Making Verbs Work in Your Writing
Verbs are an important part of our lives! Without them, no one would be able to communicate action. You could not ask your mother to cook your favorite meal. You could not call your friends to hangout on Saturday. You could not even say you exist!
Understanding and using these words effectively is an essential part of communicating in any language. Using proper grammar when you write and speak will benefit you not only in your classwork, but also when applying to colleges and jobs. You can use the definitions and examples below as a refresher and to help enhance your writing.
What is a Verb?
First of all, it is important to establish the definition of this part of speech. Often these words are understood to be action words, or words that describe motion. Yet a verb definition will usually also include words that show how a subject is positioned, such as its state of being. For example, an action word (or action verb) might be jump or yell. A non-action example describing a state of being might be exist or imagine.
Other types also, such as reflexive verbs, helping verbs, transitive verbs, and linking verbs. You may even encounter masquerading nouns that are verbs in the right context, such as a run versus to run.
Understanding how to properly conjugate verbs and align them with the number, tense, and person of the subject are critical elements of mastering English writing and speaking. If you have been wondering, “What is a verb?” consider some further reading on the subject in addition to the deeper dive we'll take below.
Before exploring the rules for tense and agreement, it's important to understand the different types of these words you may encounter.
Linking verbs function to link subjects to the rest of the sentence. Examples of linking verbs include seem, grow, turn, become, look, and so on.
The girl seems happy.
Transitive and Intransitive
Transitive verbs are action verbs that have a direct object, while intransitive verbs are action verbs that do not have a direct object.
Remember that direct objects receive the verb’s action, meaning the action is performed on the direct object. One easy way to identify a direct object is to locate the sentence’s verb, and then ask, “What?”
Joey ate ice cream.
The verb in this sentence is ate.
If we ask the question, “Ate what?” it’s clear that the answer is, “ice cream,” making ice cream the direct object. Since ate has a direct object, it’s a transitive verb in this sentence.
When action verbs are not performed on a direct object, they’re intransitive, as in this example:
Jenna sang very well.
The verb in this sentence is sang.
However, we can’t answer the question “Sang what?” because it’s not specified. Since the action of singing is not performed on an object, sang is an intransitive verb in this sentence.
Some verbs are always transitive because they require an object in order to make sense.
Other verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending on the sentence.
This kind is usually joined with a preposition to make a phrase. These phrases may include get up, break up, or settle down.
Can you tell the kids to settle down?
My boyfriend and I broke up before Valentine’s Day.
A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb (helping verb) that expresses necessity, possibility, permission, or ability.
The most common modal verbs include must, shall, will, should, would, can, could, may, and might.
Modal verbs are generally followed by the root form (also called base form) of the main verb. This is the verb as it would appear in the dictionary.
Unlike other auxiliary verbs, modal verbs don’t have different forms for tense, person, or number.
As you can see in this example, the modal verb would is followed by the base verb write.
Typically, the word to should not follow a modal verb. The phrase ought to, which is considered a modal verb, is the exception to this rule.
Regular Regular forms are easily identified by their similar endings in each tense: in present tense, the ending depends on the subject; in the past, -ed is added to the end of the base form. You can click here for more insight into base forms.
Example of a regular form in present and past tenses:
I jump high for someone of my height, although I jumped a bit low when I was off my game last week.
When something is irregular, it is understood to be outside the norm. When it comes to the endings of these types of words, being irregular can change the entire spelling. The irregular to be provides a good example for understanding irregular endings in both the present tense and the past tense.
In the present tense, this is what to be looks like:
- I am
- You are
- He/she/it is
- They are
- We are
Here is the past tense of to be:
- I was
- You were
- He/she/it was
- They were
- We were
Example of an irregular form in present and past tenses:
She is hopeful about the game this week, but last week, the team was too weak to beat its rival.
If you're finding it confusing to identify the correct verbal endings with one of these irregular types, you can find out more by doing research, completing practice tests, or utilizing online resources, such as the section further down this page on conjugation, to help you study.
Participles have multiple functions: they can function as adjectives, nouns, or as one element of a multipart verb. There are two main types of participles: past and present:
Present participles are formed by taking the base form of the word and adding -ing to the end. For example:
sweep + -ing = sweeping, as in sweeping views
Past participles are formed similarly. Instead of adding -ing, however, the past tense form is used. For example:
finish + -ed = finished, as in finished floors
The basic definition of subject-verb agreement is that singular subjects require singular verbs, and plural subjects require plural verbs. For example, "The boy runs to the store," and "The boys run to the store."
But subject-verb agreement is a tricky grammatical concept to master due to the number of exceptions, idioms, and special rules you must memorize. Below is an outline of some special rules that trip up student writers.
Typically this type of agreement is restricted to the present tense, where the endings of subjects and their counterparts appear to be opposite. In the past tense, this differentiation is not noticeable, except for some irregularities, because the endings of such words in the past tense are usually the same no matter the number of subjects.
However, in the present tense, the number of subjects determines the verbal ending. The rule for subject and verb agreement is more complicated than this, but it is useful to think of it in these terms:
- A singular subject will usually use a verb that ends in s.
- A plural subject will typically partner with a word that does not end in s.
This means that if you have one sandwich, the sandwich tastes good. But if you have a couple of sandwiches, the sandwiches taste good.
The same goes for most pronouns. With words such as he or it, you can treat the subject as singular. With we or they, you can treat the subject as plural. If you set up a chart to look at these parts of speech side by side, you can get a better picture of what this agreement must look like for pronouns:
- I swim
- You swim
- He/she/it swims
- They swim
- We swim
In a sentence, it might look like this:
I swim, and she swims too, but I think we swim better together.
You'll notice that I, though singular, is treated differently than the other singular pronouns he, she, and it. This is because pronouns have several different forms which align differently with the number, tense, and person of verbs.
I is a first-person singular pronoun, while he, she, and it are third-person personal pronouns. You, a second-person pronoun, can be singular or plural.
In addition to matching number and tense (tense is discussed further down the page) the person also needs to be in agreement. In the examples above, he, she, and it take the form swims because swims is the plural third-person form. I and you (when you is singular) cannot take the third person form, however, and therefore use the base form swim.
Subjects That Take Singular Verbs
1. Two singular nouns and pronouns connected by or, either/or, or neither/nor must use a singular verb.
- The dog or the cat tracks mud into the house.
- Either the waiter or waitress takes your order.
- Neither the student nor the teacher wants to give the speech.
2. The words nobody, anyone, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, each, and no one are singular pronouns and require a singular verb.
- Nobody expects another Spanish Inquisition.
- Everyone wants to go to the party.
- Each student hopes to get an A on the test.
3. Units of measure, such as distances, periods of time, and amounts of money, need a singular verb.
- Forty minutes is a long time to sit in traffic.
- One million dollars is a lot of money.
- Twenty-six miles is a long distance to race.
4. Some nouns, such as group, team, class, and family, seem to refer to many people, but are grammatically considered singular. These are called “collective nouns” and take a singular verb.
- My group refuses to work on the class project, so I did it by myself.
- The football team wins every home game.
- My family wants to visit me when I go to college.
Note: There are some collective nouns which don't follow this rule, such as police, which take the plural are rather than the singular is:
- Incorrect: The police is at the crime scene.
- Correct: The police are at the crime scene.
Additional exceptions exist for collective nouns when you are referring to the individuals within the group.
Treat these words as singular when you are speaking of the whole:
Congress is in session.
Treat them as plural when you are speaking of individuals:
Members of Congress are taking questions.
Subjects That Take Plural Verbs
1. Sometimes two singular subjects, joined by the word and, comprise the subject of a sentence. In this case, the verb must be plural.
- The boy and the girl are hungry.
- Math and science are my favorite subjects.
- Brittany and Susan dance at the studio.
2. There are some exceptions when a noun referring to a single object ends in -s, but takes a plural verb instead. These will just need to be memorized as you learn them.
- My savings were used to pay off student loans.
- My sunglasses are dirty from the beach.
- My pants are too tight; I need a bigger size.
Exceptions to the Rule
1. Here and there are never the subjects of a sentence. Instead, the subject follows the verb (which will usually be is, are, was, or were).
- Here are the cookies! I’ve been looking for them all day.
- There are billions of people in the world, and I still can’t find a boyfriend.
- There were lions and tigers at the zoo.
2. Words and phrases such as with, including, in addition to, and as well as do not serve the same purpose as and.
Put another way, these words and phrases are not part of the subject and should be ignored when determining subject-verb agreement. If the subject is singular, the verb is singular. If the subject is plural, the verb is plural.
- The ducks, as well as the geese, enjoy swimming in the lake.
- The students, including Melanie, want to go on a field trip.
- The man, in addition to his wife, saves money for a new house.
3. If a sentence includes a word or phrase in parentheses, the words in parentheses are not included in the subject of the sentence.
Ignore them, and determine whether to use a singular or plural verb based on the subject that comes before. Better still, rewrite the sentence to remove the parentheses.
- Josh (and his little sister Ava) enjoys reading Harry Potter.
- The students (and their teachers) were so happy it was summer vacation.
- The boxer (and his coach) prepares for the match.
4. When you see a phrase with the word of, the subject usually comes before of. Common phrases are each of and some of.
- Each of the children want a cookie.
- The committee of students needs a bigger budget.
- A box of chocolates is the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day.
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Let us turn now to conjugation, which is a bit of what we have been doing throughout these lessons.
As you surely noticed in the previous section, conjugation is important. The verbal ending depends on the subject and tense of the sentence. Just as you must conjugate when learning a foreign language, so must you conjugate every time you speak a complete sentence in English. If you are a native English speaker, you may have never noticed that you conjugate—but conjugate you do.
It may be helpful to think of conjugating English verbs in terms similar to the ones you may have heard in a Spanish or French class. As we have discussed, the ending depends on the subject of the sentence. Sometimes foreign language teachers set up a chart like the ones we looked at in the previous section to compare these parts of speech side-by-side. Below, we have such a conjugation chart set up for to swim:
- I swim
- You swim
- He/she/it swims
- They swim
- We swim
If you are having trouble conjugating in English, it is helpful to set up a chart like the one above. This can be done for any tense:
|Simple Present Tense||Simple Past Tense||Simple Future Tense|
|I swim||I swam||I will swim|
|You swim||You swam||You will swim|
|He/she/it swims||He/she/it swam||He/she/it will swim|
|They swim||They swam||They will swim|
|We swim||We swam||We will swim|
Setting up these charts is helpful for maintaining agreement in your writing. If you struggle with word endings, setting up a visual display like the one above can help you choose which to partner with each subject. If you are using a noun other than a personal pronoun, imagine your subject as an it (for a singular subject, like cat or microphone) or a they (for a plural subject like feathers or people) to help you conjugate it correctly.
Speaking of tenses, it’s important to stay in the same tense throughout your writing. Now, this does not mean that you can’t write in present tense and then switch to past tense in order to tell a relevant story. However, when you switch back and forth from past tense to present tense with no specific reason (especially within the same sentence), it can impact the coherence of your writing. Since tense places the reader or listener in a specific place in time, disrupting that flow with a faulty tense can prevent the audience from understanding your meaning.
Tense Consistency Error:
The cat sits down on the porch and licked his paw.
The cat sits down on the porch and licks his paw.
In this example, the sentence began in present tense with the word sits. In order to be consistent and continue the present tense, the word licks should be used; licked is past tense, which creates confusion.
If the writer had intended to be in the past tense, then they should have used the word sat. The same sentence in the past tense would be:
The cat sat down on the porch and licked his paw.
The first tense used in your writing usually sets the tone for the rest of that section or work. For example, if you begin in past tense, maintain past tense throughout your writing. In that case, it may help to proof your work for -ed endings (or any irregular endings) within each sentence. If you want to tell a story or give an example about something that occurs in another tense (i.e., describing a past memory, talking about future plans, etc.), first clearly explain this shift; then you can safely switch to a different tense. After you are done with your example, move back into whatever tense is being used in the main body of the text.
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This content includes style and grammar guidelines as specified by The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.