What is a Verb?

It is one of the parts of speech.

A verb is a word which expresses one of the following concepts:

  • doing
  • being
  • having

You may think of the three concepts as three families.

Understanding relationships in grammar in terms of kinship relations has helped me understand grammar more deeply and teach it more effectively.

This is not something strange or new. In modern explanations of phrase structure, we do talk about mother-daughter, aunt-niece, and ancestor-descendant relationships.

If we try to understand grammar in this way; then, what is a verb?


A verb,then, is simply a word that belongs to any one of these three families:

  • doing family,
  • being family, or
  • having family.

The Doing Family

The house of doing is a large house with many rooms and accomodates a large family. All action words live in this house. The head of the family is known by the name to do.

The other members (the children of 'to do') are these: to eat, to drink, to work, to sleep, to read, to play, to help, to open, to shut, to write, and all other words which imply action.

These "children" are so active that they often get an unfair advantage over other verbs. They get more publicity in speech and writing because people tend to notice these verbs more, even when elderly ones like be, do or have are present.

Some of the members of this family are considered regular and the others irregular. The regulars (because they are docile and predictable) are sometimes called weak and the irregulars (because they are rebellious and unpredictable) are sometimes described as strong.

The Being Family

The second house is the house of being. It is dominated by 'to be.' In fact, the poor word doesn't dominate at all. It does a lot of work, but more often that not, its work goes unnoticed. For instance, when people see the words 'is singing,' they pay attention to the word 'singing' and ignore the 'is.'

'To be' has eight different forms: am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been. These forms are like uniforms - i.e. different kinds of clothes it wears on different occasions.

The Having Family

The third is the house of having. 'To have' is the lone resident here. It describes the act or state of possessing, besides the many other useful jobs it does.

One such important job is to show the state of completion of an action. This is the area of perfect tenses which we will see when we learn about tenses. 'To have' puts on four different type of costumes: has, have, had, and having.

Summary Facts

Here are some summary facts on the three families of verbs to help us understand the question: what is a verb?

Family Name Doing Being Having
Head of the Family do be have
Official Name
of Family Head

(Infinitive)
to do to be to have
Other members of the family
(The children)
sing, eat, drink, play, sleep, study, and innumerable others - -
Regular Verbs
(External Appearance
Always Predictable)
An example
play, plays, playing, played
- have, has, having, had
Irregular Verbs
(External Appearance
Often Unpredictable)
An example
sing, sings, singing, sang, sung
am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been -

For Further Reading and Study...


English Grammar
Matters

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Watch this space.

Related Pages

The Study of Verbs

What is a Verb?

List of Verbs

Principal Parts of Verbs


Types of Verbs

Finite Verbs

Non-Finites (Verbals)

Transitive Verbs

Helping Verbs


Verb Tenses

Subject-Verb Agreement