What Is A Verb? Definition And Examples

Look at the following sentences: I speak English. My sister has been teaching dancing lessons for decades. It will rain tomorrow. My window was hit by a baseball. All of these sentences give us different information about things that happened, are happening now, or will happen later. At the same time, all of these sentences contain an important type of word that is essential to using proper grammar. This particular type of word may be familiar to you: verbs. But how much do you really know about this important part of grammar? There is more to these action-packed words than you might expect!


What is a verb?

A verb is “any member of a class of words that function as the main element of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.”

To put it more simply, verbs describe the subject of a sentence or clause by telling us what action a subject performs, what state the subject is in, or what relation it has to another object. Typically, the subject of the sentence or clause tells us who or what is doing something and verbs tell us what they are doing.

Verbs can also use many different verb tenses to, generally speaking, tell use when an event happens. These different tenses consist of past, present, and future tenses to describe events that happened before now, are happening right now, or will happen later.

What is a verb phrase?

A verb phrase is a group of words including a verb and its complements, objects, or other modifiers that functions syntactically as a verb. Putting it another way, the verb phrase includes the verb as well as other parts of the sentences that work together with the verb to explain what action happened or what state something was in. A verb phrase always includes a verb and can also include the direct object(s) and indirect object(s). (We’ll define these soon.) Importantly, the verb phrase does not include the subject. In English, a subject and a verb phrase combine to create a complete sentence.

Subject of a verb

Besides a verb, a subject is the other essential kind of word that we need in order to make a complete sentence or build a clause. A subject functions as one of the two main parts of a simple sentence, the other being the predicate. A subject consists of a noun, noun phrase, or noun substitute which often refers to the one performing the action or being in the state expressed by the predicate.

You can see different subjects performing their jobs in the following sentences:

  • Mike ran to the bus stop.
  • Macaroni and cheese is my son’s favorite food.
  • Swimming is good exercise.

Learn more about using I and me as the subject and object of a sentence.

Direct object of a verb

A direct object is a word or group of words representing the person or thing upon which the action of a verb is performed or toward which it is directed. In English, we usually put the direct object after the verb without using a preposition. The following sentences all have examples of direct objects:

  • I ate breakfast.
  • Juliet kissed Romeo.
  • We built a snowman.

Indirect object of a verb

An indirect object is a word or group of words representing the person or thing with reference to which the action of a verb is performed. In English, the indirect object usually comes between the verb and direct object unless it is used as the object of a prepositional phrase.

Here are examples of indirect objects being used without prepositions:

  • My mom gave me a present.
  • Alex saved her brother a slice of cake.
  • The messenger gave the king bad news.

Here are examples of indirect objects being used in prepositional phrases:

  • My mom gave a present to me.
  • Alex saved a slice of cake for her brother.
  • The messenger gave bad news to the king.

How are verbs used?

In general, we use verbs to say what actions a person or thing is doing or to give information about their state of existence. Typically, we use verbs to specifically describe physical actions, mental actions, or states of being.

Physical action verbs

Physical action verbs, in general, are verbs that describe actions that involve movement or motions that we can see with our eyes. Putting it another way, physical action verbs usually describe actions we perform using our bodies or objects.

Examples of physical action verbs

The following list contains examples of physical action verbs. As you read them, consider what each action the verb is referring to actually looks like when performed in reality.

  • attack, bounce, catch, dance, eat, fling, grab, hunt, instruct, jump, kick, laugh, mumble,  open, play, quake, run, sing, trample, undress, walk, yell, zip

Mental action verbs

Mental action verbs, in general, refer to actions that we use only our brains to do. Typically, you can’t actually see or detect when someone or something performs an action described by a mental action verb.

Examples of mental action verbs

The following words are examples of verbs that can be used as mental action verbs. As you read each one, consider why they are considered to be mental action verbs.

  • believe, consider, dream, envision, fear, hate, imagine, love, notice, memorize, ponder, sense, think, remember, wonder

State of being verbs

State of being verbs, generally speaking, are verbs that describe a person or thing’s existence rather than describe an action it is performing. These verbs often refer to abstract concepts and are often used to express complex ideas. The verb be is an incredibly commonly used verb that is an example of a state of being verb. This verb, when used alone, describes something’s state rather than an action they are doing. For example, the sentence I am a firefighter gives information about a person (I work as a firefighter) rather than describe an action a person is doing either physically or mentally.

Examples of state of being verbs

The verb be is the state of being the verb you are most likely to encounter. However, several other verbs can also be used as state of being verbs. The following verbs can be used as state of being verbs. You will probably notice that many of these verbs have other meanings that allow them to be used as other kinds of verbs, too.

  • appear, become, change, continue, end, exist, feel, grow, have, look, mean, own, possess, remain, seem, smell, sound, taste, turn, stand, weigh

Verb tenses

When we put verbs in our sentences, we use 12 different verb tenses to provide more information. In general, the tense of a verb tells you when in time an action or state happens. The 12 verb tenses can be grouped into past, present, and future tenses. As their names suggest, past tense verbs usually describe a past event, present tense verbs describe an event happening in the present, and future tense verbs describe an event that will happen in the future. The following sentences contain examples of verbs used in the simple past, present, and future tenses. You’ll notice that by only changing the tense of the verb, the meaning of the sentence changes:

  • I cook spaghetti.
  • I cooked spaghetti.
  • I will cook spaghetti.

Subject-verb agreement

When using verbs, there is an important rule of grammar that you must follow: a verb must always agree with its subject. This means that a verb must be correctly conjugated so that it matches the subject it is describing. A singular subject must use a singular verb and a plural subject must use a plural verb. For example, you would say that My cat is very fat but you wouldn’t say that My cat are very fat.

This rule sounds simple enough, but our sentences can often get very complex. Certain nouns, such as collective nouns, can cause confusion.

Build up your skills on subject-verb agreement with this article that goes into more depth.

The following complex sentence shows how difficult it can be to adhere to subject-verb agreement. Take a look at this (ridiculous) sentence, and see if you can identify which word is the subject of the verb gives:

Whenever I visit my extended family members who live in an abandoned schoolhouse in the Florida Everglades, an odd, adventurous person named Alfredo, who once worked as an assistant to a world famous stage magician, gives me good advice about the world and everything that happens in it.

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Answer: person

When do we use the verb forms "pled" vs. "pleaded"? Let's find out.

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