Defining the Verb: Transitive Verbs, Auxiliary Verbs, and More
The Standard Definition of a Verb
Most people think of verbs simply as “action words.” While verbs certainly do describe actions, saying that a verb is only an “action word” does not tell the full story. What about verbs such as know, like, and want? A person does not perform any kind of action when they know something. And then there are verbs such as can, must, and will which describe things that a person doesn’t do at all. No one would ever say, “I am going to must today.” Yet must is a verb.
Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
When most people think of verbs, they think of what are known as intransitive verbs. These verbs make sense when they stand alone. An example of an intransitive verb is work. “I work” is a simple, complete sentence.
Verbs that require additional information to make a complete sentence are called transitive verbs. For example, like cannot stand on its own and is, therefore, a transitive verb. The sentence “I like” does not make sense. The reader is missing essential information. Sentences such as “I like skiing” and “I like it when you call me Gummy Bear” make sense because the reader has the information required by the verb like.
Lexical and Auxiliary Verbs
Intransitive verbs and transitive verbs are kinds of lexical verbs. A lexical verb is any verb that is not used for the sole purpose of helping another verb. Such helping verbs are called auxiliary verbs.
I will illustrate the difference between lexical and auxiliary verbs using an example.
I can fit into my old pants.
In this sentence, can is the auxiliary verb, and fit is the lexical verb. We know this because “I fit into my old pants” is a logical sentence, whereas “I can into my old pants” is not. The addition of can modifies the meaning of fit. It tells us that the speaker merely has the ability to fit into their old pants instead of telling us that the speaker actually has fit into their old pants recently.
When to Use Auxiliary Verbs
Auxiliary verbs are not often thought of when one thinks of verbs. However, as the previous example shows, they can be very useful.
Auxiliary verbs can be used to make a lexical verb negative.
Because lexical verbs do not have negative forms, they need the help of an auxiliary verb to be expressed negatively. For example, 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 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” into “Live you in New York?” Again, the auxiliary verb do is required to say, “Do you live in New York?”
Auxiliary verbs can be used to add emphasis to a statement.
Let’s say you live in New York. 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!”
Auxiliary verbs can be used to replace a verbal phrase.
Conversations would be much longer without auxiliary verbs. For instance, without the verb does, you could not say, “I live in New York, and he does, too.” Instead, you would have to say, “I live in New York, and he lives in New York, too.”
When most people think of a verb, they think only of intransitive verbs. However, there are other types of verbs with unique and very useful purposes.
Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.