Action verbs show the action that occurs in a sentence. In English, there are thousands of verbs that convey subtle changes in meaning, so it's important to choose the right one. Understanding action verbs will make students better writers and communicators. Keep reading to learn about the two main types of action verbs, the function of action verbs in a sentence, and how they are different from linking verbs.
Action Verbs vs. Linking Verbs
As their name suggests, action verbs create drama and movement in a sentence by showing what the subject is doing. This is fundamentally different from linking verbs, also known as helping verbs, which establish a connection between words. As you can see, action and linking verbs have unique purposes. For example, compare the pairs of sentences below.
- Lynn is angry. (linking verb)
- Lynn shouted at her brother. (action verb)
- I look terrible in this dress. (linking verb)
- I frowned at my appearance in the mirror. (action verb)
- The cookies were delicious. (linking verb)
- The kids smelled the cookies baking in the kitchen. (action verb)
- Ron and his girlfriend seemed happy. (linking verb)
- Ron and his girlfriend hugged affectionately. (action verb)
In the first sentences, the linking verbs connect the subjects with the rest of the sentence, but the subjects don’t actually perform an action. The action verbs make the sentences more interesting to read because the subjects are doing something specific. Too many linking verbs instead of action verbs can make your writing sound boring.
Show, Don’t Tell
When your teacher says “Show, don’t tell,” you could be using too many linking verbs. Revise your writing to include verbs that are lively and express action to improve your prose. Circle all the "to be" verbs in your writing and think about the action in the sentence. Do these verbs convey the action accurately, or are they only setting up description? Can you think of more vivid verbs to show your action instead?
The Two Types of Action Verbs
Sentences require a subject and a verb to express a complete thought. However, when you add direct objects and indirect objects, the sentence paints a more detailed picture. Action verbs fall into two categories: transitive verbs and intransitive verbs.
Transitive verbs are action verbs that show what the subject is doing to another object. These verbs are coupled with a direct object, or the thing that is acted upon. The direct object answers the question “What?” or “Who?” to the verb in the sentence.
Susan poked John in the eye.
In this sentence, poked is a transitive verb that transfers the action of poking directly to John. John is the direct object of the sentence and is the person being poked.
Below are additional examples of transitive verbs in action.
- My dog chewed his toy. (What did he chew?)
- Jonathan chose me to be his best friend. (Who did he choose?)
- Why did your grandmother call my house? (What did she call?)
- Rick painted the fence green. (What did he paint?)
- Ellie married a guy with a black belt in karate. (Who did she marry?)
In each of the sentences above, the verbs are immediately followed by a direct object that receives the action. These action verbs are transitive verbs because they directly affect things and people around them.
Intransitive verbs are action verbs that don't act upon another noun or pronoun in the sentence. In general, intransitive verbs only describe something the subject of the sentence does, but not something that happens to someone or something else. For example:
Michael smiled with relief.
In this sentence, smiled only describes what Michael did. If you added a direct object to the sentence, such as “Michael smiled me,” it doesn’t make sense. You’d need to add “at me,” which is a prepositional phrase, not a direct object. That’s what makes smiled an intransitive verb.
Below are additional examples of intransitive verbs used in sentences.
- Charles swam in the pool. (prepositional phrase)
- My dog barked at the mail carrier. (prepositional phrase)
- The twins whispered instead of sleeping. (adverb)
- The elephant sleeps soundly. (adverb)
- Two shoes fell in the lake. (prepositional phrase)
The sentences above feature prepositional phrases and adverbs, but if you kept only the subject and the verb, they would still make sense. “Charlie swam.” can stand alone as a sentence, as can “The twins whispered.” and “The elephant sleeps.” Adding direct objects after these verbs would confuse the reader.
Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
The English language is very versatile. That’s why some verbs in English can be transitive or intransitive, depending on their context.
- Charlies eats breakfast in the morning. (transitive)
- Charles eats quickly in the morning. (intransitive)
- My family met my girlfriend. (transitive)
- My family met for dinner. (intransitive)
- Let’s walk the dog. (transitive)
- Let’s walk to the store. (intransitive)
- I’ll drive the RV to the campsite this weekend. (transitive)
- I’ll drive to the campsite this weekend. (intransitive)
Notice how each transitive verb acts upon an underlined direct object. If you remove the direct object, it completely changes the meaning of the sentence. However, each verb does work as both a transitive and an intransitive verb.
Choosing the Right Verbs
Using both transitive and intransitive action verbs add interest to your writing. They can propel the plot of a story or the theme of a persuasive argument, so choose them wisely. Check out additional tips on choosing the right words to improve your writing and engage your readers.