What are verbs?

Read the following sentences:

  • Mother cooks dinner.
  • Children play in the park.
  • Barking dogs seldom bite.

In the sentences given above, the words in bold text are used to say something about a person or a thing. They say what a person or a thing does. These words are called verbs. Now read the following sentences.

  • We have two hands and two legs.
  • She is a good girl.

Here the verbs have and is show what a person has or is. These words are also called verbs. Thus we have seen that a verb is a word which shows what a person or a thing is, has or does. The verb may also express what happens or is done to the person or thing.

The thief was beaten. (Here the verb was beaten shows what happens to the thief.)

A verb may consist of more than one word. Some verbs may consist of as many as four words.

  • It is raining.
  • It has been raining.
  • It rains.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Verbs that take an object are called transitive verbs.

  • She heard a noise. (subject – she, verb – heard, object – a noise)
  • He saw a pigeon. (Subject – he, verb – saw, object – a pigeon)
  • The girl  plucked the flower. (Subject – the girl, verb – plucked, object – the flower)
  • The master beat the dog. (subject – the master, verb – beat, object – the dog)

Some verbs do not take an object after them. These are called intransitive verbs. Examples are: smile, sit, sleep, cry, laugh, dance etc.

  • The baby smiled. (Here the verb smiled is intransitive because it has no object.)
  • The child cried. (Here the verb cried is intransitive because it has no object.)
  • He sat on the bed. (Here the verb sat is intransitive because it has no object.)

Note that most verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively.

Verb Patterns

A transitive verb is one that has an object. The normal order of words in an English sentence is subject + verb + object.

  • Alice likes sweets. (Subject – Alice, Verb – likes, Object – sweets)
  • The principal punished the boy. (Subject – principal, Verb – punished, Object – boy)
  • The monk burned himself. (Subject – monk, Verb – burned, Object – himself)

Alice likes …what? Sweets

The principal punished …whom? The boy

The answer to the question what or whom is the direct object. Notice also the use of the reflexive pronoun (e.g. myself, himself, herself, themselves etc.) as an object in the third sentence.

Subject + verb + object + adverb particle

Some verbs are followed by adverb particles. Examples are: put on, take off, give away, bring up, call in etc. Sometimes the particle is detached from the verb and put after the object.

  • He threw it away.
  • They called the visitor in.
  • He put his coat on.
  • His grandmother brought him up.
  • You must send it back.

Note that the particle is put after the object when the object is a personal pronoun or when it is comparatively short.

The difference between an adverb particle and a preposition is that while the particle is closely tied to its verb, the preposition is closely tied to the noun or pronoun which it controls. The following are used only as adverb particles and never as prepositions – away, back, out, backward, forward, upward, downward etc. But on, off, in, up, down, to, from etc., are used as particles and prepositions.

When the object is long or when it has to be made prominent, the adverb particle comes before the object.

  • The chief guest gave away the prizes.
  • He put on an air of innocence.
  • The sailors put out the fire in the hold of the ship.
  • We will not throw away anything useful.

Anomalous finites

The term anomalous finites refers to the group of 24 finites given below:

  • Is, am, are, was, were
  • Has, have, had
  • Do, does, did
  • Will, would; shall, should; can, could; may, might; must, ought, need, dare, used

As you can probably see, these are all auxiliary verbs. Some of them are also used as principal verbs. As auxiliaries their function is to help principal verbs to form their tenses and moods. As anomalous finites, they have other functions.

Anomalous finites are irregular. They do not form the past tense by the addition of -ed, -d or -t, but by a change in the root vowel. Some anomalous finites (must, ought) have no past tense forms at all. But these irregular finite verbs are different from other finite verbs in many respects and hence they are called anomalous finites.

The most obvious difference between anomalous finites and other finites is that they can be used with the contraction n’t which is the shortened form of not.

  • It isn’t true. (= It is not true.)
  • We aren’t going anywhere. (= We are not going anywhere.)
  • You shouldn’t do that.
  • I don’t know what to do.

Of the 24 anomalous finites, the forms be, have, do, need and dare are sometimes used as principal verbs and sometimes as auxiliaries. The remaining are always used as auxiliaries.

The use of anomalous finites

To form negative sentences

  • know him.
  • don’t know him. (NOT I know not him.)
  • She wrote to me.
  • She didn’t write to me. (NOT She wrote not to me.)

Here the anomalous finites do and did help to change positive statements into negative statements. The mere addition of not to the positive sentence is not enough in modern English.

Uses of anomalous finites

Anomalous finites are the only verbs in modern English which can form their negatives by the simple addition of not.


  • He will come. He will not come.
  • He came. He did not come. (NOT He came not.)
  • Can I do it? No, you can’t.
  • Should I take it? No, you shouldn’t.
  • He took the medicine. He did not take the medicine. (NOT He took not the medicine.)

Anomalous finites are also the only verbs that can be used with the shortened form of not.

To form questions
A question is usually formed by putting the anomalous finite before the subject of the sentence.

  • He is a good singer. Is he a good singer?
  • They have won the race. Have they won the race?
  • The cat will kill the mouse. Will the cat kill the mouse?

If the affirmative sentence does not contain an anomalous finite, the auxiliary do and its forms are used to make questions.

  • He killed the spider. Did he kill the spider? (NOT Killed he the spider?)
  • They went to Beijing. Did they go to Beijing?
  • He fell off the ladder. Did he fall off the ladder?
  • They make good cheese. Do they make good cheese?
  • She likes ice cream. Does she like ice cream?

To form negative questions
The anomalous finites are also used to form negative questions.

He does not like it. Does he not like it? Doesn’t he like it?
They do not eat meat. Do they not eat meat? Don’t they eat meat?
She did not touch it. Did she not touch it? Didn’t she touch it?

The question ‘Does he not like it?’ is more formal than the question ‘Doesn’t he like it?’

Uses of anomalous finites – part II

The anomalous finites are used to form inverted sentence patterns.

  • I had no sooner got into the train than it steamed off.
  • No sooner had I got into the train than it steamed off.

To avoid repetition of principal verbs

The anomalous finites are used in short answers to avoid the repetition of principal verbs.

  • ‘Do you want this?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ (= Yes, I want that.’)
  • ‘Can you hear me?’ ‘Yes, I can.’ (= Yes, I can hear you.’)
  • ‘Who broke the window?’ ‘John, did.’ (= John broke the window.)

To form the tag question

The anomalous finites are also used in the formation of the tag question.

  • It is rather hot today, isn’t it?
  • She can sing very well, can’t she?
  • You like this color, don’t you?
  • They shouldn’t have waited, should they?


When the statement is in the positive, the tag question is in the negative. In the same way, when the statement is in the negative, the tag question is in the positive.

To emphasize an affirmative statement

We can emphasize an affirmative statement by putting the anomalous finite do or its forms before the principal verb.

  • want you to come. (Less emphatic)
  • do want you to come. (More emphatic)
  • invited him. I did invite him.
  • If another World War does break out, it will put an end to our civilization.

Verbs with two objects

Many English verbs take two objects  – one direct object and one indirect object. The direct object usually refers to an object. The indirect object usually refers to a person and comes first.

  • He gave his daugther a camera for Christmas. (Indirect object – his daughter, direct object – camera)
  • Could you lend me some money? (Indirect object – me, direct object – money)
  • Let me get you a cup of coffee. (Indirect object – you, direct object – a cup of coffee)

Some common verbs which can be followed by two objects are given below:

Bring, buy, cost, get, give, leave, lend, make, offer, owe, pass, pay, play, promise, read, refuse, send, show, sing, take, teach, tell, wish, write

Position of the direct and indirect objects

The indirect object usually comes before the direct object. We can also put the indirect object after the direct object. When the indirect object comes after the direct object, it usually has the preposition to or for before it.

  • She sent the flowers for me, not for you.
  • I handed my credit card to the salesman.

When both objects are pronouns

When both objects are pronouns, it is common to put the indirect object last. In informal style, to is occasionally dropped after it.

  • Lend them to her.
  • Send some to him.

It is also possible to put the indirect object first.

  • Send him some.

The verbs explain, suggest and describe

The verbs explain, suggest and describe are not used with the structure indirect object + direct object.

  • Please explain your decision to us.
  • Can you suggest a good cardiologist to me? (NOT Can you suggest me a good cardiologist?)

One object or two

Some verbs can be followed by either a direct object, or an indirect object, or both.

  • I asked him.
  • I asked a question.
  • I asked him a question.

What are copular verbs?

A copular verb is a special kind of verb used to join an adjective or noun complement to a subject.  Common examples are: be (is, am, are, was, were), appear, seem, look, sound, smell, taste, feel, become and get.

A copular verb expresses either that the subject and its complement denote the same thing or that the subject has the property denoted by its complement.

For example in the sentence ‘Peter is my boyfriend’ the copular verb is asserts that Peter and my boyfriend are the same person whereas in the sentence ‘Peter is British’ the copular verb is assigns the quality of Britishness to Peter.

More examples are given below.

  • Honey is sweet. (Here the copular verb is assigns the quality of sweetness to honey.)
  • The stew smells good.
  • The milk turned sour.
  • The night grew dark.
  • She became a writer.

After copular verbs we use adjectives, not adverbs.


  • She spoke intelligently. (Here the adverb intelligently modifies the ordinary verb spoke.)
  • She appears intelligent. (NOT She appears intelligently. Appears is a copular verb. It should be followed by an adjective, not an adverb.)

The copular verbs like become, get, grow, go, turn, stay, remain, keep etc., are used to talk about change or the absence of change.

  • I am becoming older.
  • I am getting older.
  • I am growing older.
  • The leaves are going yellow.
  • The leaves are turning yellow.

Uses of shall and will

With first person pronouns

With first person pronouns shall simply expresses the strong possibility or near certainty of an action or event which is to take place in the future.

  • We shall leave for Mumbai tomorrow.
  • I shall invite them to dinner.

With second and third person pronouns

When used with second and third person pronouns shall may express a command.

  • You shall not steal.
  • He shall obey my instructions.
  • You shall go at once.

Shall is sometimes used to make a promise.

  • You shall be given a present if you stand first in the exam.

Shall can also be used to express a threat.

  • He shall regret this.
  • You shall be dismissed from service.

Uses of Will

When used with first person pronouns will expresses determination on the part of the speaker. It may also express ideas such as promise, threat or willingness.


  • I will go whatever happens.
  • We will not wait any longer.


  • I will try to get you a good job.


  • I will teach you a lesson.
  • We will punish any one who creates trouble.


Will may also express willingness.

  • ‘There is the door bell.’ ‘I will go.’
  • ‘He is taking a bath at the moment’. ‘OK, I will wait.’

With second and third person pronouns

When used with second and third person pronouns, will expresses simple futurity.

  • The train will leave at 6 am.
  • He will be back in an hour.


Will and shall are followed by an infinitive without to.

  • I will wait. (NOT I will to wait.)

There is no -s in the third person singular.

  • He will wait. (NOT He will waits.)

Questions and negatives are made without do.

  • He will come.
  • Will he come?
  • He will not come.

Uses of Should

Indirect speech

Should is the past tense of shall in indirect speech.

  • The officer said, ‘The scoundrel shall be given a good beating.’
  • The officer said that the scoundrel should be given a good beating.

Duty and obligation

Should can be used with pronouns of all the three persons to talk about duty and obligation.

  • We should help the poor and the needy.
  • We should not lie.
  • We should all work for the common good.
  • You should pay the fees in time.

Conditional clauses

Should can be used in conditional clauses expressing possibilities, suppositions etc.

  • If she should come, ask her to wait.
  • Should it rain, we will cancel the trip.

Should is often used in main clauses which are preceded or followed by a clause expressing unreal conditions.

  • If I were you, I should accept this offer.
  • No Sam, I shouldn’t do that, If I were you.

Note that this kind of sentence is often used to give polite advice or gentle admonition.


Should is often used to express possibility or likelihood.

  • should be able to finish this work in time.
  • You should be able to beat him.

After lest

Should is the only auxiliary verb that can be used after lest.

  • Watch and pray lest you should fall into temptation.

Should and shall

Should expresses less possibility than shall.

  • shall be able to meet Peter.
  • I should be able to meet Peter.

Here the first sentence expresses a greater possibility of the event – meeting Peter – taking place

Uses of Would

Indirect speech

Would is the past tense of will in indirect speech.

  • Direct speech: John said, ‘I will wait until you return.’
  • Indirect speech: John said that he would wait until I return.
  • Direct speech: The boy said, ‘I will not eat this cake.’
  • Indirect speech: The boy said that he would not eat that cake.

Willingness and determination

Would expresses ideas such as willingness or determination.

  • He said that he would help me.
  • She said that she would wait for me.
  • would have my own way. (= I am determined to have my own way.)

Habitual action in the past

Would can be used to talk about a habitual or customary action in the past.

  • After dinner we would all sit in the hall and chat for a while.

Would and would like to

Would is often used to express a wish. In this case it means the same as would like to.

  • I would know what I am supposed to do.
  • would like to know what I am supposed to do.

Polite questions

Would is used to ask polite questions.

  • Would you like a cup of coffee? (More polite than ‘Will you like a cup of coffee?’)
  • Would you mind lending me your bicycle?
  • Would you, please, call me a taxi?

Would is also used in the main clause when preceded or followed by a subordinate clause expressing an impossible or improbable condition.

  • If I could fly like a bird, I would be with you now.
  • If I were the President, I would lower taxes.

Uses of Can and Could


Can expresses ability. Cannot (can’t) shows inability.

  • She can speak ten languages.
  • can’t cook.
  • Can you speak Spanish?

Sometimes can is used in the sense of may to give permission.

  • You can go. OR You may go.
  • You can take one of these shirts. OR You may take one of these shirts.

Now-a-days can is also increasingly used to ask permission.

  • Can I go? OR May I go?


Could is the past tense of can. It is used to talk about ability that existed in the past.

  • In my younger days I could run four miles at a stretch.
  • Till last year I could read without glasses.

Note that could doesn’t always refer to past time. It refers to past time only when the context makes the time clear.

Indirect speech

Could is the past tense of can in indirect speech.

  • He said, ‘ I can lift this box.’
  • He said that he could lift that box.
  • She said, ‘I can’t see anything.’
  • She said that she couldn’t see anything.

Possibility or uncertainty

Could may express possibility or uncertainty.

  • You could do it, if you tried hard.
  • If my brother were here, we could have solved this problem together.

Could is also used to ask polite questions.

  • Could you, please, take me to the Manager?
  • Could I have a look at your papers?


Can and could are followed by infinitives without to.

  • I can knit. (NOT I can to knit.)
  • She could understand nothing. (NOT She could to understand nothing.)

Questions and negatives are made without do.

  • Can he speak English? (NOT Does he can speak English?)
  • He can’t speak English. (NOT He can doesn’t speak English.)

There is no -s in the third person singular.

  • She can sing. (NOT She can sings.)

Uses of May and Might


May is used to express permission. May not is used to deny permission.

  • May I come in, sir?
  • Yes, you may.
  • May I go home now?
  • No, you may not.


Now-a-days to deny permission we often use cannot instead of may not. This usage is probably encouraged by the fact that the contraction can’t is easier to say than the contraction mayn’t.


May is also used to express possibility.

  • It may rain.
  • She may come.
  • He may get good marks.

May is also used in expressing a wish.

  • May God bless you!
  • May his soul rest in peace!

May is used in subordinate clauses that express a purpose.

  • Farmers use fertilizers so that they may have a rich harvest.
  • We eat that we may live.


Might is the past tense of may in indirect speech.

  • He said, ‘I may stand for election.’
  • He said that he might stand for election.
  • Alice said, ‘I may come.’
  • Alice said that she might come.

Might and may

Might shows less possibility than may.


  • It may rain. (Maybe a 50% possibility)
  • It might rain. (Maybe a 30% possibility)


May and might are followed by an infinitive without to.

  • He may come. (NOT He may to come.)
  • might pass. (NOT I might to pass.)

Questions and negatives are made without do.

  • May I go? (NOT Do I may go?)

There is no -s in the third person singular.

  • She may pass. (NOT She may passes.)

Uses of Must and Ought (to)

Must remains unchanged whatever be the tense or the number and person of the subject. It can refer to the present or future. It can point to the past only when it is used with the present perfect tense of the principal verb.


  • He must go home. (Future / present)
  • He must have gone home. (Past)
  • We must see the minister now. (Present)
  • He must have seen the minister by now. (Past)
  • You must file a writ petition. (Future)

Uses of must

Must expresses compulsion or strong obligation. It is much stronger than should.

  • He must apologize for his mistakes.
  • They must pay the fine.
  • You must be loyal to your country.


  • We must get up early and start on our way.
  • Must we wait for them?

Probability or likelihood

Must can express probability or likelihood.

  • He must be mad to do this.
  • Oh, there is the door bell; that must be the postman.

Strong determination

Must signifies strong determination.

  • must have my own way.


Ought is different from other modal auxiliary verbs; it is followed by an infinitive with to.


  • ought to go.
  • must go.
  • She must wait.
  • She ought to wait.

Ought expresses ideas such as duty, necessity, moral obligation etc. It is not as forceful as must, but it is stronger than should.

  • We ought to help the poor and the needy. (Duty)
  • You ought to exercise regularly. (Necessity)
  • She ought to be back by 10 o’clock.

When ought refers to past time, it is followed by the perfect infinitive.

  • You ought to have helped him.

Uses of need

Need is used both as an auxiliary verb and as an ordinary verb. As an ordinary verb, need is used in the sense of require.

  • I need help.
  • We need more people to finish the work.
  • I need some more time to decide the question.

The auxiliary need is commonly used with not. It is followed by an infinitive without to.

  • You need not wait for me. (NOT You need not to wait for me.)
  • They need not make such a fuss over it.

The auxiliary need does not take the marking -s in the third person singular.

  • He need not wait any longer. (NOT He needs not wait any longer.)

The auxiliary need is sometimes used with hardly.

  • We need hardly remind you of your promise to visit us.
  • need hardly add that I am very grateful.

The auxiliary need can be used with only.

  • You need only say what you want and it will be granted.

In questions need is usually used without not.

  • Need I wait any longer?
  • Need I come again?

If the answer is in the negative you may say, ‘No, you need not’ or ‘No, he need not’. If the answer is in the positive you should say – ‘Yes, he must’ or ‘Yes, you must’.

When referring to past time, need is followed by the perfect infinitive.

  • You need not have lost your temper.
  • We need not have waited for them.

Auxiliary verbs and their equivalents

Be able to instead of can

Be able to often has the same meaning as can.

  • He can walk on his hands. OR He is able to walk on his hands.
  • am unable to understand his motive. OR I can’t understand his motive.
  • They were able to catch the thief. OR They could catch the thief.

Be to instead of will or shall

The structure be + to can be used to express simple futurity.

  • He is to retire next year. = He will retire next year.
  • The President is to visit Japan next month. = The President will visit Japan next month.
  • We are to get a wage rise in June. = We will get a wage rise in June.

Be + to instead of must

The structure be + to is also used to give orders. In this case, it means almost like must.

  • You are to complete the work in two days. (= You must complete the work in two days.)
  • He is to report for duty within a week.

Had better instead of should or ought to

  • You had better consult a good doctor. = You should consult a good doctor.

Had better may also express a threat.

  • He had better be careful.

Have to instead of must

  • have to be there at 10 o’clock. (= I must be there at 10 o’clock.)

Verbs and their properties

A verb can be marked for tense:

I work (Present tense)/ I worked. (Past tense)
She write. / She wrote.

A verb can usually be preceded by an auxiliary verb.

  • I have written.
  • She has come.
  • He is singing.
  • It is working.
  • You are wasting our time.

A verb is the head of a verb phrase.

  • I am watching news on TV. (Here the verb watching is the head of the phrase watching news on TV.)
  • She wrote letters.

A verb can form a gerund in -ing.

  • Trespassing is prohibited.
  • Reading is his pastime.

A verb can form a present participle and a past participle.

The present participle ends in -ing; the past participle usually ends in -ed or -en.

  • She has been working for hours.
  • It has been raining since morning.
  • You have drunk too much wine.

Classification of verbs

Verbs are divided into two groups: lexical verbs and auxiliaries.

Most English verbs are lexical verbs. Examples are: like, sing, wait, play etc. Lexical verbs are divided into transitive and intransitive verbs.

Transitive verbs are those verbs which take objects. Intransitive verbs do not take objects. Note that most verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively.

Certain intransitive verbs are further distinguished as copulas and quasi-copulas.

Auxiliaries are special verbs. There are 24 auxiliary verbs in English.

Common errors in the use of verbs

Study the following sentences.

  • Incorrect: She told to me an interesting story.
  • Correct: She told me an interesting story.

The verb tell is followed by an indirect object without to.

  • Incorrect: She told that she wouldn’t come.
  • Correct: She told me that she wouldn’t come. OR She said that she wouldn’t come.

When used with a that-clause tell takes an indirect object, while say does not.

  • Incorrect: I want that you should be your partner.
  • Correct: I want you to be my partner.

The verb want cannot be used with a that-clause. It is used with a to-infinitive.

  • Incorrect: She suggested me to consult a doctor.
  • Correct: She suggested that I should consult a doctor. OR She suggested consulting a doctor.

The verb suggest should be used with a gerund or a that-clause. It cannot be used with a to-infinitive.

The verbs discuss, describe, order and request are transitive verbs. They should be followed by direct objects, and not prepositions.

  • Incorrect: We discussed about his plans.
  • Correct: We discussed his plans.
  • Incorrect: He described about the situation.
  • Correct: He described the situation.
  • Incorrect: I have ordered for two cups of coffee.
  • Correct: I have ordered two cups of coffee.
  • Incorrect: She requested for my help.
  • Correct: She requested my help.

Verbs with prepositions and particles

Most English verbs can be followed by prepositions or adverb particles. Examples are: switch off, turn down, walk down, look at, stare at, sit down etc.

  • Please sit down.
  • Can you switch off the light?
  • Why are you staring at me?
  • I saw Alan as I was driving down the street.
  • She ran into the room crying.
  • John fell off the ladder and broke his arm.

Some verbs and prepositions/particles are always used together. Examples are: look at, stare at, throw at, listen to, switch off etc. These combinations are often called phrasal verbs. Note that the meaning of a phrasal verb is sometimes very different from the meanings of the two parts taken separately.

  • The meeting has been put off. (= The meeting has been postponed.) (The meaning of put off is not the same as the meanings of put and off.)

Verbs with prepositions and particles together

A few verbs can be used with both an adverb particle and a preposition. Examples are: put up with, get on with and look out for.

  • I can’t put up with her.

Word order

When prepositions are used with verbs, they usually go before objects.

  • He fell off the ladder. (NOT He fell the ladder off.)

Adverb particles can go before or after noun objects.

  • She switched off the heating. OR She switched the heating off.

Note that particles always go after pronoun objects.

  • She switched it off. (NOT She switched off it.)

Irregular verbs

English has many irregular verbs. Students should make sure that they know all of them. Here is a list of the more common irregular verbs. For a complete list of irregular verbs, see a good dictionary.

InfinitiveSimple pastPast participle
BetBet, bettedBet, betted

Verb + object + complement

Some transitive verbs can be followed by an object together with an object complement which is usually an expression that gives more information about the object.

  • They elected him their leader. (Object – him; object complement – their leader)
  • You make me happy. (Object – me; object complement – happy)
  • I found her attitude disgusting. (Object – her attitude; object complement – disgusting)

After some verbs we use the structure ‘object + as + complement’. Verbs that are usually followed by this structure are: see, describe, regard, identify, consider etc.

  • I see him as a nice person.
  • We considered the project as wasteful.
  • She described her lover as a tall, dark and handsome guy.
  • We regard him as a genius.

Sometimes we use as being instead of as.

  • The police regard him as being dangerous.

After some verbs we use an object + infinitive. In an informal style, we can use a that-clause.

  • We considered him to be a genius. (Formal)
  • We considered that he is a genius. (Informal)
  • We believed him to be reliable. (Formal)
  • We believed that he is reliable. (Informal)

Note that the verb think cannot be followed by an object + to-infinitive. Instead, we use a that-clause.

  • I thought that she was reliable. (NOT I thought her to be reliable.)

Be and have

To talk about experiencing physical sensations like hunger, thirst, heat and cold, we use the structure be + adjectiveFeel + adjective is also possible. Note that we do not usually use have + noun to express these ideas.

  • am hungry. (NOT I have hunger.)
  • Are you thirsty? (NOT Do you have thirst?)
  • Are you warm enough?
  • am sleepy.
  • am afraid.
  • feel hungry.
  • feel fine.
  • feel cold.

Note also the expressions:

Be right, be wrong and be lucky.

  • You are right.
  • He is lucky.
  • Am I wrong?

Height, weight, age, size and color

Be, and not have, is used to talk about height, weight, age, size and color.

  • She is nearly forty. (NOT She has nearly forty.)
  • Her eyes are blue. (NOT Her eyes have blue.)
  • My brother is six feet tall. (NOT My brother has six feet height.)
  • She is the same height as her husband.
  • What size are your shoes?
  • I wish I was a few inches taller.
  • I wish I was a few kilos lighter.

Note that in measuring expressions we do not use be heavy.

  • She weighs forty-eight kilos. (NOT She is forty-eight kilos heavy.)

Note on the verb weigh

Weigh is one of those verbs which are not normally used in the progressive form.

  • weighed fifty-six kilos two months ago. (NOT I was weighing fifty-six kilos two months ago.)

However, weigh can be used in the progressive form when it does not mean ‘have weight’.

  • The scales broke when she was weighing herself the other day.

Different kinds of phrasal verbs

There are mainly four kinds of phrasal verbs. Here is a guide to the basics of phrasal verbs.

Separable and non-separable phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are made by putting adverb particles or prepositions after verbs. Phrasal verbs made with prepositions are usually non-separable. That means the verb and the preposition always go together.

We set off for the beach. (NOT We set for the beach off.)

He fell off the ladder. (NOT He fell the ladder off.)

Phrasal verbs made with adverb particles are usually separable. That means the particle can go before or after the object.

picked up the baby. OR I picked the baby up.

She switched off the light. OR She switched the light off.

The two parts of a separable phrasal verb are always separated when the object is a pronoun.

picked her up. (NOT I picked up her.)

Phrasal Verbs which Don’t Take Objects

Phrasal verbs which take objects are always separable. Some phrasal verbs do not take objects. These are always inseparable.

They have gotten away.

The car broke down on the way to work.

get up early in the morning.

How do you know whether a phrasal verb is separable or not? Well, there is no easy way of finding it out. But you can do one thing. Use a noun or noun phrase as object and do not separate the phrasal verb. In this way, you will always be correct.

Using want

Infinitive with to

After want, we normally use an infinitive with to.

  • I want to go. (NOT I want go.) (NOT I want going.)
  • I want to come back here again.
  • She wants to be a pilot.

Want cannot be followed by that-clauses, but we can use an object + infinitive structure.

  • I want him to go now.
  • Do you want me to make you some tea? (NOT Do you want that I make you some coffee?)
  • I don’t want him to come here again.
  • I want you to be my queen.

Want can be followed by an object + complement.

  • We want him dead or alive.
  • I want him back.
  • I want the job finished by Tuesday.

When the object complement is a noun, we use to be or as before it.

  • I want you to be my girlfriend.
  • OR I want you as my girlfriend.

In British English, want can mean ‘need’. In this case, it can be followed by an –ing form.

  • Your hair wants cutting. (= Your hair needs to be cut.)
  • That carpet wants a clean. (= That carpet needs to be cleaned.)

Note that we do not use want in polite offers or requests.

  • Would you like some help? (NOT Would you want some help?)

Verbs: some common mistakes

Here is a list of errors students often make in the use of verbs.

  • Incorrect: My father told me that honesty was the best policy.
  • Correct: My father told me that honesty is the best policy.

We usually use a past tense in the subordinate clause when the verb in the main clause is in the past tense. However, a past tense is unnecessary when the subordinate clause gives information that is always true.

  • Incorrect: The cashier-cum-accountant are on leave today.
  • Correct: The cashier-cum-accountant is on leave today.

Expressions like the cashier-cum-accountant refer to one person and hence a singular verb is needed.

  • Incorrect: The cashier and the accountant is on leave today.
  • Correct: The cashier and the accountant are on leave today.
  • Incorrect: I am so weak that I may not walk.
  • Correct: I am so weak that I cannot walk.

To talk about ability we use can, not may.

  • Incorrect: Tell me why are you beating the child.
  • Correct: Tell me why you are beating the child.
  • Incorrect: I don’t know why is she late.
  • Correct: I don’t know why she is late.

The two sentences given above are examples of indirect questions. In indirect questions, there is no inversion of subject and verb.

  • Incorrect: The ship was drowned.
  • Correct: The ship sank.

People drown. Ships and boats sink.

  • Incorrect: Seldom I visit my parents.
  • Correct: Seldom do I visit my parents.
  • Incorrect: This food is hard to be digested.
  • Correct: This food is hard to digest.
  • Incorrect: I never have, and I never will do it.
  • Correct: I have never done and I will never do it.

Word order: position of verbs

Verbs usually go immediately after subjects. There are mainly two kinds of verbs: auxiliary verbs and main verbs.

A verb can consist of just one word. Affirmative sentences in the simple present and simple past tenses have one-word verbs.

  • John broke another window yesterday.
  • Alice invited me to her party.
  • He rejected the offer.

Sentences in other tenses have verbs consisting of more than one word. Note that in a three-word verb, the first two are auxiliary verbs whereas the third one is the main verb.

  • They have been invited. (Auxiliary verbs: have, been; main verb: invited)
  • Susie is writing. (Auxiliary verb: is; main verb: writing)

Auxiliary verbs always go before main verbs.

In questions the auxiliary verb comes before the subject whereas the main verb goes after the subject.

  • Has Susie arrived? (NOT Has arrived Susie?)
  • What did he say? (NOT What said he?)

In WH-questions, question words go before the auxiliary verbs.

We can form affirmative sentences without auxiliary verbs, but we cannot form questions or negatives without them.

The only type of word that can go between the subject and the verb are adverbs of frequency. Examples are: usually, often, never, seldom, always and occasionally.

  • She often visits her friends in Singapore.
  • I usually get up at 7 am.
  • We sometimes watch action films.

When the verb consists of three words, the frequency adverb goes after the first.

  • I have never been invited to their parties. (NOT I have been never invited to their parties.) (NOT I have been invited never to their parties.)

Other adverbs usually go at the beginning or at the end of a sentence.

Phrasal verbs with pass

A phrasal verb is a two-word idiomatic expression. It is made by putting a verb and a preposition or an adverb particle together.

Pass is used in a number of common phrasal verbs. Here is a list of them.

Pass around

To pass something around is to give it to everyone present.

She passed the notice around.

Pass away

To pass away is to die.

She passed away peacefully last night.

Pass by

Pass by has several meanings

a) to miss an opportunity

I don’t want this opportunity to pass me by.

b) to visit briefly

We passed by the supermarket on the way home.

c) to go past without stopping

Somebody just passed by the window.

Pass on

Pass on has several meanings.

a) to die

She passed on when she was just thirty-three.

b) give a message to someone

Will you pass on that the match has been cancelled?

c) to decline an opportunity or an offer

It was such a good opportunity that I didn’t want to pass it on.

Pass out

To pass out is to lose consciousness.

She passed out from fatigue.

Pass through

To pass through is to visit a place briefly.

I passed through Thane on my way to Mumbai.

Pass to

To pass something to someone else is to give them the ownership of it.

This restaurant will pass to his son when he dies.

Pass up

To pass up is to decline an opportunity.

Idioms and phrases with play

A number of common idiomatic expressions use the word play. Here is a list of them.

Play along

To play along is to pretend that something is funny or good just to make someone else happy.

I knew that she was playing a prank on me but I decided to play along.

Play around

  • To play around is to act in a silly manner.

Play at = to do something just for fun

  • He played at painting for a while, but he never really got serious about it.

Play back

To play back is to listen to something that has been recorded.

  • I will play it back once the recording is over.

Play down

To play something down is to try to make it seem less important.

  • He played down the fact that there was a police complaint against him.

Play off

A play off is usually a game played to decide the winner of a tie.

Play off can also mean ‘make people compete against each other for your own benefits.’

  • He is a shrewd businessman who has always managed to make his rivals play off each other.

Play on

To play on is to exploit the feelings or fears of another person to one’s own advantage.

  • He always plays on her insecurities.

Play out = see through till the end

  • We are determined to play it out until the very end, no matter what the outcome will be.

Phrasal verbs with take

Take is used in a number of common phrasal verbs. Here is a simple exercise about phrases using the word take.

Complete the following sentences.

1. The new manager is expected to take ……………………….. on March 15th.

a) on                      b) over                 c) down

2. He took …………………………. fishing on retirement.

a) to                       b) for                     c) over

3. We moved that table to another room because it was taking ………………………… a lot of space.

a) up                      b) over                 c) to

4. The inn-keeper refused to take us …………………………..

a) in                       b) on                     c) over

5. She was taken ……………………………. a French woman.

a) for                     b) to                      c) up

6. Julie takes …………………………… her elder sister.

a) after                 b) on                     b) up

7. The opposition asked the minister to take his statement ……………………………….

a) back                  b) on                     c) up

8. The aircraft took ………………………………….. on time.

a) off                     b) on                     c) down


1. The new manager is expected to take over on March 15th. (take over – assume charge)

2. He took to fishing on retirement. (take to – develop as a hobby)

3. We moved that table to another room because it was taking up a lot of space. (take up – occupy space)

4. The inn-keeper refused to take us in. (take in – receive people as guests)

5. She was taken for a French woman. (take for – suppose to be)

6. Julie takes after her elder sister. (take after – resemble)

7. The opposition asked the minister to take his statement back. (take back – withdraw a statement)

8. The aircraft took off on time.

Uses of the verb do

Read the following sentences in the simple present tense.

  • I walk. I don’t drive. Do I walk? Yes, I doDo I drive? No, I don’t drive.
  • He speaks English. He does not speak French. Does he speak English? Yes, he doesDoes he speak French? No, he doesn’t.
  • I like coffee. I do not like tea. Do I like coffee? Yes, I do. Do I like tea? No, I don’t.
  • Birds fly. Animals don’t fly. Do birds fly? Yes, they do. Do animals fly? No, they don’t.
  • Cats chase mice. Cats don’t chase dogs. Do cats chase mice? Yes, they doDo cats chase dogs? No, they don’t.

The auxiliary verb do is used to make questions and negative sentences in the simple present tense. Does is the singular form of do.

Note that don’t and doesn’t are the contracted forms of do not and does not.

In the sentences given above, do is used as an auxiliary verb. Do can also be used as the main verb in affirmative clauses. When do is used as a main verb, it can refer to any kind of activity.

  • Do your homework.
  • He does his work diligently.
  • He did his job well.
  • I do my homework in the evening.
  • Who did this?
  • I have cooked the meals, and I will do the dishes now.

Do as a substitute verb

In British English, do can also be used as a substitute for the main verb after an auxiliary.

  • ‘Do you think she will recognize me?’ ‘She might do.’ (= She might recognize you.)

In American English, do is not normally used like this.

  • ‘Do you think our team will win?’ ‘They might do.’ (GB) ‘They might.’ (US)

Phrasal verbs with bring

Bring is used in a number of common phrasal verbs. Here is a list of them.

Bring something about – cause it to happen

Bring someone round – make him conscious again

Bring up – a) raise a child; b) cause something to be considered; c) vomit

Bring down – cause to be lower

Bring off – cause to be successful; succeed in an attempt

Bring on – lead to; help to produce

Bring out – cause to appear clearly

Bring somebody round to (one’s opinion) – cause or persuade him to accept it or agree with it

Bring out – publish

Bring in – introduce

Phrasal verbs with bring exercise

Complete the following sentences.

1. His dishonesty brought …………………….. his ruin.

a) in                       b) about               c) out

2. The government plans to bring …………………………….. a new legislation to eliminate corruption.

a) in                       b) round              c) about

3. Vitamin deficiency brings …………………………….. many ailments.

a) in                       b) on                     c) down

4. The publisher is bringing ……………………………. a new edition of this book.

a) out                    b) on                     c) down

5. He was hit hard on the head but the doctors managed to bring him …………………………… after a while.

a) about               b) round              c) on

6. At last I brought him ………………………………. to my opinion.

a) about               b) round              c) up

7. The matter was brought ……………………………….. by a member of the council.

a) up                      b) about               c) out


1. His dishonesty brought about his ruin. (bring about – cause to happen)

2. The government plans to bring in a new legislation to eliminate corruption. (bring in – introduce)

3. Vitamin deficiency brings on many ailments. (bring on – cause)

4. The publisher is bringing out a new edition of this book. (bring out – publish)

5. He was hit hard on the head but the doctors managed to bring him round after a while. (bring round – cause somebody to regain consciousness)

6. At last I brought him round to my opinion. (bring somebody round to – persuade)

7. The matter was brought up by a member of the council. (brought up – raise for discussion)

Not so common reporting verbs

In informal spoken reports, say, think and ask are the most common reporting verbs. These verbs can go before sentences or between clauses.

  • She asked me what I was doing there.
  • He said that he wouldn’t go.
  • I thought that it was funny.

A much wider variety of reporting verbs are also available in English. If you repeat the reporting verbs say and think, your writing and speech will become boring after a while.

The reporting verbs given in this lesson are not very common, but they are quite useful.

To say something suddenly

Use a reporting verb like blurt, exclaim or snap to suggest that somebody said something suddenly.


To blurt something out is to say something suddenly without thinking about the consequences.

  • She blurted out his name.

To snap is to speak to someone in a sudden, angry way.

  • ‘Who do you think you are?’ he snapped angrily.


To exclaim is to say something suddenly and loudly, especially because you are surprised, impressed, upset, angry etc

  • ‘Hurrah!’ Jack exclaimed. ‘We’ve won!’

Giving advice, opinion etc.

Some common reporting verbs used to give advice or express your opinion are: advise, argue, caution, note, observe, warn etc.

  • The mother cautioned the child to be careful while crossing the road.
  • The teacher warned the students to be extra careful while handling harmful chemicals.

Say loudly

The following reporting verbs can be used to suggest that somebody said something loudly: exclaim, bellow, call, cry, scream, shout, yell


To bellow is to shout something loudly.

  • ‘I won’t go!’ he bellowed.


To scream is to make a loud cry because you are frightened or hurt.

  • When he saw a dark figure moving towards him, the boy screamed in horror.


To yell is to say something in a loud voice.

  • Why are you yelling at me?


To shout is to say something loudly.

  • He shouted that he was busy.

The future perfect tense

The future perfect tense is used to describe an action that will have been completed at a certain point of time in the future. Consider this situation. You are working on a project and you will finish it in two months. Then at the end of two months, you will have completed that project. Note the form of the verb in used in this tense: will / shall + have + past participle form of the verb.

The future perfect tense is commonly used with a future time expression like by next week, by the end of this year etc.

  • The train will have left by the time you reach the station. (Here the phrase by the time you reach identifies a certain point of time in the future.)
  • will have moved into my new office by the end of this month.
  • will have eaten every chocolate in that box before my mom returns from work.
  • Susan will have finished her studies before she gets married.

Negative forms are made by putting not after will / shall.

  • will not have learned my lessons before dad arrives.
  • We will not have repaired the roof before monsoon sets in.

The question forms are made by putting will / shall before the subject.

  • Will you have gone to bed before I arrive?
  • Will they have returned the money before the end of this week?

An overview of the future tenses

The future perfect tense is one of the four future tenses. Here is an overview of the other three future tense forms.

Simple future

Form: will / shall + infinitive.

  • She will come.
  • I shall help you.

Future continuous

Form: will / shall + be + -ing form of the verb.

  • She will be working on that report now.
  • They will be having dinner.

Future perfect continuous tense

Form: will / shall + have + been + -ing form of the verb

  • She will have been writing an essay.

Note that this tense form is very rarely used.

Copular verbs and action verbs

In English, there are mainly two types of verbs: copular verbs and action verbs.

Copular verbs are also called linking verbs because they link the subject with a following adjective or noun. The most common copular verb is be. It has several forms. Examples are: is, am, are, was, were, being, been etc. As you can see, being and been are the present and past participle forms of be.

Copular verbs refer to states, rather than actions. Therefore, they are also called stative verbs.

Although copular verbs are different from action verbs, they are still considered finite verbs. And therefore, each clause can have just one copular verb. Note that infinitives, participles and gerunds are not finite verbs.

Action verbs, on the other hand, actually describe accomplishments, achievements or activity.

Copular verbs do not state what the subject does. Instead, they show what or who the subject is.

  • She is an architect.
  • That seems impossible.
  • She turned pale.
  • The night grew dark.
  • The milk turned sour.

As you can see, in all of the sentences given above, the copular verb shows a certain state of the subject.

We use adjectives to modify copular verbs. Action verbs, on the other hand, are modified by adverbs.


  • She drove carefully through the streets. (Here the adverb carefully modifies the action verb drove.)
  • She was careful as she drove through the streets. (Here the adjective careful modifies the copular verb was.)

Verb terminology

While learning about verbs, you will come across grammatical terms like infinitives and gerunds. Below are explanations of these frequently used grammar terms.


The infinitive is the base form of the verb. It is sometimes preceded by the marker to and then it is called the to-infinitive. Remember that that ‘to’ is a not a part of the infinitive and the infinitive can also be used without to.

Read the examples given below.

  • She wants to go. (Here the phrase ‘to go’ is an example of a to-infinitive.)
  • She made me cry. (Here the infinitive ‘cry’ is used without the marker to.)

The infinitive is a non-finite verb. In other words, it does not change its form when the number or person of the subject changes.

  • She wants to leave.
  • I want to leave.
  • They want to leave.
  • John wants to leave.

As you can see the infinitive ‘to leave’ remains the same regardless of the change in the number and the person of the subject. Non-finite verbs cannot act as principal verbs.

The gerunds

A gerund is a verb form ending in –ing. Gerunds are non-finite verbs. A gerund can be the subject or object of a verb. It can also act as the object of a preposition.

  • Smoking can cause cancer. (Here the gerund smoking acts as the subject of the verb.)
  • We don’t allow smoking in the kitchen. (Here the gerund smoking acts as the object of the verb allow.)

gerund can also act as the object of a preposition.

  • I am thinking of taking a break. (Here the gerund taking is the object of the preposition of.)

Remember that only –ing forms can be used after a preposition. Infinitives are not possible.

  • She is confident of winning. (NOT She is confident of to win.) (NOT She is confident to win.)

Verbs: Some common mistakes

The verb write can take two objects. Sometimes this causes problems.

  • Incorrect: He wrote me.
  • Correct: He wrote to me.


We write something. (He wrote a letter.)

We write something to someone. (He wrote a letter to his mother.) (NOT He wrote a letter his mother.)

We write someone something. (He wrote his mother a letter.) (NOT He wrote to his mother a letter.)

We write to someone. (He wrote to me.) (NOT He wrote me.)


The verb explain can be followed by two objects – a direct object and an indirect object.

Note that we explain something to someone. (NOT We explain someone something.)

  • Incorrect: I shall explain them this.
  • Correct: I shall explain this to them.

The verb suggest

We suggest something to somebody. We cannot suggest somebody something.

  • Incorrect: He suggested me this.
  • Correct: He suggested this to me.


The verb oblige takes the preposition to. When you are obliged to do something, you are forced to do it because it is a law, a rule or a duty.

  • I felt obliged to help him.
  • am obliged to you for this good turn. (NOT I am obliged of you for this good turn.)

The verb invite

The verb invite can be followed by to or for.

We invite someone to/for something:

  • I have invited my uncle and aunt to dinner.
  • He invited me for a drink but I politely refused.

The verb tell

The verb tell does not take a preposition.

  • Incorrect: He told to me to go.
  • Correct: He told me to go.

The verb ask

When ask is followed by two objects, the indirect object (the person) normally comes first, without a preposition.

  • Incorrect: She did not ask any question to him.
  • Correct: She did not ask him any question.
  • Incorrect: I will ask the time to that man.
  • Correct: I will ask that man the time.

Copular or linking verbs

We have already learned that intransitive verbs do not take objects.

Examples are: sleep, sit, rest, weep, laugh, cry etc.

She is weeping.

The child sleeps.

The boy was laughing.

There is yet another variety of verbs which do not normally take objects. These are called copular verbs or linking verbs. While intransitive verbs make complete sense on their own, copular verbs require a word or phrase to make their meaning complete.

Consider the example given below.

She is….

As you can see this sentence does not make complete sense. To make it complete we need to supply a word or a phrase. The word or phrase thus added at the end of a sentence to make its meaning complete is called a complement. And the verb which joins a subject with its complement is called a copular or linking verb.

When this word/phrase refers to the subject, it is called a subject complement. When it refers to the object, it is called an object complement. The linking verb is also called a verb of incomplete predication.

The most common copular verbs are: act, be, become, feel, appear, grow, taste, sound etc.

Copular verbs do not normally take an object. But sometimes these verbs may be used transitively.

Examples are given below.

She acted well. (Copular use)

She acted her part well. (Transitive use)

I am feeling unwell. (Copular use)

The doctor felt the patient’s pulse. (Transitive use)

The proposal sounds interesting. (Copular verb)

The general sounded the bugle. (Transitive verb)

The boy has grown taller. (Copular verb)

The farmers grow vegetables.. (Transitive verb)

Phrasal verbs beginning with put

The word put is used in a large number of phrasal verbs.

Put across

To put something across is to make it understood.

He failed to put his message across. (= He failed to convey his idea.)

People working in sales and marketing should be able to put themselves across well.

Put aside

To put something aside is to set it aside.

He was feeling sleepy, so he put his books aside and went to bed.

Put away

a) To put something away is to keep them in their proper place.

You must put away those toys when you have finished playing with them.

b) To put something away is to save them for later use.

She makes it a point to put away a few dollars each week.

c. To put something away is to discard it.

It is high time you put away those false notions.

d. Put away can also mean eat or drink a large quantity of food or beverages.

If he is really hungry he needs just two minutes to put away a full meal.

e) To put somebody away is to send them to jail.

They put him away for killing his neighbor.

f) To put an animal away is to subject them to mercy killing.

The dog was so badly wounded that the doctor had to put him away.

Put down

a) To put something down is to write it down.

b) To put somebody down is to suppress them.

The government called the military to put down the rebellion.

c) To put something down to something else is to attribute the former to the latter.

He put the mistakes down to carelessness.

 c) To put somebody down is to regard or categorize them as..

He was put down as a chronic nuisance.

d) To put somebody down is to belittle them.

I hate men who put their wives down in front of visitors.

Classification of verbs

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Verbs can be classified in several ways. First, some verbs require an object to complete their meaning.

‘She read…’ Read what? ‘She read a story.’

These verbs that require an object are called transitive verbs. Verbs that do not require an object are called intransitive verbs.

Note that most verbs can be both transitive and intransitive.

‘The ship sank.’ (Intransitive)

‘The explosion sank the ship.’ (Transitive)

Some verbs can take a direct object and an indirect object. These verbs are sometimes called ditransitive verbs. Of course, this is not a term you will hear every day.

‘Loud music gives me a headache.’

In the example given above, the verb gives has two objects – me and headache.

Finite and non-finite verbs

Verbs can also be classified as finite or non-finite.

A finite verb can be the main verb of the sentence. Its form is determined by the number and person of the subject.

work at a bank.

He works at a bank.

have worked with children before.

She has worked with mentally challenged people.

Non-finite verbs cannot be main verbs. There are mainly three types of non-finite verbs: infinitives, gerunds and participles.

Linking Verbs

A linking verb connects a subject with its complement. These verbs are often called copular verbs or copulas.

Most linking verbs are forms of the verb be.

She is my sister.

We are happy.

They were shocked to hear the news.

A few other verbs related to the five senses are also considered as linking verbs. Examples are: look, feel, sound, taste, smell. Some stative verbs are also considered as copular verbs. Examples are: appear, seem, become, grow, turn, prove and remain. Note that a linking verb should be followed by a noun or an adjective.

Students sometimes incorrectly use adverbs after linking verbs. This is a mistake.

She looked happy. (NOT She looked happily.)

The fish smells awful. (NOT The fish smells awfully.)

feel bad. (NOT I feel badly.)

Common Phrasal Verbs

Here is a list of common phrasal verbs.

Account for

This is an inseparable phrasal verb.

To account for something is to give a reason or explanation for it.

  • How will you account for the money you spent on that fancy dress?
  • How do you account for the sudden improvement in your grades?
  • The student was brought before the principal to account for his behavior.
  • Exports account for nearly 60% of our revenue.

Act out

To act out is to express your feelings through your words or actions.

  • She was acting out her feelings of insecurity by being overly possessive.

Act up

When children act up, they behave badly. When machines act up, they fail to work properly.

  • My kids act up whenever we have guests.
  • The car is acting up again.

Add in

To add in something is to include it.

  • If you add in the information about his family background, you will understand why he behaves so strangely.

Add up

When something adds up it makes sense.

  • Your arguments just don’t add up.
  • There is something about his behavior that just doesn’t add up.

To add up is to calculate the total.

  • Add up those numbers.

Allow for

To allow for something is to take it into consideration.

  • The survey does not allow for the fact that many students drop out of school before they turn fourteen.

Answer back

To answer back is to reply rudely.

  • Her children are very badly brought up. They answer back all the time.

Answer for

To answer for something is to take responsibility for something you have done.

  • You will have to answer for your actions.

When to use the passive voice

Verbs can be active or passive. In the active voice, the subject is the doer. In the passive voice, the subject is the person or thing affected by the action of some other agent.

  • The government approved the policy. (Active)
  • The policy was approved by the government. (Passive)

There is nothing wrong with a passive construction, but if you can express the same idea using an active verb, you should do so. Passive forms show an unwillingness to shoulder responsibility. In several passive constructions the doer of the action is not mentioned at all.

  • My father built this house. (Better than ‘This house was built by my father.’)

The passive voice is common in academic writing; however, it should be avoided in persuasive writing.

Don’t mix active and passive structures in the same sentence. If one clause is in the passive voice, the other, too, should be in the passive voice.

Cases where the passive voice is preferred

There are a few situations where the passive voice is particularly helpful.

The passive voice is used when we want to draw attention to the person or thing that was affected by the action of the subject.

  • The unidentified victim was run over by a speeding truck.

Here the focus is on the person who was acted upon.

The passive voice is also preferred in cases where the doer is not important.

  • The pyramids were built around 400 AD.

Here the focus is on the pyramids and not on the person(s) who built them and hence we prefer the passive voice.

Passive Verb Formation

The passive forms are created by combining a form of be with the past participle form of the main verb.

Phrasal verbs with be and some other verbs

Bang up

To bang somebody up is to put them in prison. The expression lock up has the same meaning.

  • He was banged up for smuggling.

Be off

This is an inseparable phrasal verb.

When you are off you go away.

  • I am just off to see my Attorney. I will be back in an hour.
  • It looks like she has been bitten by the travel bug. She is off to Egypt next week.

When something is off it is not working.

  • The power was off for several hours.

When an event is off, it has been cancelled.

  • Due to the chairman’s illness, Tuesday’s meeting is off.

Be out

When a book or a magazine is out, it is available to general public.

  • His latest novel will be out next month.
  • The stories of her many affairs are out now.

When a person is out, they are not at home or work.

  • The Chairman is out at the moment.

Black out

When you black out, you faint.

The expression pass out has the same meaning.

  • She was feeling dizzy and blacked out.

Blow out

To blow a candle out is to extinguish it.

  • The birthday boy blew the candles out and cut the cake.

Blow over

When a controversy blows over, it is forgotten.

  • His publicist has advised him to keep a low profile until the controversy blows over.

Blow up

When something blows up it explodes.

  • Police foiled the terrorists’ plan to blow up the railway station.

Blow up

When you blow up, you become angry.

  • I still can’t understand why she blew up over something so silly.

When you blow something up you exaggerate it.

To blow up a balloon over a tyre is to fill it with air.

Blurt out

To blurt out is to say something without thinking.

  • James was never popular with his friends. He would always blurt out things that were said in private.
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