When I arrived at their house, the big dog, which was called Rover, was barking loudly because it was lonely.

  • Verbs are words like:

arrive, call, be, bark, do, happen, make, stand and contain

Verbs often used to be called ‘doing words’. But that’s misleading because the most common verb of all is probably the verb be. Pupils can also have problems thinking of words such as die, have, want and like as ‘doing’.

  • Verbs are the only words that can have different tenses:


Verb Present tense Past tense
do he does, we do he did
walk the horse walks, the horses walk it walked


  • Sometimes several verbs together make up a verb chain


are going will have been didn’t want may arrive


More detail is available below on:

Verb forms

The main verb forms (with examples from a regular verb) are these:

present tense we walk

she walks



past tense I walked
imperative Walk this way



present participle I was walking
past participle they have walked
infinitive they can walkthey like to walk

Sometimes the word itself is the same – for example, walk can be present, infinive or imperative. But it’s important to be able to identify the different forms in use.

These six forms belong to two major groups, which play an important part in English grammar:

  • The present, past and imperative forms are finite.
  • The participles and the infinitive are non-finite.

Finite and non-finite verbs

    • If an ordinary sentence contains just one verb, this verb will be finite. (Why ‘finite’?)

This is [finite] a finite verb.

  • In a verb chain, the first verb in the chain is almost always finite, and the other verbs are always non-finite.

They have [finite] looked [non-finite] at it

The finite verb in a clause defines the way the clause works. It gives key information about:

  • who is doing the thing – i.e. the subject:
    • e.g. They have … but: She has …
  • and when it is being done – i.e. the tense:
    • e.g. They have … but: They had …

Non-finite verbs are not restricted in these ways, though they are restricted in other ways. For example, the infinitive have can be used for any time and any subject:

He seems to have a cold. (present time, singular subject)

They seemed to have colds. (past time, plural subject)


Verb chains

A verb chain is a series of verbs which consists of one or more auxiliary verbs and one non-auxiliary verb, which carries the main meaning of the clause.

Dan was learning Spanish

It should have been working by now.

It might be hot

He hadn’t wanted any

Why are we waiting?

The auxiliary verbs do most of the job of showing the tense of the verb chain. They also express ideas like possibility and necessity, and they are modified to show that the clause is negative or a question. For more information on verb chains, click here.

In a verb chain, the first verb in the chain is almost always finite. (Why only ‘almost’ always?) The others never are.

He was walking to school.

We will go

They might have been chosen.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs are small verbs used to build verb chains.

Kate is speaking.

We had been asking.

She did like him once.

The auxiliary verbs are:

  • have when followed by a past participle:
    • e.g. have seen
  • be when followed by a present participle or by a past participle:
    • are working
    • are admired
  • do when followed by an infinitive:
    • do you think, do not think.
  • the modal verbs, which are generally followed by an infinitive:
    • will think, must be

Strictly speaking we should also classify be as an auxiliary verb when it is used in other ways; for reasons, click here.

How we use auxiliary verbs

  • They often indicate tense
They are talking. He has eaten it It will happen


  • They express a range of other important distinctions such as:
    • the contrast between active and passive:
      • The car was found
    • the contrast between real and conditional:
      • He would have wanted to do it
  • We use finite auxiliaries to show that sentences are questions and negatives:
    • We distinguish interrogative sentences from declaratives by putting the subject after the finite auxiliary;
    • We make sentences negative by putting not or n’t after the finite auxiliary.
They are talking. I should go. It will happen.
Are they talking? Should I go? Will it happen?
They aren’t talking. I shouldn’t go. It won’t (or will not) happen.
  • Do is used to give emphasis, to form negatives, and to form a question with verbs in the simple tenses that don’t already have an auxiliary.
They talk

They do talk!

They do not talk

Do they talk?

He eats a lot.

He does eat a lot!

He doesn’t eat a lot

Does he eat a lot?

It happened.

It did happen, I’m sure.

It didn’t happen

Did it happen?

Present tense

The present tense doesn’t cause many problems for pupils.

Regular: Irregular:
I run we run I am we are
you run you run you are you are
he/she/it runs they run he/she/it is they are

It’s interesting that the present can be used in several quite different ways, sometimes referring to past or future times:

  • I think therefore I am.
  • It always rains when I’m on holiday.
  • Dad tells me you didn’t go.
  • She starts school next week

Past tense

The simple past tense is the ed form, or the irregular equivalent (without an auxiliary verb).

The simple past form is almost always the same for each person.

Regular: Irregular:
I walked we walked I ran we ran
you walked you walked you ran you ran
he she it walked they walked he she it ran they ran

The exception is the verb be:

I was we were
you were you were
he she it was they were

The past tense can also be used for hypothetical situations:

  • I wish I had a bike.
  • If I saw a ghost …


The imperative form of the verb gives instructions or commands. It is the base form of the verb, like the infinitive.

be Don’t be afraid.
play Play quietly.
talk Talk to me!
put Put three eggs in a bowl.

The subject of the imperative isn’t stated, but it is understood to be “you”.

The present participle is the “ing” form of the verb.

It can be used with the auxiliary verb be to form verb chains. They can express present, future or past time.


I am waiting.
She will be coming soon.
They were living here then.
We have been eating well.
You should be getting the letter tomorrow.


Pupils need to recognise that the ing form is not always a verb:


  • it can be used as a noun. This -ing form is sometimes called a verbal noun or a gerund.


We enjoy sailing. Smoking not allowed.


  • it can be used as an adjective.


amazing grace a waiting game
a deafening noise an exhausting day


The past participle is the “ed” form of the verb, and irregular equivalents. It is used in two quite different ways:


  • in a verb chain with the auxiliary verb have.


Dad has walked home.
We will have finished it soon.
He has seen the light.


  • As a passive, often (but not necessarily) with the auxiliary verb be:

    They were beaten.

    She got arrested.

    Poor John was run over by a bus.

    The person run over by the bus was taken to hospital.

The past participle with a passive meaning can also be used as an adjective:

a startled expression a broken window frozen peas a cut lip
Last year the lake was frozen solid. I noticed the mirror was cracked.


Many verbs have the same form for the past tense and the past participle.

past tense past participle
he finished it he has finished it
he asked her he has asked her
I opened it I have opened it
she taught us she has taught us

But other verbs have a different form.

past tense past participle
he ran the marathon he has run the marathon
I broke it I have broken it
he went away he has gone away
he came back he has come back
I was pleased I have been pleased


The infinitive is the base form of the verb with no added endings.

It’s often used with to.

be have eat finish break
to be to have to eat to finish to break


The infinitive follows:

modal auxiliary verbs should come; could break; might eat: seems to be;

needs to improve; used to live here; must say; will go

The auxiliary do, in questions, etc. Does he take sugar? She doesn’t read much.

We don’t like that.

Yes, I do like him.

other verbs I forgot to say; he’d like to drive; We hope to be
a noun there’s work to do; a book to read; hell to pay



  • Because the bare infinitive, without to, is often the same form as the present tense (I take/ does he take), pupils often fail to recognise it. The infinitive almost always follows another verb, or the word to; the present tense rarely does.
  • People often refer to the verb “to go”, and there used to be a rule banning split infinitives. But “to go” is really two separate words, and they can legitimately be separated. This is a well established pattern even in government documents.
skimming to quickly pick up the gist. try to really work at it this time
to boldly go they wanted to carefully arrange things

The term ‘finite’

Why “finite”? What does the word “finite” mean? The word finite comes from the Latin meaning finished or limited. The most useful connection to make is with the word define, which comes from the same root. Finite verbs ‘define’ the time (past or present) and the subject (singular or plural, and sometimes I or you).

Non-finite verb chains

Why is the first verb only ‘almost always’ finite? Here’s a verb chain where neither verb is finite:

Having walked to school, he felt tired.

That verb chain doesn’t have a finite verb. Without the clause “he felt tired”, the sentence wouldn’t make sense.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that come in front of an infinitive (usually without to). They express such ideas as possibility, willingness, prediction, speculation, deduction, necessity and habit.

He must be angry I can’t understand. You ought to tell us.

Here are the main modal verbs:

will/would may/might dare
shall/should must need
can/could ought used to

Why be is always an auxiliary verb and possessive have sometimes is.

One of the main differences between auxiliary and main verbs is that auxiliaries are used in questions like Are you listening? and in negative sentences like You aren’t listening. If we apply this as a test for auxiliary verbs, then other uses of be should also count as auxiliaries:

They are happy. Are they happy? They aren’t happy.
He is your friend. Is he your friend? He isn’t your friend.
It was here. Was it here? It wasn’t here.

The same applies, for some people, to the verb have which means ‘possess’:

She has enough money. Has she enough money? She hasn’t enough money.



Self-assessment on verbs

[2016 note: unfortunately the links no longer work, but you may find the exercise useful even without the answers.]

1. What verb forms are these? If you aren’t sure, click the word and check the answer.

Laughing, he said “You will be walking home”. (answer)

I hope to go to India. She’s got money to spend. (answer)

He watched her go. I let her spend. (answer)

It had been opened. He has finished. (answer)

2. In the sentence below find the verbs (Not all the underlined words are verbs!)

The world must be getting old, I think; it dresses very soberly now. (Jerome K. Jerome)

and decide for each one whether it is:

  • past tense
  • present tense
  • imperative
  • infinitive
  • present participle or
  • past participle.

Clicking will reveal the answer.

Then do the same again, but this time decide whether or not each verb is an auxiliary verb; click on the copy of the sentence below to check your answer.

The world must be getting old, I think; it dresses very soberly now.

Lastly, find the verb chain. Clicking on any word inside it will give the answer.

The world must be getting old, I think; it dresses very soberly now.

3. In the next sentence, decide which verbs are finite and which are non-finite. Check your answers by clicking the words concerned.

Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves. (Lewis Carroll)

4. In the next example, choose the best description of the verb forms:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. (William Shakespeare)

The options are as in question 1:

  • past tense
  • present tense
  • imperative
  • infinitive
  • present participle or
  • past participle.

Then decide for each verb whether it is an ordinary auxiliary, a modal auxiliary or neither and check your answers by clicking the words in the following copy of the sentence:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.

5. As in the previous test, first select one of these classifications for each verb in the sentences below:

He‘d been working with snakes for years … The attendant must enjoy his job if he was doing it for so long. ( KS3 pupil’s writing)

Here are the options again:

  • past tense
  • present tense
  • imperative
  • infinitive
  • present participle or
  • past participle.

Then decide for each verb whether it is an ordinary auxiliary verb, a modal auxiliary or neither; check your answer by clicking the verbs in the following copy.

He‘d been working with snakes for years … The attendant must enjoy his job if he was doing it for so long.

Then find the verb chains and check by clicking on the next copy:

He‘d been working with snakes for years … The attendant must enjoy his job if he was doing it for so long.


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