The standard definition of a verb
Most people think of verbs simply as “action words.” It is true that verbs denote actions, but saying that a verb is only an “action word” does not tell the full story. What about verbs such as know, like, want, and possess? When a person knows something, they do not perform any physical action. Then there are verbs such as can, must, and will which denote things that one cannot do at all — no one would ever say, “I am musting,” or “I am going to must today.”
Transitive and intransitive verbs
When most people think of verbs, they think of what are known as intransitive verbs — verbs which can make sense when they stand alone. An example of an intransitive verb is work. “I work,” is a simple sentence in which the verb work makes sense without additional information.
There are also transitive verbs that require additional information. For instance, the verb like cannot stand on its own — the sentence, “I like,” does not make sense. The reader is missing essential information and will wonder what it is that the speaker likes. “I like skiing,” “I like pizza,” and “I like spending time with you,” all make sense because the reader has the information required by the verb like.
Lexical and auxiliary verbs
Both intransitive and transitive verbs fall under the category of lexical verbs, which are verbs that are not used for the sole purpose of helping another verb (such “helping verbs” are called auxiliary verbs). All verbs are either lexical verbs or auxiliary verbs.
An example should help illustrate the difference between these two kinds of verbs. Consider the sentence:
“I can visit my grandparents.”
In this sentence, can is there to help visit. The sentence, “I visit my grandparents” makes sense — it means that I visit my grandparents from time to time. Because visit can stand alone, it is certainly not in this sentence only to help another verb, and it is therefore a lexical verb. To express that I have the ability to visit my grandparents (as opposed to saying that I actually do visit them), visit needs the help of the auxiliary verb can. In this sentence, can is there only to give this additional meaning to visit, and it is therefore an auxiliary verb.
Uses of auxiliary verbs
Auxiliary verbs are not often thought of when one thinks of verbs, but these multi-purpose verbs are very useful.
Auxiliary verbs can be used to make a lexical verb negative, as lexical verbs do not have negative forms. If someone says, “I live in New York,” a person cannot express the opposite by saying, “I live not in New York,” or “I liven’t in New York.” The auxiliary verb do is needed to say, “I do not live in New York,” or “I don’t live in New York.”
Auxiliary verbs can also be used to ask questions. You cannot ask someone if he or she lives in New York simply by rearranging the phrase, “You live in New York,” to “Live you in New York?” Again, the auxiliary verb do is required to say, “Do you live in New York?”
Additionally, auxiliary verbs can be used for emphasis. Let’s say you live in New York, and you have told somebody this but she doesn’t believe you. You would not emphasize your statement by repeating it with the emphasis on the verb live — “I live in New York!” You would use the auxiliary verb do and emphasize it instead — “I do live in New York!”
Finally, auxiliary verbs can be used to stand in the place of a verbal phrase. In the sentence, “I live in New York, and he does, too,” does stands for the phrase, “lives in New York.” Using the auxiliary verb saves the speaker from having to say, “I live in New York, and he lives in New York, too.”
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.