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Understanding Verbs: Basic Types of Verbs

 

In the English language, there are three basic types of verbs: action verbs, linking verbs, and auxiliary verbs, sometimes called helping verbs. Let’s explore each type of verb in detail:

 

Action Verbs
Action verbs express action by describing the behavior of a person, place or thing. They may describe physical or mental actions.

 

John thinks about moving to Alaska every day.

 

The truck driver honks his horn when vehicles swerve into his path.

 

Test: To identify a word as an action verb, ask yourself: “Does this word express something I can do?” For an example, let’s look at the following sentence: “Mary jumped rope every Saturday.”

 

Can you Mary? No. Can you jump? Yes. Can you rope? No. Therefore, the verb is jumped.

 

Linking Verbs
Linking verbs link the subject (noun phrase) of the sentence with the rest of the sentence. Many linking verbs are forms of “to be.” Let’s take a look at some examples:

 

James is a nice person.


The new cat could be a calico.

 

Just as action verbs describe what a subject does, linking verbs describe the subject in some other way. Most often, they define or describe the subject of the sentence. Note that in the two example sentences the linking verb connects the subject to its definition. In the first sentence, Jane is defined as a nice person; in the second sentence, the new cat is identified as a possible calico.

 

The lists below show various forms of "to be" that function as linking verbs:

  • am
  • has been
  • would have been
  • are
  • have been
  • should have been
  • be
  • being
  • could have been
  • is
  • was
  • will have been
  • will be
  • can be
  • could be
  • shall have been
  • were
  • has been
  • have been
  • shall be
  • should be

Auxiliary Verbs
Auxiliary verbs, which are sometimes called helping verbs, act as helpers to other verbs. They appear in front of action verbs and linking verbs. Let’s view some examples:

 

The Girl Scouts are meeting after school today.


We have been waiting for twenty minutes in the dentist’s office.

 

Although there are a variety of auxiliary verbs in the English language, the following words are a few that often function as helping verbs. Note that these auxiliary verbs may function as action or linking verbs in other cases.

 

  • can
  • may
  • must
  • shall
  • will
  • has
  • could
  • might
  • would
  • should
  • had
  • have


Test: To distinguish between an auxiliary verb and a linking verb, simply look to see whether an action verb immediately follows the “to be” verb. For example, in the sentence “John was wearing his lucky sneakers at the baseball game,” the action verb wearing immediately follows the “to be” verb was, so we know that the “to be” verb in this case is an auxiliary verb because it is “helping” out the action verb wearing. However, in the sentence “I was angry,” the “to be” verb was appears alone, so it cannot be classified as an auxiliary verb. In this case it is a linking verb that describes how I was feeling.

 

You can test your understanding of this handout by completing Student Success Center exercises available here.