Actually, a verb is not a really word at all. Like all word classes, the verb is really best thought of as a function or, to keep thing simple, a job – let’s call it the verb-job.
Usually, the words that do this job are ones that we expect to do it – like ‘led’ in ‘I led the meeting’. As a short hand, we can say that these words – the ones we expect to appear in this place – ‘are’ verbs, but we need to keep in mind that this is always something of a simplification. Sometimes, for example, we start using other words in this job, and so these words ‘become’ verbs: they join the club of words-that-generally-do-that-job. Something like this has happened to ‘chair’ over the last century or so: ‘I chaired the meeting’. We – English speakers- came to accept (most of us…) that ‘chair’ is now a word that can do the verb-job.
And each and every one of us who speaks the language has the freedom to use any word – existing or made-up – to do that job – at any time that we want. These imaginative and creative choices can be great in poetry, advertising, and other frivolous fields: ‘I birded the meeting’, ‘I larged the meeting’, ‘I bloobled the meeting’. Of course, because our audience does not expect these words to appear in these slots, these choices may be confusing, but this doesn’t stop these words from being the verbs in these clauses – it’s just a particular instance of the general risk we always take when being creative with meaning.
So, if a verb is not really a word, but a job, what job is it? The instinct to say that it’s something to do with the word’s meaning is not a bad one, but the suggestion that the verb is the part of the clause which describes an action – a ‘doing’ – is far too narrow. There are lots of clauses which don’t describe actions: ‘I was a stamp-collector’, ‘The noise frightened her’, for example. No-one is actually ‘doing’ anything in these clauses, and yet they certainly do have verbs. Not only that, but lots of words that describe actions are not verbs, like the first word in ‘copulation is good for you’. The verb-job covers more than just ‘doing’ meanings, and ‘doing’ meanings are not always verbs.
There is, though, a much more limited sense in which the verb-job in every clause has a common meaning: it is a meaning of time. In all the example clauses above, the bolded word filling the verb slot was, if you like, saying ‘before now’. This is because most of these words are inflected for past tense, which is just a fancy way of saying that they had an ending to show they’re talking about before now (except, that is, ‘led’, and ‘was’, which are special, irregular past forms). If we changed this ‘ed’ ending, we would change the meaning of the clause in terms of how it related to the time of use – ‘I blooble the meeting’ is similar in meaning, but different in precisely this way, to ‘I bloobled the meeting’.
When we use an unexpected word as a verb, we use a word which is typically used to refer to something considered ‘outside’ time. Take ‘large’, for example. The point is not that large things don’t exist in time in the physical, or philosophical sense – of course they do – but rather that there is nothing about the usual uses of the word ‘large’ which indicates whether they refer to a time before, during, or after the moment of speech. The question ‘is the large cow before or after now?’ is just odd. Used as a verb, however, any word automatically carries information about how it relates in time to the moment at which it is being used – so that, whatever ‘John larged the meeting’ might actually mean, it clearly refers to a time that has now past, while ‘John usually larges the meeting’ refers to an event seen as habitual relative to the moment of speech.
The verb’s defining quality – its locating the clause in time – can be seen clearly when clauses contain other words which, in another context, may also used as verbs. Consider these two clauses: ‘I reduced my decrease’ and ‘I decreased my reduction’. In each clause, the same two actions – very similar in meaning, and both of them done by me – are being talked about, but the grammatical difference is that different words are presented as happening in time. It is this choice which makes ‘reduced’ the verb in the first one, and ‘decreased’ the verb in the second. Thus, we can say, and the phrasing is perhaps inevitably awkward, that the fundamental, defining job of the English verb is to tell us when the clause is about.
But this cannot be the whole story. If all the verb did was to communicate this information, then it would suffice simply to say ‘past’ or ‘present’ in every position where a verb appears, which would clearly obliterate a good part of the meaning we intended to convey. The words which carry this ‘time’ meaning come bundled up with other meanings as well – can’t these be categorised in any way?
Well, words that typically do the verb job, while having no singular meaning like ‘doing’ in common, can indeed be grouped usefully into typical kinds of meaning. There is no single way that this can be done that experts agree on, and any system they come up with tends to be leaky – by which I mean that plenty of examples can be found which seem to cross over categories. That’s not something that should worry us, though: it’s just a reflection of the kind of system natural language is.
One popular way of grouping typical verb meanings is that developed by the British-Australian linguist Michael Halliday. Very roughly put, he suggested that we think of verbs as generally meaning one of three things. First, verbs can indeed describe actions – doings, if you like. Second, they can describe sensations of the mind – subjective thoughts and feelings that can’t be seen by others. Finally, verbs can describe relationships that are outside the mind, but are not events either – they describe the state of things. Here are some examples of each kind of meaning:
She caught the ball
They opened the fair
The mouse was captured
Mental states and events
The sound of the hammer falling shocked us all
We considered your proposal carefully
An animal has been seen near the brook
You look tired
They are engineers
The questions were difficult
We can, then, try to conclude by stating three, rough good-enough-for-school rules which define a verb in English:
1. A verb is a word that does a two-part job in a clause.
2. The essential part of the verb’s job – the one which is done in all cases – is to relate the clause in time to the moment of speech.
3. The second part of a verb’s job is to carry a descriptive meaning, which can be roughly classified as being either an action, a subjective mental event, or a state.
And it’s almost as simple as that…
Language being a dynamic social institution, though, these simple rules are always being played with and stretched. In English, the core rules around the verb-job were stretched long ago (before it even was English, in fact) to allow us to express more complicated relationships to time than could be achieved through the all-or-nothing choice of putting ‘ed’ on the end or not. Probably the most important of these ‘innovations’ was to distribute the verb-job across more than one word.
In many clauses of English, then, there are actually two or more verbs working together, as in “I am writing to my friend”. In this example, it’s the first verb ‘am’ which achieves the core verb-job of signalling when we are talking about – it tells us that we’re relating the action to now, so we can say this is a present tense clause. The second verb ‘writing’ is doing the second part of the job – it’s referring to an action. And the two words together, combined with the ‘ing’ ending added to the verb, communicate a more detailed sense of how we should ‘see’ the action described – sometimes called its ‘aspect’ (in the case of ‘I am writing’, it’s what some linguists call ‘progressive aspect’).
So, this more complicated way of doing the verb-job allows us to convey a slightly different kind of idea about how the clause relates to us in time: ‘I write’ and ‘I am writing’ are both present tense, but they have different meanings. We call the word which does the ‘meaning’ bit the ‘lexical verb’, and the words which are only there to signal time and aspect (and there can be more than one of them in a single clause) ‘auxiliary verbs’. We can classify these words in one other, overlapping way: the word which gives us the all-important signal of time is called the ‘finite verb’, while those that work alongside it are called ‘non-finite’.
What might any of this mean for teaching and learning English? Well, we really do need to stop telling students that a verb is a doing word. In so far as it is necessary to teach any of this to primary age children – and the jury’s very much out on that question – I would suggest that ways be found for getting across the verb’s essential function in orienting the clause in time. If nothing else, informal sorting exercises with clauses in past, present and future tenses would be a far more useful, and accessible, exercise than simply labelling verbs. This could also – but need not necessarily – involve drawing attention to the way that it is particular words in the sentence which give this time information, and pointing out that these words are working as verbs.
When it comes to writing, understanding the rough but helpful division of verbs into three kinds of meaning: actions, mental events and relations, has been helpful for me in explaining to students the characteristics of certain genres. Scientific texts tend to focus on events and relations, for example, while narratives have a rich texture involving all three. Students whose prose fiction can seem samey or repetitive may be stuck in a rut with one of these categories: a monotonous run of ‘events’ is most common – a trail of actions with little sense of setting (relationship verbs) or subjective experience (sensing verbs). An awareness of these categories on the part of teacher and student does not have to be the subject of tiresome drills or tick-the-box exercises, but can be woven into the course of lessons, and curricula, with potentially powerful effect.
However, a proper understanding of the verb’s essential function – of orienting the clause in time – has an even more important implication for learning to write. So far, I have generally used expressions like ‘the moment of speech’ to explain the reference point for tense. That’s because, despite all the influence and importance that literacy has acquired in our society, our language is still essentially speech-driven. The infrastructure of English grammar – in which pretty much everything revolves around the verb – is rooted in the assumption that language is a real-time communication device occurring in a constantly available ‘now’. But writing isn’t this: when we write, we generally create an artificial ‘moment’ in which our writing is rooted and, unlike speech, this moment is frozen forever into the text.
Writing, therefore, involves an extraordinary act of pretence. When we write we twist and batter the language – designed as it is to be breathed in the living passage of time – into a fixed, imaginary field in space. Writing (and therefore reading) is a breathtakingly cynical con-trick – one which requires you to pretend that you have the power to bring time itself to a stop.
Pretending is so crucial to much of what is done in school that students who pretend well invariably find schooling much easier. Currently, a good deal of rhetorical energy is invested in belittling the power of play, and questioning the motives of those who advocate for it as educationally important. But at the heart of most play is pretence, the liberating imperative ‘let’s pretend’ its essential opening gambit. Play’s importance should therefore be seen, not as an unscientific and romantic whim of the wishy-washy and the washed-up, but as the logical and unanswerable result of a proper, and highly formal understanding, of the fundamental grammar of the language.