Verb identification

In this activity, students work through the criteria for identifying verbs.


  • Practise identifying verbs.
  • Recognise linguistic criteria for identifying verbs.
  • Remember the list of verb criteria for use and application later on.

Lesson Plan

In this lesson, students move beyond what is called the notional or semantic way of identifying verbs as 'doing words' to explore grammatical ways of identifying verbs. (You can listen to Bas Aarts discuss this.)

Although notional definitions can be useful they do not always work. For example, the notional definition of verbs cannot account for words like lack or seem or endure very well. Beginning with notional or semantic definitions is excellent for younger students and beginners, but older students should move further into the kind of grammatical analysis presented here.

In Activity 1 in the right hand menu, Slide 1 asks students to categorise a series of tiles as verbs or not verbs. They should use their intuition and what they've already learned. A third column is for uncertain cases. In Slide 2, they are presented with the classic definition of a verb as a doing word, and asked to categorise the words again.

Then, in Slide 3, students are presented with the first important grammatical criterion for defining verbs. Verbs can show tense. Note that nouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions cannot show tense. The students can now group the tiles using this piece of knowledge.

In Slide 4, students see another criterion for defining verbs, and are asked to group the word tiles again. This time, they should consider whether the word can take an -s suffix to match a Subject that is singular and third person, like he, she, or it.

In Slide 5, the criterion states that verbs can take an -ing suffix.

Some students may notice ambiguity with some example words. For example, last can be a verb, as in That movie didn't last long, but can also be an adjective, as in This is the last movie today. What does this mean? This illustrates the important point that some word forms can represent multiple meanings and multiple word classes

In Activity 2, students are provided with an example sentence and a highlighted word in context. Below the example is a list of the criteria for identifying verbs. Students should ask each question, and determine whether the word in context is a verb.

Moving forward, students should remember these criteria for labelling verbs, and use the criteria for identifying verbs in future work and in exams. Repeated practice like that provided in this lesson should help students retain the criteria.

Teachers' Notes

Not all verbs will fit every criterion, but a word that fits most criteria is probably a verb. Much of the detective work in grammatical analysis comes from the borderline cases and difficult words. For example, some verbs don't take tense: modal verbs like must and ought don't have a past tense. Those modal verbs don't take an -s suffix with a third person singular Subject either, nor do they accept an -ing suffix. Many verbs don't take -ed in the past tense, but are instead irregular: past tense forms like ate or drew are good examples. Professional linguists continue to debate some difficult words, and there may not be a final answer on some of the most tricky ones. With that in mind, the criteria here allow you to analyse a word systematically, and you can be sure that if a word's class is difficult to determine based on these criteria, then it just isn't easy to analyse at all!

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