Skip to content

Verbs, Part 6: Conclusion (for now)

  • by


  1. Describe major verb features and their functions.
  2. Classify specific verbs according to the theta-roles they assign.

Skill level: Advanced

As indicated by the title, this is the final post in my verb series, though not necessarily my final post on verbs. (Who knows what the future holds, yeah?) This is mostly an overview post, so it’s short, quick, and to the point.

The previous posts are here linked:

Verbs: Part 1 of Many (discusses Finite vs. Non-finite verbs)
Verbs, Part 2: Tense, Mood, and Aspect
Verbs, Part 3: Transitivity and Voice
Verbs, Part 4: Theta-Roles, or, How to Eliminate Passive Voice
Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

Linguists have written volumes of material on verbs, so my few posts are in no way all-inclusive on the subject. Additionally, different schools of thought classify verb features a little differently, as though looking at them from a different angle or through different lenses. Long story short: if you really love verbs or you just really want to master them, keep studying across the spectrum.

For a quick review, I present the following list of verb terminology/features/functions:

  1. Finiteness
    1. Finite verb: carries Tense feature (i.e., a conjugated verb)
    2. Non-finite verb: carries no Tense feature (e.g., infinitive, participle)
  2. Transitivity
    1. Intransitive verb: has a subject but no direct object; carries no Voice feature (see 3/D below)
      NOTE: Some sources (like this one, which is beautiful) differentiate unaccusative verbs from intransitive verbs; for the sake of simplicity, “intransitive” here indicates verbs that assign only one argument and cannot form passive voice, of which unaccusatives are a type.
    2. Transitive verb: has a subject and direct object; carries Voice feature that allows object to become subject in passive voice
    3. Ditransitive verb: type of transitive verb that has a subject, direct object, and indirect object; carries Voice feature that allows either the direct or indirect object to become the subject in passive voice
  3. Verb Features
    1. Tense: indicates a specific point in time (past, present, future)
    2. Mood: indicates the speaker’s attitude toward the verb phrase (declarative, interrogative, subjunctive, imperative, et al.)
    3. Aspect: indicates an ongoing or completed event in time (progressive, perfect)
    4. Voice: for transitive verbs only, indicates whether the subject acts or is acted upon (active, passive)
  4. Theta-roles
    1. Every noun associated with a verb carries a theta-role (Theme, Agent, Experiencer, Locative, Source, Goal, Instrument)
    2. Every verb assigns theta-roles
    3. For narrative work, Agent > Experiencer (“Show, don’t tell.”)

Final Exercises

Exercise #1

Define the following verb-related terms. Create a sentence that illustrates each term in action.

  • Auxiliary, Modal, Tense, Mood, Aspect, Voice, Finite, Non-finite, Copula, Transitive, Intransitive, Ditransitive, Existential, Agent, Theme, Experiencer, Locative, Goal, Source, Instrument

Exercise #2

Google the term “verb list”; choose a list of verbs from the results and classify each verb according to the essential theta-role(s) it assigns. E.g., “Agent Subject/Theme Object” → hit, sing, kill; “Theme Subject/Ø Object” → happen, fall, remain

Potential Categories:

  • (Intransitive Verbs) Agent Subject, Experiencer Subject, Theme Subject
  • (Transitive Verbs) Agent Subject/Theme Object, Experiencer Subject/Theme Object

Leave any questions you have in the comments below, and we’ll hash through them together. (Maybe. I mean, really, who knows?)