Am trying to deduce what the essential function that all verbs have in common, they are defined as:

a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence

To see the issue that am having, let my compare the definition of the verb with the definition of a noun:

a word (other than a pronoun) used to identify any of a class of people, places, or things

Ok, so a place and a person obviously aren't the same thing. However, they can be both identified, infact anything can be identified. So nouns a word that identify things

So the heart of this problem is all about trying to fill in the missing blank in the sentence 'verbs are a type of word that [does this]'.

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    'Verbs are a type of word that describe an action, state, or occurrence'.
    – Mick
    Oct 14, 2016 at 5:55
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    The classical grammatical definitions (for example, a noun "describes a person, place, or thing," and a verb "describes an action") are bad. They are rough rules, not necessary and sufficient conditions. To define exactly what a verb is you can appeal to syntax. A verb is any word that can occur in certain positions in a sentence (call this position "verb position"). For example, run and eat can both occur in the following blank: Dogs ___ quickly. Thus, they are both verbs.
    – Silenus
    Oct 14, 2016 at 12:21
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs on linguistics.se
    – Mitch
    Oct 14, 2016 at 16:13
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    A verb is a word that predicates.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 13, 2017 at 20:35
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    @JimJam - Language is created democratically (often from the bottom up), so scholars do have to reverse engineer. We do seem to instinctually know the difference between things, qualities, and statuses or actions, so anyone can create a new word for one and use it following the patterns learned for others.
    – amI
    Apr 14, 2017 at 23:03

4 Answers 4


From a linguistic perspective, there is nothing semantic or functional that distinguishes verbs from other word classes. For example, "tall" is an adjective in English, but in many languages it is a verb which inflects for subject, has tenses and so on. A number of languages have affixation processes that allow words referring to entities to take on the meaning "become X", whereby the word can serve as a predicate. Gerunds / infinitives like "cooking" function simultaneously as verbs and nouns. The most productive linguistic division is in terms of "entities" and "predicates". Verbs tend to be in the "predicate" pile, but verbs refer to particular states and actions, which can be reified into abstract entities (which are nouny). In a particular language, there may be a parochial fact such as "takes the affix -ile" that suffices to identify the intuitive class of verbs.

  • Adjectives and prepositions both takes tenses in English predicates (supplied by an auxiliary verbal), but not when modifying nouns (unless given an adverb ('the once small boy'). "Cooking" can also be used as an adjective. Several 'parochial' facts identify '[to] cook' as a lexical verb, and '[a] cook' as a lexical noun (making 'cook' polysemous).
    – amI
    Apr 14, 2017 at 22:14
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    So-called 'gerunds' do not function as nouns. They function as verb, erm, because they are verbs. (If one is going to have parts of speech, then the first piece of basic domestic housekeeping required is to keep these separate from grammatical relations) Mar 10, 2019 at 21:05


The premise of the question seems to be that the part of speech of a word is somehow deducible from observable facts. This general empiricist view was probably prevalent in American "structuralist" linguistics in the early part of the last century. It is no longer prevalent, and many linguists (including me) do not subscribe to it. "Word", "sentence", "morpheme", POS are theoretical terms and not simply characterizations of observable facts.

  • So, are they worthless?
    – amI
    Apr 11, 2017 at 22:13
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    No, they are theoretical, not worthless. They are needed to apply syntactic or grammatical theories. Maybe it would help you to read up on theories. Much of what we know about the world is theoretical.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 12, 2017 at 0:10
  • A theory without empirical evidence is a hypothesis.
    – amI
    Apr 14, 2017 at 21:37
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    @amI, Yes, and so is a theory with empirical evidence. Do you think the matter can be settled by playing around with definitions? The special theory of relativity was a theory without empirical evidence before Eddington's observations showing the displacement of star images during a solar eclipse. In light of that evidence, it is now a theory with empirical evidence and is universally accepted. Yet it's still referred to as a "theory".
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 15, 2017 at 1:25
  • ... 'only' a hypothesis. Sorry, I guess I took offense at your attack of 'structuralism'. The 8 or 9 classical POS are far too few to build a good parser. The lexical (open class) verbs that connote 'actions' obviously need to be separated from the auxiliary (closed class) verbs that supply TAMV. Einstein had plenty of empirical evidence (equivalence with Newton) before that experiment, but G-Lensing showed that his theory explained more (although we still don't know what the 'field' is).
    – amI
    Apr 18, 2017 at 19:37

Prof. Lee and user6726 have given excellent answers above. Though I think the OP's use of semantic criterion isn't completely wrong: The problem is, as Prof. Lee has pointed out above, that he assumes there must be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that allow us to deduce what a 'verb' is like, and such conditions don't exist.

But semantic criteria are helpful in identifying prototypical verbs in a language. When we start analysing a language, after all, we have no idea what morphosyntactic criteria there are for us to identify word classes with. Words with similar functional, morphological and syntactic behaviour as these prototypical verbs would then be classified as 'verbs'.

Givón (2001) gave this set of criteria for identifying prototype verbs:

  • High temporal instability
  • Great temporal compactness
  • Events involving concrete participant nouns
  • Often great complexity in meaning
  • Either agentive or about mental activity

So once we've identified a set of prototype verbs in a language - e.g. 'kill', 'stab', 'fight', 'realise', etc., we look at what distributional and morphosyntactic features they have. Unlike the structuralists, though, we don't treat them as necessary and sufficient conditions. Instead, we treat them as violable rules. A verb will be like most other verbs in most ways - but there will always be outliers which lack one or two morphosyntactic features!

For some of these criteria (there are a plenty in the literature), verbs in English can be put in the syntactic frame 'They will _' (for intransitive verbs) and 'They will _ it' (for transitive verbs), they can inflect for past tense and for the third person singular in the present, they can take perfect and progressive forms, and they take on at least one argument except in imperatives.

Some verbs don't satisfy all of these criteria and are therefore less prototypical verbs. Often, these are verbs that have experienced a high degree of grammaticalisation, such as the auxiliary verbs 'can, should, may', etc.

In the American structuralist tradition (Bloomfield and his followers - Hockett, Bloch, etc.), meaning was not thought to be part of the language, and syntactic categories had to be uncovered through 'discovery procedures', and that means, according to their extreme empiricist views, that there must be a set of distributional criteria picking out all and only members of a particular word class. For them, as Prof. Lee mentioned, verbs must all have something in common.

But this is no longer believed to be the case in the linguistic community. There is nothing that all verbs have in common. As Donohue (2008) noted,

Word classes (syntactic categories, parts of speech) are aggregate patterns of morpho-syntactic behaviours corresponding in some way to semantic prototypes (with greater or lesser amounts of overlap between categories in different languages).

Sources: Donohue, M. (2008). Covert word classes: Seeking your own syntax in Tukang Besi. Studies in Language, 32(3), 590-609

Givón, T. (2001). Syntax: an introduction (Vol. 1). John Benjamins Publishing.

  • The verb beware takes on exactly none of the criteria mentioned!!! Mar 12, 2019 at 0:01
  • @Araucaria: "They will beware" is possible for at least some speakers. Mar 12, 2019 at 6:52

I believe I have an answer, feedback is very welcomed.

An action, like running, and a 'state of being', like hungry, do have something in common; Experience.

To be honest, 'hungry' isn't a single action, but it is a chain of events which arise the feeling of being hungry. There's a biochemical reaction taking place within the body all of which can be broken to a chain of actions one following another leading to the experience of hunger. Same with happiness, looking, feeling, etc.

And actually, if you subtract living things out of the equation, the only verbs left our so called 'action verbs'. It's just that with animate beings, you have the extra complexity of experience, but it's really just a chain of events, a chain of actions, that we've dubbed 'states of being'.

So the thing that all verbs have in common, in my opinion, is experience. That's why the word 'running' in 'the man is running' is a verb, and the same word in 'the man in thinking about running', is a noun, yet the word 'thinking' is now the verb, because it's an experience.

Of course, my opinion isn't law, maybe am wrong. If anyone cares to refute my hypothesis by way of counter-example, please don't hesitate. I say that with the most honest of intentions.

Thank you.

  • 1
    When I say "two plus two equals four," what is the experience that is begin described by the verb "equals"? Oct 15, 2016 at 15:36
  • The experience you have here is that of two objects approximating equal length, or equal numerical value. For we have no knowledge of maths without knowledge of the external world. Maths, after all, is an abstraction of our empirical data, that abstraction being quantity. Without ever experiencing objects that are alike to each other, we could not abstract the idea of a number, and without that, we could not compare to things to each other to derive the idea of equality.
    – Jim Jam
    Oct 16, 2016 at 19:15
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    The problem is that pretty much every lexical word would be classified as a 'verb' under this conception... Jan 13, 2017 at 15:38

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