Verbs express when something happened, or that something is continuing or finished. Verbs help people make sense of other parts of a sentence or clause.
Verbs describe an action, a state, an event or a change
Verbs are words that describe:
- an action
- a state
- an event
- a change.
- to work, to discuss, to try [actions]
- to be, to have, to seem [states]
- to happen, to occur, to result in [events]
- to become, to grow, to dissolve [changes]
The form of the verb changes depending on the grammatical subject and tense.
Verbs must ‘agree’ with the subject
The form of the verb changes to show whether the subject is singular or plural (the number). This is called ‘subject–verb agreement’.
The analyst works in the office on Mondays. [There is one specific analyst, so the verb takes the singular form ‘works’.]
Jan work in the office on Mondays. [There is one person, Jan, so the verb should not take the plural form ‘work’.]
To decide which form of the verb you need, find its subject and ask ‘who’ or ‘what’ is doing the verb. Using the first example:
- Question: Who works in the office on Mondays?
- Answer: The analyst.
This answer might seem obvious, but subject–verb agreement is not always intuitive. For example, a common mistake is to use the plural form of a verb with a collective noun.
Sentences contain at least a subject and a verb. Keep the relationship between the grammatical subject and the verb clear to users. This relationship is the basis for writing plain language sentences.
Objects complement some verbs
Some verbs need an object to have meaning. For example, you don’t just need or take – you need ‘something’ or take ‘something’. These are ‘transitive’ verbs.
- They need advice before the hearing. [‘Advice’ is the object of the verb ‘need’.]
- Take my advice. [‘My advice’ is the object of the verb ‘take’.]
- The power grid failed. [The verb ‘failed’ does not have an object.]
- The candidate campaigned tirelessly. [The verb ‘campaigned’ does not have an object. ‘Tirelessly’ is an adverb. The adverb complements the verb.]
Some verbs can be transitive or intransitive. They can have meaning with or without an object, depending on the rest of the sentence.
- They opened the door. [The object is ‘the door’.]
- The door opened. [‘Opened’ has no object.]
A complement can go with a verb that links the subject to an attribute, quality or characteristic. This type of complement is not an object, but completes the sentence. They are often adjectival phrases or adjectives.
- The door is open. [‘Open’ complements the verb ‘is’. It is an adjective that describes the subject, ‘the door’.]
- The forecasts seem reasonable. [‘Reasonable’ complements the verb ‘seem’. It is an adjective describes the subject, ‘the forecasts’.]
- Each agency has its own arrangements. [‘Its own arrangements’ complements the verb ‘has’. The complement is a noun phrase describing an attribute of the subject, ‘each agency’.]
Tense changes the form of the verb
The form of the verb can also change to show:
- when something happened (past, present or future) – this is the tense of the verb
- whether something is continuing or has finished.
- I was writing the report last week, but I couldn’t finish it. [The action is in the past tense and is continuing. I didn’t finish writing the report last week.]
- I wrote the report yesterday. [The action is in the past tense and has finished.]
- I am writing another report today. [The action is in the present tense and it is continuing.]
- I will write a final report tomorrow. [The action is in the future tense and it will be finished tomorrow.]
- By next week, the executive will have reviewed the report. [The action is in the future tense and will be finished by next week.]
Verbs like ‘will’ change the form of the main verb ‘to write’. Verbs added to the main verb are ‘auxiliary’ verbs.
The ‘mood’ of a verb conveys meaning
You can use verbs to describe a fact, express a wish, or make a command or request. The term for this use is ‘mood’.
This mood expresses simple statements or questions.
- Jan went into the office on Monday.
- The commander ordered the troops to stand at ease.
- Was the report tabled in July this year?
This is the mood for expressing urgency, commands, pleas and requests.
The imperative mood is direct. It works well for instructions and where there is limited space, such as in forms.
- Apply now.
- Lodge your submission by 31 July.
- Verify your corporate credit card.
Be deliberate about the tone the content needs to convey. Imperative commands can seem blunt, even if you use the word ‘please’.
Please speak up.
This is the mood for expressing possibility. It shows that something is hypothetical, possible, conceivable or desirable.
- If supply were to stop, we wouldn’t be able to meet demand.
- If only they would update the data!
- You should apply now.
Verbs in the subjunctive mood can work together with other words to express a condition.
- If you took a sample, you would have some data.
- If you applied now, we could process your application tomorrow.
The subjunctive mood doesn’t always need an auxiliary verb to show the mood, only the main verb. Recommendations can follow this formula.
- That the Minister meet with peak body representatives.
You can use auxiliary verbs to convey ability, possibility, permission or obligation. This affects the tone of your writing.
These verbs are:
- ought to.
- This could take some time.
- You must submit your application by close of business.
Phrasal verbs need a preposition or adverb
- We need to check in with each other. [The verb ‘check’ pairs with the prepositions ‘in’ and ‘with’.]
- They found out 6 breaches had occurred. [The verb ‘found’ goes with the adverb ‘out’.]
When phrasal verbs need an object, you can put the object between the verb and its other part.
The clue gave away the answer. [The object, ‘the answer’, comes after both parts of the phrasal verb, ‘gave away’.]
The clue gave the answer away. [The object comes between the first and second part of the phrasal verb.]
The digital edition relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language. It relates word choice to grammatical information about types of words.
It provides an overview on types of words to introduce grammatical concepts about parts of speech and how they relate to sentence structure.
The sixth edition called types of words ‘word classes’. It had summary information about parts of speech on pages 68 to 70. This formed part of Chapter 5 on grammar.
The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.
About this page
Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.
Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.
Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.
Oxford University Press (2017) Australian concise Oxford dictionary, 6th edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Peters P (1995) The Cambridge Australian English style guide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Stilman S (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.
Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.
This page was updated Monday 6 September 2021.