Verbs are vital to sentence construction. In fact, the basic formula for a sentence is subject + verb + direct object. But, what if someone were to ask you, "What is the main verb in a sentence?" How would you define it?
To start, verbs carry out the action of a sentence or link the subject of the sentence to more information. The subject of the sentence is - you guessed it - what the sentence is about. It's always a noun or pronoun. Then, our friend the direct object receives the action of the verb.
So, you can see the verb is the glue that holds the sentence together. Let's talk a little more about this all-powerful adhesive.
Main verbs are also known as principal verbs. They're the big kahunas that carry out the action of the sentence, express a state of being, or link the subject to further information. For example:
I worked at the beach yesterday.
Have you ever seen a sentence with more than one verb? If so, how did you know which one is the main verb? Let's look at an example:
Because it was raining, Jamie decided to bring an umbrella to the beach.
In this sentence, there are four verbs: "was," "raining," "decided," and "bring." But, which one is the main verb? You'll be able to answer that question once you identify the subject. Who or what is being discussed? In this case, Jamie is being discussed. What was Jamie doing? He was deciding something. Thus, "decided" is the main verb.
This might lead you to wonder, "Can there be two main verbs in a sentence?" The answer is yes!
Here's an example:
Shannon runs and plays in the field.
Let's deconstruct this line. Who or what is being discussed? Shannon. That makes her the subject. What is she doing? She's running and playing. Note that both of these verbs are in the simple present tense, and they both carry equal weight in the sentence. There isn't a main verb and a helping verb. Both demonstrate the action of the subject, so both are main verbs.
Consider what happens in this sentence:
I am working at the beach today.
There, we have a main verb (working) and a helping verb (am). Helping verbs tend to be short, little words, but there are two different kinds. Let's break things down further and explore the world of main verbs and helping verbs.
Helping verbs are little helpers to the heavy lifter (main verb) of the sentence. The most common helping verbs are:
To be: am, is, are, was, were, be, been
To do: do, does, did
To have: have, has, had
These helping verbs are known as auxiliary verbs. You may see the terms "helping" and "auxiliary" interchanged often. Just know that auxiliary verbs are a type of helping verbs.
So, we might see a sentence like this:
I am making a clay pot for my greenhouse.
In this example, "am" is the helper and "making" is the main verb. More specifically, it's an action verb. "Making" describes the main action of the sentence.
There's another form of helping verb, and that's the modal verb. Common modal verbs include:
While auxiliary verbs generally work hard to express the tense of a sentence, modal verbs express different shades of meaning. For example:
She can swim in the pool if she finishes all her homework.
Thanks to the little modal verb "can," we understand that her taking action (swimming) is merely a possibility. It's dependent upon something else. She is not currently swimming.
These helpers can also express an absolute. For example:
When the clock strikes midnight, you must run to Fairy Hill.
Here, we have the helping verb "must" working alongside the main verb "run."
In each of the examples above, our main verbs were action verbs. But, verbs can stretch their legs and also act as linking verbs, transitive verbs, and intransitive verbs. Don't let these hefty terms scare you. Let's walk through each term and enjoy a sample sentence.
When we think of verbs, we tend to envision action verbs like "run," "walk," and "eat." You can actually "see" someone "doing" something. But, linking verbs can also act as main verbs. For a deeper dive into the land of linking verbs, check out Examples of Linking Verbs. Some of the most popular linking verbs include:
One of the core functions of linking verbs is to connect the subject of the sentence to more information. For example:
I am happy when I'm at home.
In this example, "am" is the main verb. It's the only verb connected to the subject and, thus, not an auxiliary verb. You'll notice that "am" is not followed by a verb, as would be the case if it were functioning as an auxiliary verb. Here, the subject of the sentence is "I," the linking verb is "am," and "happy" is the subject complement. That is, it's providing more information about the subject. I am what? I am happy.
In our example above, we had a subject (I), a linking verb (am), and a subject complement (happy). But, when we're dealing with sentences that have direct objects, the sentence shifts to something like this:
I wrote a poem in Paris.
This is an example of a sentence with a transitive verb. All that means is the verb has a direct object. Here, "wrote" is the main action verb, the subject of the sentence is "I," and "a poem" is the direct object. Direct objects answer the question of "who" or "what" regarding the verb. What did I write? I wrote a poem.
For more on direct objects, check out Grammar Lesson to Identify Objects.
Transitive verbs have direct objects. By contrast, intransitive verbs don't have direct objects. It's that easy. Have you ever seen a sentence like this?
Although the basic formula for a sentence is subject + verb + direct object, this is a complete thought (even if it doesn't have a direct object) and, is thus a complete sentence.
Sometimes, fuller description is offered by way of a prepositional phrase, but if there's no receiver of the action (direct object), it's still an intransitive verb. For example:
It rained from here to Montana.
This sentence doesn't answer the "who" or "what" question. "From here to Montana" is merely a prepositional phrase, meaning we're still looking at a verb without a direct object.
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.
It's important to be able to highlight all these intricacies of the English language. Verbs are, surely, the most complex. But, a deep dive into the land of verbs will help you avoid these examples of bad grammar. In a world of tweets, texts, LOLs, and BRBs, it's nice to know you still stand on the right side of grammatical accuracy.