action verbs

What are action verbs?

VerbOpens in new window is traditionally defined as “a word used to express action or describe a state of being.” Action verbs express action, either physical or mental. Survey the following examples.

Physical action
  • The boy ran home.
  • She calculated the tax due.
  • She finished her ice cream.
Mental action
  • They believe in prayer.
  • Let’s follow his advice.
  • Can you imagine such a thing?

While many action verbs do indeed express action as their name suggests, some so-called action verbs express no action at all. For example, compare the following pair of sentences:

  • 1)  Jackson bought a new car.
  • 2)  Jackson has a new car.

In the first sentence, Jackson is clearly the performer or doer of an action: he has engaged in the action of buying a new car.

In the second sentence, Jackson is not engaged in any action at all. He is not doing anything.

The sentenceOpens in new window is merely a statement about Jackson rather than an expression of what Jackson is doing. Nevertheless, both verbs are classified as “action” verbs since they are not linking verbsOpens in new window.

So far, so good. However, many action verbs do not express action in any normal sense of the word.

The following are some examples of actionless action verbs. Survey.

  • 1)  Fred has a new car.
  • 2)  Patrick forgot his keys.
  • 3)  The garden swarmed with bees.

In the first example, Fred is not engaging in any overt action. The verb has seems to describe what Fred owns or possesses rather than tell us what Fred does. Compare that sentence with this sentence:

  • Fred bought a new car.

Here, Fred is clearly engaged in the action of buying.

In the second example, the meaning of forgot is almost the opposite of any kind of action. Poor Patrick didn’t engage in the action of bringing his keys.

In the third sentence, the garden is not engaged in the action of swarming—the bees are. The garden is not doing anything at all, yet this is still an action verb.

The problem these examples illustrate is that there is no good way to define the class of action verbs by meaning alone. Because action verbs constitute such a large and diverse class (99.9 percent of all verbs), it is impossible to find a single defining characteristics that will hold equally well for all action verbs.

The only really accurate definition is a negative one: action verbs are those verbs that are not linking verbs.

Types of Action Verbs

Action verbs are either transitive (with an object) or intransitive (with no object) See Transitive vs Intransitive VerbsOpens in new window to clearly understand this distinction.

Transitive verbs require direct objects to complete their meaning. For example, survey the sentence below.

  • Leon sold the boat.
    →In this sentence, the direct object boat names what is directly acted upon.
  • I love baseball.
    In this sentence, the direct object baseball identifies what is directly acted upon.

Transitive verbs sometimes take both an indirect object and a direct object. Survey the following example.

  • Leon finally sold Tom the old sailboat in the backyard.
    In this sentence, the indirect object Tom names who was indirectly affected by the action of the verb sold; the noun phrase the old sailboat in the backyard, which is the direct object names what is directly affected by the action of the verb sold.

    Also in this sentence, finally modifies sold. Old modifies sailboat, as does the prepositional phrase in the backyard.

Intransitive verbs do not require direct objects to complete their meaning. The following examples illustrate this fact.

  • The ship sank.
  • Elaine skipped.
  • Scott flipped.

Sometimes other words—such as modifiers—can be added to the sentences, but as long as no object is required, the verb is considered to be intransitive. Survey the following constructions:

  • The ship sank off the coast of South America.
    Off the coast of south America is two prepositional phrases.
  • Elaine, the little girl next door, skipped down the sidewalk.
    The little girl next door is an appositive that describes Elaine; down the sidewalk is a prepositional phrase.

See AppositiveOpens in new window and Prepositional PhraseOpens in new window

  • Scott flipped. (intransitive)
  • Scott flipped a pancake. (transitive)

Now, survey these two sentences closely. If Scott did a flip, then flipped requires no object and is intransitive. But if Scott flipped a pancake, then flipped has a direct object, a pancake, and the verb is therefore transitive. Thus, the same verb can be intransitive or transitive, depending upon whether an object is required to complete its meaning.