A verb phrase is a group of two or more words that have the same function as a single verb in a sentence.
- Johnny eats an apple every day. (verb)
- Johnny is eating an apple, (verb phrase)
- Gerry ate three cheese sandwiches, (verb)
- Gerry has eaten three-cheese sandwiches, (verb phrase)
- She showed me the photos of her little granddaughter, (verb)
- She had shown me the photos of her little granddaughter. (verb phrase)
- She was showing me the photos of her little granddaughter. (verb phrase)
- We waited for you for over an hour, (verb)
- We have been waiting for you for over an hour, (verb phrase)
- We went to the cinema yesterday, (verb)
- We could go to the cinema again tomorrow, (verb phrase)
- I wrote to them last week, (verb)
- I will write to them this evening, (verb phrase)
- I have been writing letters all evening, (verb phrase)
- Maria knew what to do. (verb)
- Maria would have known what to do. (verb phrase)
The main verb in a verb phrase is the word that expresses the activity, event, feeling, etc that is being described in the sentence.
All main verbs are either action verbs or linking verbs.
- Her brother was singing loudly in the shower.
- Mrs. Lee had slipped on a patch of ice.
- My aunt will arrive tomorrow night.
- Cats will always chase birds.
- It will be dark soon.
- It may seem simple to you but it may look very complicated to her.
- They could understand nothing of what the man was saying to them.
- You must come at once!
- You may start work on Wednesday.
Other examples of main verbs or lexical verbs are ask, become, bite, build, buy, catch, clean, cook, deny, fall, find, finish, get, learn, love, make, move, play, run, swim, talk, teach, walk, wash and work.
An auxiliary verb is a verb that is used along with a main verb to make different tenses or to express ideas such as possibility, necessity and permission.
Auxiliary verbs are sometimes called helping verbs.
- Her brother was sitting in the lounge.
- Mrs. Lee had forgotten to bring her umbrella.
- Spring will soon be here.
- Cats and dogs do fight.
- They could make more of an effort to understand what I am telling them.
- It might not rain tomorrow.
- You must try to be patient!
- The painters may finish the job next week.
The main auxiliary verbs in English are be, have, do, can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must.
There may be more than one auxiliary verb within a verb phrase:
- The cat has been frightening the canary again.
- My aunt will be leaving next week.
- It might be raining tomorrow.
- You could have tried harder.
- By the end of next month, I will have been working here for five years.
And one auxiliary verb may relate to more than one main verb in a sentence:
- People were [auxiliary verb] singing [main verb] and dancing [main verb] in the streets.
- They had been cutting and stitching for days to get the dress finished on time.
- Reporters have been coming and going all day.
- She is either laughing or crying.
Most verbs in English are either lexical verbs or else auxiliary verbs. However, be, have and do can act both as lexical verbs and also as auxiliary verbs:
- I am her brother. (lexical verb – a ‘linking verb’ relating the complement ‘her brother’ to the subject ‘I’)
- I am working at the moment. (auxiliary verb – the main verb is ‘working’, and ‘am’ simply indicates the tense of the verb)
- Maggie was ill. (lexical verb – a ‘linking verb’ linking the complement ‘ill’ to the subject ‘Maggie’)
- Maggie was singing. (auxiliary verb – the main verb is ‘singing’, and ‘was’ indicates the tense of the verb)
- The Smiths have a new car. (lexical verb; ‘have’ = ‘possess’ or ‘own’)
- The Smiths have bought a new car. (auxiliary verb – the main verb is ‘bought’, and ‘have’ indicates the tense of the verb)
- Fortunately, they had some chocolate with them. (lexical verb; ‘had’ = ‘were carrying’)
- Fortunately, they had brought some chocolate with them. (auxiliary verb – the main verb is ‘brought’, and ‘had’ shows the tense of the verb)
- We did a lot of interesting things on our holiday, (lexical verb, describing an activity)
- We did not see anything interesting at all. (auxiliary verb – the main verb is ‘see’, and ‘did’ indicates the tense of the verb)
- We do all we can to help, (lexical verb, describing action)
- We do want to help, (auxiliary verb – the main verb is ‘want’, and ‘do’ makes the statement more emphatic, as well as indicating the tense of the verb)
The main verb in a verb phrase takes different forms depending on the auxiliary verb that comes before it.
If the auxiliary verb is be, then the main verb will be in the form of a present participle (the -ing form of a verb):
- The birds were singing in the trees outside.
- I was working in the garden all weekend.
- Everybody is talking about his new book.
If the auxiliary verb is have, then the main verb will be in the form of a past participle (the form of the verb that ends in -ed, -t, -n, etc):
- Have you packed your swimming costume?
- I’ve brought everything we need.
- The girls said they had never seen the man before.
- I have made a list of the things we need to buy.
If the auxiliary verb is do or a modal auxiliary, then the main verb will be in the form of an infinitive without to (that is, the base form of the verb):
- I do like ice-cream.
- We could come tomorrow if you like.
- I will see you next week.
- Why worry? It might never happen.
The verbs dare, in the sense of ‘be willing to risk (doing something dangerous)’, need, ought to and used to are often counted among the modal auxiliaries.
- I daren’t tell her that I’ve forgotten to buy her a birthday present.
- You needn’t leave yet. There’s plenty of time.
- I think we ought to leave now.
- He used to live in that house over there.