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The Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases in English

Verbs perform four main and six nominal functions in English: verb phrase head, predicate, noun phrase modifier, adjective phrase complement, subject, subject complement, direct object, object complement, indirect object, and prepositional complement. The following article explains these functions.
Verbs in English are traditionally defined as “words that indicate action or state of being.” Verb phrases are formed by one or more verbs and any number of objects, modifiers, and complements. Verbs and verb phrases perform ten grammatical functions in the English language. The ten functions are:
  1. Verb phrase head
  2. Predicate
  3. Noun phrase modifier
  4. Adjective phrase complement
  5. Subject
  6. Subject complement
  7. Direct object
  8. Object complement
  9. Indirect object
  10. Prepositional complement
The following sections discuss the ten functions and include examples to illustrate use.
Major Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases
Of the ten possible functions, verbs and verb phrases perform four major functions. The four major functions are:
  1. Verb phrase head
  2. Predicate
  3. Noun phrase modifier
  4. Adjective phrase complement
The four major functions are prototypical functions of verbs and verb phrases.
Verb Phrase Head
Verbs first function as the heads of verb phrases. The following italicized verbs are examples of heads of verb phrases:
  • read
  • eat the cookies
  • to study
  • listen to the music
  • wake up
Verbs always function as the heads of verb phrases.
Predicate
Verbs and verb phrases secondly function as predicates. A predicate contains at least one verb and any objects, modifiers, and complements. All clauses contain both a subject and a predicate. The following italicized verb phrases are examples of predicates:
  • Carnivores eat meat.
  • The librarian is writing an article.
  • The door was slammed shut by the child.
  • All the guests have woken up.
  • Your husband will install my new fence.
  • He must have stolen at least three cars.
Only verbs and verb phrases can function as predicates.
Noun Phrase Modifier
Verbs and verb phrases thirdly function as noun phrase modifiers. A noun phrase modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes a noun or noun phrase. The following italicized verbs are examples of noun phrase modifiers:
  • The books shelved on the sixth floor cover education, art, languages, and literature.
  • My daughter is the little girl wearing the pink hat.
  • Did you hear that child screaming at her mother?
  • I placed the cupcakes to eat on the counter.
Other grammatical forms that can function as noun phrase modifiers include adjective phrases, noun phrases, and prepositional phrases.
Adjective Phrase Complement
Verbs and verb phrases fourthly function as adjective phrase complements. An adjective phrase complement is a word, phrase, or clause that completes the meaning of an adjective. The following italicized verbs are examples of adjective phrase complements:
  • His wife is afraid to fly.
  • My puppy is eager to learn new tricks.
  • The students are curious to know more about verbs.
  • She is happy to write another article.
Other grammatical forms that can function as adjective phrase complements include prepositional phrases and noun clauses.
Nominal Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases
Verbs and verb phrases also perform six nominal functions. Nominal functions are functions prototypically performed by nouns and noun phrases. The six nominal functions of verbs and verb phrases are:
  1. Subject
  2. Subject complement
  3. Direct object
  4. Object complement
  5. Indirect object
  6. Prepositional complement
For more information on the grammatical analyses of verb phrases performing nominal functions, please see the book Introduction to the Grammar of English by Rodney Huddleston from the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series.
Subject
Verbs and verb phrases fifthly function as subjects. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. The following italicized verbs are examples of subjects:
  • Reading stimulates the mind.
  • Drinking milk is healthy.
  • Your throwing a tantrum disappoints me.
  • To err is human.
  • To forgive is divine.
  • To lie about cheating is unforgivable.
Only verbs in the form of present participles and infinitives can perform the nominal function of subject. Traditional grammars generally refer to present participles performing nominal functions as gerunds.


Subject Complement

Verbs and verb phrases sixthly function as subject complements. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular or linking verb and describes the subject. The following italicized verbs are examples of subject complements:
  • Her special talent is singing opera well.
  • His weekend chores will be washing and folding the laundry.
  • My favorite hobby is learning about grammar.
  • Your job duties are to shelve books and to dust shelves.
Only verbs in the form of present participles and infinitives can perform the nominal function of subject complement.
Direct Object
Verbs and verb phrases seventhly function as direct objects. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question “who or what” receives the action of the verb. The following italicized verbs are examples of direct objects:
  • The brothers prefer watching football.
  • Their sisters prefer to watch dramas.
  • My coworkers enjoy gossiping about other coworkers.
  • Squirrels like to climb trees.
Only verbs in the form of present participles and infinitives can perform the nominal function of direct object.
Object Complement
Verbs and verb phrases eighthly function as object complements. An object complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows and describes the direct object. The following italicized verbs are examples of object complements:
  • The teacher has pronounced the extra credit writing an additional report.
  • My grandmother considered her favorite pastime observing nature.
  • The child declares his least favorite chore mowing the lawn.
Only verbs in the form of present participles can perform the nominal function of object complement.
Indirect Object
Verbs and verb phrases ninthly function as indirect objects. An indirect object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a ditransitive verb and answers the question “to or for whom or what” the action of the verb is performed. The following italicized verbs are examples of indirect objects:
  • The young couple is giving having another baby serious consideration.
  • Her roommate will give listening to jazz a try.
  • He had given painting the living room some thought.
Only verbs in the form of present participles can perform the nominal function of indirect object. Verbs rarely function as indirect objects.
Prepositional Complement
Verbs and verb phrases tenthly function as prepositional complements. Also called a complement of a preposition or an object of a preposition, a prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows the preposition in a prepositional phrase. The following italicized verbs are examples of prepositional complements:
  • We have been thinking about ordering a pizza for dinner.
  • My grandmother believed in saying grace before eating.
  • The students are having issues with finding the time for reading the assigned articles.
Only verbs in the form of present participles can perform the nominal function of prepositional complement.


This lesson will show students why they need to learn to identify verbs. To write effectively, students need to learn to identify both types of verbs: action verbs and verbs of being. A sorting game will help students to learn how to identify them.

Verbs
Teaching students the eight parts of speech in middle school should be a review. However, many students learn the material in earlier grades and then quickly forget it.
Teaching Students Why They Need to Know Their Verbs
Pull examples of run-ons and comma splices from the students’ latest papers and write the sentences on the overhead. First, ask students to tell if each sentence is a complete sentence, a run-on or a comma splice. A sentence must have a subject, a verb and a complete thought.
Many or some students will not be able to identify the verb in the sentences on the overhead, especially if a verb of being was used in the sentence. Show the students that they need to be able to identify verbs to write effective sentences.
Use Resource Book
Use a grammar resource book to show students lists of action verbs and verbs of being. Most students understand that action verbs involve an “act”, such as jumping, walking and skipping. However, some students do not understand what a verbs of being is.
First, let them know that verbs of being can be called helping verbs and linking verbs too. This may help some students to remember them. Remind them that these verbs have no action and just “are.”
Action Verbs and Verbs of Being Activity
To check for understanding of identification of verbs of being and action verbs, try the following activity.
Step 1 — Make 40 Post-its with a mix of action verbs and verbs of being on each Post-it.
Step 2 — On the black board, make two sets of two columns and label the columns: action verbs and verbs of being.
Step 3 — Select two volunteers to sort the verbs as quickly as they can. Offer a small prize for the first one to sort them correctly in the shortest amount of time. Give each student 20 Post-its.
Step 4 — When the students are done, give candy to the one who has them all correct. If both students have mistakes, then they can get help from one other person in the class.
Step 5 – After the students are done, go through each Post-it and talk about why the Post-it was an action verb or a verb of being.
Parts of Speech Lessons
This series of lessons will offer tips and ideas on how to teach and how to review the eight parts of speech.
The following lesson plan can be used by ESL teachers to teach intermediate ESL students the difference between subject complements and direct objects in English grammar.
What is a subject complement?
First define the term “subject complement.” Subject complements are words, phrases, and clauses that follow copular verbs and describe the subject. Subject complement is a grammatical function. For example, the following italicized words, phrases, and clauses function as subject complements:
  • My grandfather is a farmer.
  • The cookies smell delicious.
  • My least favorite assignment was writing the grant.
  • The worst part of the workday is during the afternoon.
  • The problem remains that you refuse to study grammar.
What is a copular verb?
Next define the term “copular verb.” Also called linking verbs and state-of-being verbs, copular verbs are equating verbs that link the subject complement in the predicate to the subject. The most common copular verb in English is be. Other English copular verbs include:
  • appear
  • become
  • feel
  • get
  • grow
  • look
  • prove
  • remain
  • resemble
  • seem
  • smell
  • sound
  • stay
  • taste
  • turn
What grammatical forms can function as subject complements?
Then discuss the types of words, phrases, and clauses that can function as subject complements. Five grammatical forms can function as the subject complement:
  1. Noun phrases
  2. Adjective phrases
  3. Prepositional phrases
  4. Verb phrases
  5. Noun clauses
Nouns and adjectives most frequently function as subject complements. Traditional grammars sometimes refer to nouns functioning as subject complements as predicate nominatives and to adjectives functioning as subject complements as predicate adjectives. Students should learn both alternative terms.
Subject Complement Practice Exercise
Use the following exercise to practice identifying subject complements. The students should mark the subject complement in each sentence and then identify the grammatical form.
Sentences
  • The soup tastes too spicy.
  • My professor remained calm and unemotional.
  • Your grandmother’s favorite pastime was reading books.
  • My brother has become a car mechanic.
  • The assignment seems easy.
  • The location for the party can be wherever you want.
  • The coldest time of year is in the winter.
  • I will be a librarian.
  • The basement smells unusually musty.
  • Her singing sounds like a dying rooster.
Answers
  • The soup tastes too spicy. Adjective Phrase
  • My professor remained calm and unemotional. Adjective Phrase
  • Your grandmother’s favorite pastime was reading books. Verb Phrase
  • My brother has become a car mechanic. Noun Phrase
  • The assignment seems easy. Adjective Phrase
  • The location for the party can be wherever you want. Noun Clause
  • The coldest time of year is in the winter. Prepositional Phrase
  • I will be a librarian. Noun Phrase
  • The basement smells unusually musty. Adjective Phrase
  • Her singing sounds like a dying rooster. Prepositional Phrase
What is a direct object?
Now define the term “direct object.” Direct objects are words, phrases, and clauses that follow transitive verbs and answer the question “who or what” receives the action of the verb. Direct object is also a grammatical function. For example, the following italicized words, phrases, and clauses function as direct objects:
  • The little girl recognized the author of her favorite book.
  • The critic has tasted the soup.
  • I will clean under the bed.
  • My mother-in-law has always preferred to eat fruits and vegetables.
  • Our dog dislikes when we put him in his pen.
What is a transitive verb?
Then define the term “transitive verb.” Transitive verbs are verbs that have and sometimes require direct objects and may also take indirect objects. Transitive verbs are the most common verb form in English. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases are transitive verbs:
  • The bird ate the worm.
  • Schoolchildren are singing songs in the park.
  • My cat has broken my antique vase.
  • Will you open the door for me?
  • Those crooks might pay off the security guard.
What grammatical forms can function as direct objects?
Next discuss the types of words, phrases, and clauses that can function as direct objects. Four grammatical forms can function as the direct object:
  1. Noun phrases
  2. Prepositional phrases
  3. Verb phrases
  4. Noun clauses
Nouns most frequently function as direct objects.


Direct Objects Practice Exercise

Use to following exercise to practice identifying direct objects. The students should mark the direct object in each sentence and then identify the grammatical form.
Sentences
  • Dogs enjoy chewing rawhide bones.
  • My mother scrubbed behind the refrigerator.
  • The child threw a tantrum.
  • The guard has sounded the alarm.
  • I discovered that the party will take place on Saturday.
  • My grandfather always preferred to watch basketball.
  • The teller had alerted the police.
  • The caterer will bake the wedding cake.
  • His parents surprised him.
  • She will have heated the leftovers.
Answers
  • Dogs enjoy chewing rawhide bones. Verb Phrase
  • My mother scrubbed behind the refrigerator. Prepositional Phrase
  • The child threw a tantrum. Noun Phrase
  • The guard has sounded the alarm. Noun Phrase
  • I discovered that the party will take place on Saturday. Noun Clause
  • My grandfather always preferred to watch basketball. Verb Phrase
  • The teller had alerted the police. Noun Phrase
  • The caterer will bake the wedding cake. Noun Phrase
  • His parents surprised him. Noun Phrase
  • She will have heated the leftovers. Noun Phrase
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