note that the “to” is NOT a preposition. It is an “infinity marker” or “particle”.
At school, students often learn by heart the base, past simple and past participle (sometimes called V1, V2, V3, meaning Verb 1, Verb 2, Verb 3) for irregular verbs. They may spend many hours chanting: sing, sang, sung; go, went, gone; have, had, had; etc. They do not learn these for regular verbs for one very simple reason – the past simple and past participle are always the same: they are formed by adding “-ed” to the base.
They do not learn the present participle and 3rd person singular present simple for regular or irregular verbs for another very simple reason – they never change. The present participle is always made by adding “-ing” to the base, and the 3rd person singular present simple is always made by adding “s” to the base (though there are some variations in spelling).
Note that “have”, “do” and “be” also function as helping or auxiliary verbs, with exactly the same forms.
These example sentences use main verbs in different forms.
Base – Infinitive
She helped him work on his homework.
We heard them sing their national anthem.
I want to have a drink.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Base – Imperative
Have a nice day.
Base – Present simple
(except 3rd person singular)
I work in London.
You sing well.
They have a lot of money.
Base – After modal auxiliary verbs
I can work tomorrow.
You must sing louder.
They might do it.
You could be right.
I worked yesterday.
She cut his hair last week.
They had a good time.
They were surprised, but I was not.
I have worked here for five years.
He needs a folder made of plastic.
It is done like this.
I have never been so happy.
I am working.
Singing well is not easy.
Having finished, he went home.
You are being silly!
3rd person singular present simple
He works in London.
She sings well.
She has a lot of money.
It is Vietnamese.
Forms of Helping Verbs
We use helping verbs (auxiliary verbs) with main verbs. The tables on this page show the forms of all helping verbs.
There are 2 groups of helping verbs:
- Primary helping verbs
We use primary helping verbs to change the tense or voice of the main verb, and to make questions and negatives. There are only three primary helping verbs: do, have, be. These verbs can also function as main verbs. When we use them as helping verbs, here are the forms that we use:
|base||3rd person singular present simple||past simple|
|present participle||past participle|
Look at these example sentences using primary helping verbs with main verbs:
Do you like him?
He does go home sometimes.
I did not see her.
They have finished their homework.
Has he arrived yet?
John had not called for three weeks.
They will be eating when we arrive.
I am feeling sick.
Are you working at the moment?
Jo is not watching TV.
Tara was cooking when I phoned.
Were you expecting me?
My car is being repaired.
I have been working all day.
- Modal helping verbs
We use modal helping verbs to change the “mood” of the main verb. As you see, modal verbs have only one form each. They never change.
We use the word “form” to mean the “shape” or “writing” of the actual verb itself. Do not confuse verb forms with tenses. We use the different verb forms to make the tenses and other verb structures, but they are not the same thing.