What Is the Main Verb in a Sentence? Identifying the Action

Verbs show the action that occurs in a sentence. They're easy enough to find when a sentence only has one verb, but how can you find the main verb in a longer sentence? Learn more about identifying the main verb in the context of a sentence with several main verb examples.

Young Man Playing Guitar Main Verb in a Sentence Young Man Playing Guitar Main Verb in a Sentence
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Main Verb Basics: What Is a Main Verb?

To understand main verbs, you need to know the parts of a sentence. Sentences consist of a few main parts:

  • subject (who performs the action)
  • main verb (the action)
  • object (who or what receives the action)

Sometimes you'll also find a helping verb before the main verb. Main verbs, also known as principal verbs, lexical verbs or finite verbs, have several functions. First, action verbs carry out the action of the sentence. Main verb examples include:

  • I worked at the beach yesterday.
  • Isaac travels to Europe.
  • My sister played on the football team.

Forms of the verb "to be" and other linking verbs can be main verbs that express a state of being. For example:

  • Pedro is a college freshman.
  • Grandma was the best basketball player at her school.
  • We are ready to make a decision.

Other main verbs are transitive verbs that connect nouns to more information. These verbs require an object to make sense. For example:

  • Those flowers smell good.
  • The weather seems fine today.
  • Paul borrowed the car.

When there's only one verb in the sentence, it's pretty easy to identify it as the main verb. But what happens when you start using verb phrases?

Identifying the Main Verb in a Verb Phrase

If you're putting your sentence in a verb tense besides past or present, you're using a verb phrase. Verb phrases consist of a helping verb (usually forms of "to be," "to have" or "will") that place the main verb in the proper time period.

In the present-tense sentence "I study Spanish," study is the main verb because it conveys the action. Check out how adding helping verbs (which are italicized) changes the timing of the sentence, but not the action.

Progressive TensesPerfect TensesPerfect Progressive Tenses
Present: I am studying Spanish.

Past: I was studying Spanish.

Future: I will be studying Spanish.

Present: I have studied Spanish.

Past: I had studied Spanish.

Future: I will have studied Spanish.

Present: I have been studying Spanish.

Past: I had been studying Spanish.

Future: I will have been studying Spanish.


You can change the helping verbs to establish when the action takes place, but the main verb (study) is always the same. That's one way to identify the main verb: if the timing of the sentence changed, which action would remain the same?

Identifying the Main Verb With Verbal Phrases

Verbals are verbs that function as nouns, adjectives or adverbs. When you use verbals or verbal phrases in a sentence, finding the main verb can be confusing because it looks like there is more than one verb in the sentence. However, this is not the case.

In "The kids played outside," played is the main verb. But what happens when the sentence includes a verbal phrase (in italics)?

  • Gerund phrase - The kids loved playing outside.
  • Infinitive phrase - The kids loved to play outside.
  • Participial phrase - The playing kids loved being outside.

The action verb play is no longer the main verb; it's part of the verbal phrase. The main verb in each sentence is now the transitive verb loved. Be sure that the main verb is actually conveying what the subject of the sentence is doing, not just what the most interesting part of the sentence is.

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Identifying the Main Verb With Modal Verbs

Many readers think that a modal verb, such as should, must or can, is the main verb in a sentence. However, like helping verbs, modal verbs only exist to support main verbs. For example, the sentence "I should to the store" doesn't make sense; should is not a main verb.

Take a look at example sentences where the main verb is bolded and the modal verb is italicized.

  • She would swim in the pool.
  • You may run to Fairy Hill.
  • I might go to the party.

Modal verbs have no tense, but they express different shades of meaning in a sentence. While they're an important part of a verb phrase, modal verbs are never the main verb.

Identifying the Main Verb in Compound Predicates

Sometimes a subject performs more than one action in a sentence. These verbs, known as compound predicates or compound verbs, hold equal importance to the sentence's meaning and are both considered main verbs. For example:

  • Shannon runs and plays in the field.
  • We talked and laughed until the sun came up.
  • I've been cooking and cleaning all day.

These types of compound verbs are separated by coordinating conjunctions, typically "and." Both verbs need to be the same type of verb, so they both should be action verbs, linking verbs, or transitive verbs. For example, the sentence "Shannon is and plays in the field" doesn't make sense because is is a state of being and plays is an action verb.

Identifying the Main Verb in Longer Sentences

Now that you know how to find the main verb in a simple sentence, you can identify the main verb in other types of sentences. There is usually one main verb per independent clause.

  • In compound sentences, there are two independent clauses, so the sentence has two main verbs. (For example, in "I ordered a coffee and Sharon asked for an iced tea," both ordered and asked are main verbs.)
  • In complex sentences, there is one independent clause and one dependent clause, so the main verb will be in the independent clause. (For example, in "I ordered a coffee because I needed to wake up," ordered is the main verb because it's in the independent clause; "needed" is in the dependent clause.)
  • In compound-complex sentences, there are at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause, so there will be a main verb in each independent clause. (For example, in "I ordered a coffee and Sharon asked for an iced tea, since we both wanted a drink," only ordered and asked are main verbs because "wanted" is in the dependent clause.)

If you're having trouble identifying which clause is the independent clause, just consider which action is the most important in the sentence. When both verbs are equally important, you're probably looking at two independent clauses, so both verbs would be main verbs.

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Main Verbs Rule the Verb World

Main verbs come in many shapes and sizes, just like their helpers. You can spot them if you can spot an action verb or a linking verb. Then, if you can answer the question "Who?" or "What?" after you spot the verb, you're even further down the pathway to grammatical expertise. Learn more about verbs and how they appear in a sentence with an irregular verbs list, complete with a helpful printable.