Verbs: Teaching Implications


The commonly used definition of a verb as a 'doing' word leads to considerable confusion. Many verbs do not appear to be doing words (eg be; have; think) and many nouns and adjectives appear to be more active (eg hunting; angry). Avoid this definition and concentrate on looking at how verbs function.

Standard English:

There are several grammatical errors related to the verb that arise quite frequently in children's (and adults'!) writing, often due to distinctions between SE and dialects.

  • The past tense of 'be', which in SE is conjugated differently than in regional dialects. For example,

    Cockney You was great Standard English You were great
    Devon He were late Standard English He was late

  • Using the inflected past tense when the past participle is required. For example,

    He had went (went = inflected past tense; gone = past participle)
    She was sat down (sat = inflected past tense; sitting = present participle)

  • Using the preposition of rather than the contracted verb 've. For example,

    I could of (I could've)
    She should of (she should've)

Finite verbs

Confident, effective writing uses, on average, fewer finite verbs than less effective writing. This is because weaker writing often relies on the finite verbs to deliver all the action, whereas better writing expands the sentence with more descriptive detail. Look at the three extracts below, the first two from an A grade GCSE script and the third from an F grade GCSE script. The first two pieces use few finite verbs, and makes good use of adjectives, adverbial phrases and non-finite clauses to create a strong visual and sensual picture of the scene. By contrast, the third piece is a stream of finite verbs which keep the narrative action moving forward at too fast a pace, allowing no time for narrative reflection or for additional detail.

Who knows what might lurk around the next corner? The high rise buildings threaten the dark alleys and streets. All is dark and silent.

As I watch over the city I see the moonlight catching an office window making it look almost golden. The smells from the rubbish dumped by people shopping and the overloaded bins rises up. The stench is unbelievable like dead bodies left to rot in a cold, damp cellar.

When I came out she said she was going to run away and never come back. I just said "yes" and carried on to work. At 6.00 when I come home from work I went in her bedroom and some of her clothes had gone. So as I looked in her room I looked she had gone. I sat down and phoned the police and they came over and I gave them a statement and a picture of what she looked like and...

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