Tales from the Man who would be King

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English – Part 6: Verbs

© 2016 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 5, we looked at adjectives. This time, we'll look at verbs. According to Wikipedia, a verb (abbrev. v. or vb.) is "a word that … conveys an action (bring, read, walk, run, learn), an occurrence (happen, become), or a state of being (be, exist, stand)."

The Infinitive Verb Form

All verbs have numerous forms (called conjugations, which we'll cover later) that indicate a number, person, and tense; for example, swim, swims, and swam. However, a verb typically appears in a dictionary only in its infinitive form (that is, present-tense, first-person, singular), which in this case, is swim.

In grammatical contexts, verbs are often prefixed with "to", as in to bring, to happen, and to be; however, the prefix—which itself is a particle—is not part of the dictionary entry. That said, we can use the prefix in regular speech: "I want to eat lunch.", "She declined to go with him.", and "They didn't know what to do."

In some languages (but not English), verbs in the infinitive end in a regular pattern. For example, most German verbs end in -en, with a few ending in -eln or -ern. Spanish verbs end in -ar, -er, or -ir. In French, they typically end in -re, -er, oir, or -ir.

A controversial topic is the split infinitive. Splitting an infinitive involves putting an adverb or adverbial phrase between the infinitive form of a verb and its prefix "to", as in "The cost is expected to rapidly increase over time." As we can see, the word rapidly splits the infinitive to increase. Likewise for, "I want to once again say …". Some purists consider such splits to be intolerable interruptions.

According to Wikipedia, 'In the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule against it [splitting infinitives]. The construction is still the subject of disagreement: "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c [19th century]: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned." Most modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to the split infinitive.'

From Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe is I (an eminently readable book on English grammar, and one I highly recommend), 'Sometimes, rewriting a sentence to avoid a "split" makes it ridiculous. Try rearranging the words in this example: "He threatened to more than double her rent."'

Note that Microsoft Word has an option to detect split infinitives consisting of two or more words, but not just one.


As an intransitive verb stands alone, it needs no direct object, although it can be followed by an adverb. For example: "I run", "He walked slowly", and "They smiled".

As a transitive verb needs something on which to operate, it requires a noun (such as a direct object) or noun phrase (which might also include an indirect object). For example: "I drink milk", "We built a snowman", and "They gave the money to the salesman".

Some verbs can be used in both transitive and intransitive forms, as in "I smell" and "I smell the sea". In the case of "I smell", one could argue that is ambiguous, as it could mean "I can and do smell with my nose" or "I stink". Similarly, "I count" could mean, "I can and do count numbers" or "I matter". Hopefully, the meaning is clear based on the context of the conversation.

Some intransitive verbs can also be written in transitive form, as in "He died a horrible death". The noun phrase simply adds emphasis or embellishment, and doesn't change the fact that the implied object of dying in the transitive form always is death.

Verb Conjugation

Depending on the language, a verb can take on different forms depending on the person, number, or tense. The great news is that, for the most part, this is so simple in English, that we can live life to the fullest with little or no consideration of it. For example, in the present tense:

  • First-person, singular and plural: I/we run, jump, sleep
  • Second-person, singular and plural: you run, jump, sleep
  • Third-person, singular: he/she/it runs, jumps, sleeps
  • Third-person, plural: they run, jump, sleep

Ordinarily, we use the infinite form in all cases except for third-person, singular, where we add -s.

Using past tense, I/we/you/he/she/it/they ran, jumped, slept. While the verb is changed slightly, all cases are the same. And using future tense, I/we/you/he/she/it/they will run, jump, sleep. The auxiliary verb will is used, but the verb it "helps" is in the infinite form in all cases.

Well if it's so simple, then why mention it? That's a fair question, but in order to appreciate the simplicity, let's look at how this works in some other languages, lest you have a romantic idea of learning one any time soon. (My apologies if this brings back painful memories of long-forgotten foreign-language classes.)

Here is an example in Spanish:

Present Tense of the Verb comer (to eat)




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person/Formal



Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, this verb has six forms for this tense, and guess what? Spanish has 14 tenses, most of which require other forms yet again. Holy Toledo! By the way, Spanish has two forms of you: the formal and informal, where the formal is used as a sign of respect. While the informal is the same as second-person in English, in Spanish, just to make things a bit more interesting, the formal you uses the same conjugation patterns as for third-person.

Are you ready for more? Vell zen, let's svitch to Cherman (as God intended):

Present Tense of the Verb essen (to eat)




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person/Formal



Again, we see six forms for this tense, but several are duplicated, although the pattern is not universal. And yes, some other tenses also have their own forms while others using the infinite and one or more auxiliary verbs. And like Spanish, the formal you uses the same pattern as third-person.

I present these as tables, as that's how you'll often see then in grammar books, although several language teachers I've encountered kept on saying, "Don't try to remember them as tables!" Of course, being a student of mathematics and computer science, I do remember them exactly in that format!

There are a number of series of books with titles like "101 [or 501] xxx Verbs", where xxx is the name of some language. They are full of nothing but tables of conjugations, which after a very short while, can make your head spin.

I spent quite a lot of time on my own learning bits and pieces of Spanish and German, but the complexity of conjugation (along with gender and its impact on nouns and articles) kept me from getting beyond basic proficiency. Therefore, when I started dabbling in Japanese, I was very happy to learn that not only do its verbs exist in infinite form only, that language has no gender or articles! (Of course, they managed to find other ways to complicate things, such as writing and reading!)

Earlier, I mentioned patterns of verb endings. Most verbs have such a pattern, in which case, they are referred to as regular verbs. By deduction, irregular verbs do not follow such a pattern.

In English, the classic example of an irregular verb is the fundamental to be:

Present Tense of the Verb to be




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person



This verb is also irregular in Spanish and German.

Auxiliary Verbs

Often called a helping verb, an auxiliary verb adds extra meaning to another verb. Examples include can, may, would like to, must, should, want to, and have to. (Most of these are also modal verbs.) In the following examples, the main noun is underlined and the auxiliary verbs are in bold:

  • "She must buy bread."
  • "I could have gone yesterday."
  • "The criminal should have been caught."

Note that the main verb is always written in the infinitive form, usually without the "to".

In English, the auxiliary verbs usually go together, immediately preceding the main noun, although intervening words are possible. For example:

  • "They should not walk in that neighborhood at night."
  • "I can only swim on Fridays."
  • "She must never say such things."

In many cases, the main verb is used with the to prefix, as in "I have to work on Saturday."

In German, when using an auxiliary verb, the main verb must come at the end of the phrase or sentence. For example, the English "I want to go to the beach" becomes "ich will zum Strand gehen". Now it isn't hard to contrive a long sentence in German—think of a bureaucrat speaking in an obfuscated way— in which the main verb comes at the very end. For people doing simultaneous translation of such speeches from German, the joke is, "Hurry up and get to the verb!" as they can't start saying the translated equivalent until they know the main verb.

Reflexive Verbs

A reflexive verb is one whose direct object is the same as its subject. For example:

  • I got myself out of bed.
  • He hurt himself while horse riding.
  • They warmed themselves by the fire.

In each case, the direct object is a reflexive pronoun, myself, himself, and themselves.

Let's make the direct objects non-reflexive. For example:

  • I got my son out of bed.
  • He hurt a pedestrian while horse riding.
  • They warmed their boots by the fire.

The verb forms are the same in each set, which is the norm in English. But as you might expect by now, that isn't the case in other languages. Spanish has many reflexive verbs, which when written in their infinitive form all end is -se, and that is how you find them in a Spanish dictionary. Some examples are to go to bed, to get up, to fall asleep, to shave oneself, to put on, and to take off.

Phrasal Verbs

Some verbs involve multiple words, as in to drop off, to get up, to go home, to go back, to go over, to put off, to put out, and to put down.

They often have the form verb + adverb.

Such verbs can be transitive or intransitive. The main issue is whether one can split the parts of a transitive phrasal verb. For example:

  • I asked him to put out the trash.


  • I asked him to put the trash out.

Yes, we usually can, unless the direct object is a pronoun, in which case, we really must split it. For example, we can say:

  • I asked him to put it out.

But not

  • I asked him to put out it.

Further Reading

If you still can't sleep, click on the links to learn about participles, both present and past, and gerunds, those verb forms that end in -ing. Also English verbs.


English has a huge number of specialized verbs, most of which the average person doesn't even know about, and many others we rarely use except perhaps in word puzzles. Try and use some of the following during casual conversation at your next cocktail party: behoove, discombobulate, elide, eschew, expectorate, flummox, fulminate, lollygag, pontificate, and prevaricate.