Semper letteris mandate
As a native speaker of English, you already know which words in a sentence are verbs, even if you can’t identify them when asked. The fact is, whenever you change the tense of a subject you automatically shift the verb to match. And since verbs are the only words that change form according to tense, in order to identify verbs, all you need do is change the tense and see which words change accordingly.
It’s really that easy.
The basic technique
Let’s start with a very simple sentence:
Peter and Paul went to Kentucky.
Now shift the tense to the future.
Peter and Paul are going to Kentucky.
The only word that changed was went which became are going. This tells you immediately that went is a verb.
Now try this one:
No matter how you look at it, there is no artistic merit in the Transformers movie.
Now we start shifting tenses.
No matter how you looked at it, there was no artistic merit in the Transformers movie.
Notice that look became looked, while is became was. Each is a verb.
Distinguishing between verbs and gerunds
This technique can also help determine gerunds from verbs. A gerund is a word that looks like a verb, but acts like a noun:
The fishing in Tennessee is great this time of year.
In this case, fishing is being used as a noun, although it looks like a verb. By changing tenses, we can immediately verify this.
The fishing in Tennessee was great this time of year.
See how is changed to was, but fishing stayed the same?
Now compare it to this:
I am going fishing in the river.
Now we change the tense:
I will fish in the river.
See how this time fishing changed to fish? That’s because it’s acting as a verb in this sentence.
Of course, another clue to gerunds is the presence of an article (the, a, an) before them: the fishing, the skiing, the diving.
Stubborn verbs and auxiliary verbs
Sometimes a verb appears to stay the same despite a change in tense. In these cases you will find that the words immediately preceding it have changed. These are auxiliary verbs, verbs that modify another verb to create a new tense. In some cases, the original verb you were looking at stays the same, but is accompanied by an auxiliary verb.
I am going fishing in the river.
We can change the tense of this:
I was fishing in the river.
In this case, while fishing stays the same, you’ll notice it’s now preceded by was instead of am going. These words are all auxiliary verbs. Their appearance should clue you in to the main verb, but just to be on the safe side you can put the sentence through several tense shifts so that the particular word you’re looking at has the chance to change — and all verbs have at least one change in form for tense. For instance, in we can force a change in the verb if we put it through a few other tense changes:
I fished in the river.
I fish in the river.
There will always be at least one tense which forces a change in the verb.
Dealing with complicated sentences
In a complicated sentence, there is no need to put the whole sentence through tense shifts, since usually you can identify some of the verbs just by looking at them. In that case, if there is any doubt about a particular word, then put the phrase it’s in through the shift.
The Beatles were one of the best groups I ever saw.
Let’s say that you already know that saw is a verb, so there’s no point in bothering with it. In that case, just work on the front part of the sentence.
The Beatles are one of the best groups…
That means that were is a verb.
Now let’s try a really complicated sentence:
I ran all the way home to tell my roommate that The Wicked Penguins were going to be playing a concert at the Varsity Theatre on Sunday.
Now there is no need to try changing the whole sentence — it can be taken in chunks.
I will run all the way home…
Okay, so in the first bit we’ve seen that ran is a verb. On to the next part:
…told my roommate…
So to tell is a verb — and notice that it wasn’t just tell that changed, but to tell. That’s because to is auxiliary.
…The Wicked Penguins are going to be playing…
So were going is a verb, but what about the rest of this part? Well, let’s change it around a bit more and see.
…The Wicked Penguins were going to play……The Wicked Penguins had played…
So what we can see is that the whole phrase here is actually one long verb — that’s because there are a lot of auxiliaries.
Now the next part.
…a concert at the Varsity Theatre on Sunday.
No matter what we do, there is no way to change the tense here. That’s because there are no more verbs.
By consciously using your innate knowledge of grammar, you improve not only your awareness of grammar, but your use of it — and you do so in a way that is natural and intuitive. As you practice this method, you will soon begin to find that you are recognising verbs with increasing ease.
So until next time, watch your grammar — you already know how.