Section 4: Verbs

A VERB is a form-class word that typically designates actions, sensations, and states. 

The more verb characteristics a word has, the more prototypical it is. A verb like criticize has all eight characteristics:

  1. Has a verb-making morpheme: criticize
  2. Can occur with a present-tense morpheme: criticizes
  3. Can occur with a past-tense morpheme: criticized
  4. Can occur with a present-participle morpheme: criticizing
  5. Can occur with a past-participle morpheme: had criticized
  6. Can be made into a command: Criticize this work!
  7. Can be made negative: They did not criticize this work.
  8. Fits the frame sentence: They must criticize (it).

These characteristics serve as the primary tests for identifying verbs. Therefore, criticize is a good candidate for a prototypical verb. Many other verbs have more than five of these characteristics, making them also prototypical.

As you will see throughout the textbook, verbs can be “defined” in different ways. 

The MVP Formula defines the main verbs (of clauses) by their "forms":

Base Form: the uninflected form and the version of the verb that is listed in a dictionary.

Simple Form: the simple present or simple past tense form. This can also include the "future," but we'll discuss that in more detail in Section 5.

Perfect Form: the form that includes HAVE + [-EN]

Progressive Form: the form that includes BE + [-ING]

We will discuss each of these forms, and their various required combinations, in the Main Verb Phrase Formula page.

We will also discuss in Section 5 that verbs can appear in sentences not as main verbs, but as non-finite verbs. This means that participle verbs (with an -en inflection or an -ing inflection) can appear alone and serve as a modifier (adjectival or adverbial) or serve to fill a nominal slot. When analyzing at the WORD level, we identify these as verbs, but they are not main verbs, an important distinction that we will discuss in more detail in Section 5.

As you will learn in Section 6, when we discuss Clause Types, main verb phrases can also be categorized as associated types:

Intransitive: A main verb phrase that requires no complement, although may have an optional adverbial as its complement.

Linking: A main verb phrase (most often a BE main verb) that is followed by an adverbial, adjectival, or nominal subject complement. 

Transitive: A main verb phrase that requires a nominal direct object as its complement. 

We will discuss Main Verb Phrase Forms and Main Verb Phrase Types in much greater detail in Section 5 and Section 6, but be warned that you will need to understand and maintain the distinction between verb FORMS and verb TYPES. Verb Forms define main verb phrases relative to the Main Verb Phrase Formula. Verb Types categorize main verb phrases in the context of a particular type of clause.

Finally, as we will describe in Section 5, a verb particle is a word or words that combine with a verb to create a phrasal verb.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for verbs.

While he was wearying every one with his tears and complaints, and turning his house into a sink of debauchery, a faithful servant of the family, Grigory, took the three-year-old Mitya into his care.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the VERB SAMPLES ANALYSES page.