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I do apologise if the question is wordy, but I feel some context is required for me to stand any chance of finding a satifactory answer.

I have been struggling to understand why the word "is" counts as a verb in English. This lead me to search for what verbs actually are rather than the naive definition I was given in school (doing words). I didn't study English beyond highschool, but I am a first language speaker.
I suspect that most speakers would recognise

The sky is blue .

as a grammatically correct clause, but it always seemed to me that the word "is" was simply defined to be a verb in order to force the rule that all clauses must contain a verb. This is really the crux of the question. I found the following definition:

A verb is a word that in syntax conveys an action, occurence, or state of being.

Even on the surface of it this definition must be wrong because several sources tell me that "to be" is a verb despite it being two words and not a word, but so far the gist of it seems to agree with other searches I've done. From what I can tell, an action is a cause for a change in state and occurences are just actions in the past tense so it makes sense to me that they would be lumped them together in a category.
What I don't understand is why states of being are included, since they seem to me to be inherently passive which I understand to be the exact opposite of being active. I've seen the term "state of being verb" used in some explanations, but this only reinforced the idea that a state of being is a separate category to an action.

Have I misunderstood what an action is? Are the definitions I've found just hideously wrong? Or is there something else (besides an education) I'm just missing?

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  • 4
    Good question, especially for this site! Feb 18 at 1:26
  • Who are you asking for a definition? Me? Obama? None of us have "authority" to define a word. There will always be different definitions in dictionaries and everyone has their own interpretation.
    – Tvde1
    Feb 18 at 8:50
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    If one of your issues is that "to be" is two words, then why select only that verb? How about "to run", "to sleep", "to jump", ..., ?
    – JBentley
    Feb 18 at 13:35
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    I don't think I can answer the question, but I want to note that the Japanese word for "is" (desu) is generally not considered a verb, either by English linguists or Japanese ones. It falls into its own class of words, called "copula", because it behaves syntactically differently from verbs.
    – N. Virgo
    Feb 20 at 0:42
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    @user3273084 maybe so - I'm not familiar with the term outside of Japanese. But anyway the copula in Japanese isn't considered a verb, as it's grammatically different from verbs.
    – N. Virgo
    Feb 21 at 12:42

3 Answers 3

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It's important to draw a distinction between syntax and semantics.

In syntax (how words fit together), words are put into "categories" based on the way they fit together with others. If I give you the sentence "the dog is happy", then:

  • You can replace the word "the" with "a" or "my" or "this" or…
  • You can replace the word "dog" with "cat" or "bug" or "sandwich" or "plant" or…
  • You can replace the word "is" with "was" or "seems" or "looks" or "becomes" or…
  • You can replace the word "happy" with "sad" or "purple" or "viscous" or "numinous" or…

As long as you replace a word with another word from the same category, the sentence seems to hold together, even if it doesn't make much sense. But if you swap in a word from another category, it falls apart: *"sandwich this purple looks" isn't valid English.

Based on criteria like this, syntacticians call the words in the first category determiners, and words in the second category nouns, and words in the third category verbs, and words in the fourth category adjectives.

You can also subdivide these categories more finely. For example, some verbs want one noun after them (hits), while others want two (gives), and others want none (rests). "Verbs" is a broad label covering all of these and more.

In semantics (the study of meaning), the word "verb" isn't generally used. Instead, semanticists will use terms like "predicate" to refer to something that can be true about an entity, regardless of what words are used to express it.

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  • Could you explain why hits "wants one noun after it" and gives two? Alice gives blood and Bob hits people both seem perfectly valid sentences.
    – terdon
    Feb 19 at 14:25
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    @terdon Most verbs in English can be adapted to take fewer objects, but you can't say, for example, *Bob hits people a stick. One of the rare verbs that can't seem to take fewer than its appointed number of objects is "put": *Alice puts, *Alice puts the plate.
    – Draconis
    Feb 19 at 16:44
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    It's important to distinguish grammatical category and function. 'Verb' is a word category (part of speech) and verb phrase is its phrasal counterpart. Predicate, on the other hand, is a function typically realised by a verb phrase (category). Note that the function of the verb in a VP is 'predicator', the head of the VP.
    – BillJ
    Feb 19 at 18:53
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Semantically, there are two main functions in language: reference and predication. Some morphological items or words primarily refer to entities in the perceived world, while other items relate the role of each entity in a state of facts. Typically, nouns, pronouns and determiners implement the reference function. The predication function is carried out primarily by means of verbs and, to a lesser extent, through adjectives.

Verbs are the words or morphological items which, in conjunction with some additional elements, express tense-aspect-mood. In some languages (e.g. Lummi, Nahuatl, ...) many items can function as verb in the sense of taking personal marks. In Nahuatl:

(1) in cihuatl 'the woman' / ni-cihuatl 'I am a woman'

(2) ni-mitz-maka-z (1sgSUB-2sgOBJ-give-FUT) 'I will give you'

we can see here that the article in with cihuatl 'woman', but the same item can take the personal mark ni- (1st sing.), the same mark which appear in a typical verb as maka 'give'. This suggest that syntactically a verb is word/item performing an instance of predication function. So maybe it is not correct to assume that the class of verbs and the class of nouns are disjoint classes. What makes cihuatl a verb or a noun is the type of environment in the sentences.

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    Your example with cihuatl is an interesting one. It reminds me a bit of English which has words like "mother", "saw", "frame" which are either verbs or nouns. But of course, it's more productive in Nahuatl than in English. By the way, what's with the hyphens? Most Nahuan orthographies just write the morphemes together, like nicihuatl or nimitzmakaz.
    – OmarL
    Feb 18 at 14:53
  • @OmarL I'm having trouble thinking of English words that can be used only as a noun or only as a verb. Can you help me with an example?
    – phoog
    Feb 20 at 12:01
  • @phoog what about "exemplify" or "tarpit"
    – OmarL
    Feb 21 at 6:17
  • @OmarL thanks. Of course, it's fairly trivial to imagine someone using tarpit to mean put into a tarpit (perhaps for reasons of homicide) or end up in a tarpit (as in "these fossils were tarpitted a few million years earlier"). Also "tarpit" as a verb seems to have some currency in cybersecurity ("Another possible solution to this sort of attack is known as tarpitting, sometimes known as a sticky honeypot"). Exemplify is a bit harder; my searches turn up scanning errors, mostly. But if "spend" can be a noun, surely there's a context in which "exemplify" can be, too.
    – phoog
    Feb 21 at 8:42
  • @OmarL It's to show what the morphemes are! Feb 21 at 11:54
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What's a verb? It's different in every language. In English, I can see how you don't want to put is and leaves in the same category. And you're right about why is is considered a verb. But it's not just to make the rule work -- the rule describes the way people talk -- you gotta have an inflected form of be as an auxiliary for

  • every predicate adjective (He's short/tired/finished/asleep/gone)
  • every predicate noun (That's the president/sand/a hamburger/a clue)
  • every passive construction (He was hit by a truck, She was interviewed yesterday)
  • every progressive construction (He's flying over, It's roasting now).

The fact is, every clause in English does have a verb in it, although if the only verb is be, it acts like an auxiliary rather than a lexical verb, since it doesn't have any meaning.

And not all verbs are actions. Many are, but many are states. For instance, rent is an active verb, but own is a stative verb. You can tell because the progressive can only occur with actives:

  • I'm renting that house now.
  • *I'm owning that house now.

You can't define a verb by what it means, because there are too many ways to mean; it has to be by use. In English, verbs can be distinguished by their inflections (past tense -ed, gerund -ing, 3rd person singular present -s) and by their use in a clause.

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  • "I was renting that house last year, but I am owning it now" = acceptable English, surely?
    – fdb
    Feb 19 at 13:05
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    @fdb Not in the standard English of most English-speaking regions of the world. It's probably acceptable in standard Indian English. Feb 19 at 15:55

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