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Sentence structure: focus on verbs

Sentence structure: focus on verbs

academic english common verbs

Verbs! What would we do without them?

Nothing much actually... We need them to explain almost everything! We know that they need to go in a sentence and that they have to agree with the subject of a clause in English. We can even gets lists of the most commonly used ones like you can see above and aim to use these more often. But what else is important to know about using verbs in academic English? 

When should I use a verb?

In formal or academic English, you need to use one main verb phrase in every clause in English. This will come directly after the subject in most clauses, because English is what's called a 'subject-dominant' language. Read more about this in the previous blog post on sentence structure.

You can also use verbs before and after this main verb i.e. in subject position or after the main verb, but these verbs have to be tense-less. What does that mean? It means you can use a participle form (e.g. verb-ing or verb-ed) or an infinitive form but not something that could act as a main verb phrase. See the table below for detail or watch the blog video on sentence structure. 

verb and clause table

What exactly does main verb phrase refer to?

The main verb phrase of a clause will have one main verb that tells us the meaning and maybe other verbs that give it tense, aspect, voice, or mood. What are those? Wait until later in the post! 

How do I know what to put after a main verb?

You're right to ask - there are a lot of choices. You can have a noun phrase, an adjective phrase, an adverb, a preposition phrase, or a noun clause. What you choose depends on a few things.

Firstly, some verbs require something with them so you need to include that. For example, I can say I walk but I can't say I want because usually the verb 'want' needs something else with it; in other words, we need to know what somebody wants, not just the verb by itself. So for that verb, I would need to add more, for instance I want to do well or I want food. 

Secondly, verbs follow certain patterns. This means some verbs take an object while others don't take any object or that some verbs are only used for describing nouns, for example. Knowing these types of verbs can help you when you're checking your writing or speaking. Below are the terms that are commonly used with some examples. Do you understand how to use the three types?

table with types of verbs

Academic English has a high proportion of linking verbs, because we use a lot of description and reasoning, but you should be using all the types. Are you using them all in your writing and speaking? 

As you learn more words, you'll get a feeling for what verbs should have with them. When you're not sure, check a good learner's dictionary, like the one at the top right of this page. They will tell you what type of verb your verb is and what it needs with it, if anything. 

There are a couple of other things to keep in mind about verbs. Sometimes they will need other words with them because they're phrasal verbs or collocations. 

Phrasal verbs (multi-part verbs)

Verbs might be phrasal verbs, or multi-part verbs. Although these are less frequently used in academic English, they are extremely common in spoken English. If you're using a multi-part verb or listening to one, you'll need to know which preposition/s go with the verb and what the different meanings are. This is because multi-part verbs often have more than one meaning, and often at least one of these is literal and another is idiomatic. This means the words have a different meaning to what you'd expect. In the example below you can see two idiomatic meanings - 'carried out' has nothing to do with 'carrying' and it means done, and 'put down' means euthanised and you don't 'put' anything anywhere and nothing goes 'down'. 

You'll also need to know the structure these verbs require - as you see below, some phrasal verbs can have the object in different positions. For a list of more academic phrasal verbs, look at this Cambridge blog page

table of phrasal verbs

Collocations

Another important consideration is that some verbs have collocates. This means there is another word or words often used with the verb. Collocations are important and frequent in English, so observe them and use them. When you're not sure, check a source like the collocation dictionary in the top right of this page (see example search result below) or a website like Word and Phrase info explained at the bottom of this previous blog post on learning academic vocabulary. Good quality dictionaries will also tell you collocates.

Oxford colloction dictionary screenshot

You can practise collocations by looking a list like the Pearson Academic Collocation list, at websites with exam skills practice like DC IELTS, or at websites like this 'italki' one, which has a collection of commonly used collocations. Using these well means you can get higher marks for vocabulary use in English exams because they are more complex to use and show a deeper understanding of language. The example below has one collocation from the Oxford dictionary and two from the italki website list.  

table of collocation examples

Tense, aspect, voice, and mood in English verbs

But wait - there's more! For each main verb phrase you use in a clause, you need to consider which tense, aspect, voice, and mood is best. Depending on what you're talking about, any of them might be suitable! Let's find out exactly what our options are...

Tense

In English, we only have two tenses: present and past. Although we talk about the future in English, we do it by using modal verbs or other tenses, so technically it isn't called a tense. 

verb meme

Aspect

Aspect gives us a feeling about the verb - is it happening now? Is is going to keep happening? Is it connected to now even though it happened in the past? In other words, it tells us whether a verb is continuing or finished. There are four possible aspects for verbs to have in English. Do you know them all?

  1. simple (e.g. present simple and past simple)
  2. progressive (also called 'continuous') - verb phrases with be + verb-ing
  3. perfect (verb phrases with 'have' or 'had' and past participle)
  4. perfect progressive (2 and 3 at the same time!)

Here are examples of main verb phrases with tense and aspect. Do you know how to use them all?

table of tenses

Voice

In terms of voice, we have two in English:

  1. active
  2. passive

Active means the subject is doing the action while passive means the action is being done to the subject. Active voice is more common in spoken and informal English, but less common in academic English. Why? Because English is a subject dominant language, so whatever is in the subject position usually gets more focus. This means that if we want to focus on people or someone doing an action, active voice is great, but in academic English we want to focus on facts and the information that was discovered by people, so we often use passive. Let's look at an example. 

As you can see below, the focus in the active sentence is on the scientists doing the action whereas in the passive sentence, it is on the discovery itself. 

active and passive voice comparison

Check your writing and speaking to make sure you have the right tense, aspect, and voice for what you want to say. Can you remember what the possibilities are?

Tense: present or past 
Aspect: simple, progressive, perfect, perfect progressive
Voice: active or passive

Mood

Mood is different again - there are three moods English verbs can have. Each one reflects a different type of situation:

  • explaining something
  • imagining something that isn't real
  • telling someone what to do

Although the mood is technically a characteristic of verbs, the grammar in a sentence can also tell us which mood is being used. See if you can identify the differences between the three moods by looking at the example sentences below. Which sentences are used to explain/talk about something imaginary / tell someone what to do?

table of mood examples

Indicative mood

This mood is what most of the sentences you'll write and say are. That's because the indicative mood is used to make:

  • statements about facts
  • statements about beliefs or opinions
  • questions
Subjunctive mood

This one is a little trickier. Why? Because it deals with situations that are imaginary or unreal. This means that verb tense rules no longer apply and that verbs may be used in different ways mainly due to the way the language has developed over time. The subjunctive mood is used to talk about:

  1. Conditions
  2. Imaginary situations
  3. Talking about what's necessary or should happen
  4. Suggestions
  5. Wishes

Here are examples for each of those. The verbs are in red - notice how they don't always follow the rules you might be used to:

1. Conditions 

If you have a good attitude, you'll do well. 
If people don't change their habits, pollution will worsen

2. Imaginary situations

If I were you, I wouldn't do that.
If you hadn't worked effectively, you wouldn't have passed

3. Talking about what's necessary or should happen

It's necessary that they stop cutting down trees immediately.
demand the government stop this at once. 

4. Suggestions

suggest people vote on this issue.
insist you sit down. 

5. Wishes

wish I was wiser.
Most people wish things were different. 

For subjunctive, you can practise by finding sites that explain it like this one, or practise the individual sentence types like zero, first, second, and third conditionals

Imperative mood

This one's relatively simple - it's just the base verb, and the subject is implied so we don't need to write it. It's used for instructions or commands. Examples you've probably heard many times include:

  • Please come in. 
  • Take a seat. 
  • Help yourself to tea and coffee. 
  • Look it up online. 

As you might have guessed, this mood isn't commonly used in academic English because you're not usually telling people what to do. The exception would be in science experiments, where instructions need to be reported and possibly copied, and it's often used in things like recipes or instruction manuals. 

So, can you remember all of that? Let's quickly sum up what we've covered:

  • There's one main verb in every clause in English.
  • This main verb is the only verb that can carry tense.
  • Verbs that are not the main voice must be tenseless (e.g. verb-ing / to verb / verb-ed).
  • Some verbs are part of phrasal verbs and the objects that go with these can be put in different positions. 
  • Sometimes verbs have collocates like prepositions and you need to write these words with the verb.
  • Good dictionaries give you the information you need about each verb. 
  • Think about which tense, aspect, voice, and mood of a verb you want to make your meaning clear. 
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