I've been looking at English to help my teen out, readying for college. Didn't realise how little I knew. In this specific case, I'm stuck with the large number of types of verb - finite/infinite, transitive/intransitive, auxiliary/main, stative/dynamic, ergative etc.

Now, I can find bits and pieces about such, but I'm not seeing anything simple and clear. Does being one type exclude from being another? Can you have a transitive-stative-auxiliary verb (all in a single word instance)? Are there other names/types?
My big question is - why do my dictionaries not include all these labels? I think my Collins references being in/transitive, or auxiliary - but nothing about stative or dynamic. Where can I find such information? Is there a better dictionary (online?)? Can it be identified/deduced from context/usage? If so, how (resources welcome)?

Thank you.

  • 1
    "Have" is a transitive-stative-auxiliary verb (all in a single word instance).
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 31, 2014 at 20:13
  • 1
    Dictionaries don't include them because they're about grammar. Dictionaries are about word meanings, not grammar. There are a lot of kinds of verbs, all right, but in fact, every verb is its own category -- that's part of what it means to be a verb. Every verb defines what kinds of subjects (and objects) it can take, under what circumstances, in what constructions, with what prepositions, and as part of what idiom. All linguists can do is label certain kinds of verbal similarities, like the classes in Levin 1993.
    – jlawler
    Jul 31, 2014 at 22:01
  • And of course not all linguists analyse the same language the same way or see or agree on the same categories or give them the same name. Popping into my head right now are terms like "serial verb", "impersonal verb", "defective verb", "irregular verb", "ergative verb", etc. Aug 1, 2014 at 2:41
  • I would suggest a text such as 'A student's introduction to English grammar' by Rodney Huddlestone Aug 1, 2014 at 4:13
  • Yellow sky, thank you, I thought it was possible :) . Jlawler, that sounds complicated - I was hoping there were resources for the groups. But thank you for the Levin stuff - I don't quite understand it, but I'm sure Josh will. Hippie trail, thank you - I'd come to that conclusion, different schools of thought :( . Gaston umlaut, thank you, I'll see if it will help.
    – user4830
    Aug 1, 2014 at 9:19

2 Answers 2


Classification of anything in linguistics always has to be focused on what you want to achieve. All classifications come from a certain perspective. So there will never be a definitive answer.

Having said that, it may be useful to have a bit of a point of reference when reviewing the literature.

You must also not confuse classification based on properties intrinsic to the verb or its use with the classification of the actual uses. So e.g. infinitive / finite verb describes the state of the verb, as does the person or tense. Transitive, on the other hand, is an intrinsic property of the verb (or at least one of its senses).

You'll find people talk about different classes of verbs in two broad categories: syntactic and semantic (they overlap and interact but it's useful to keep the distinction in mind - no matter how provisionally).

Syntactic classifications

  • Transitive/intransitive/ditransitive (to see sth, to sleep, to give sth to sb)
  • Main/auxiliary (I have a book vs. I have seen a book)
  • Modal verbs like can, must, may, should, etc. (although the primary definition is semantic, what sets them apart are syntactic properties)
  • Phrasal verbs (walk in, put up - sometimes called 'prepositional' even if not all particles are prepositions)
  • Irregular verbs (this is more of a morphological class of verbs with irregular participles e.g. go - went - gone)

You will find these (and more) in most grammar books.

Semantic classifications

  • State verbs (to know - has syntactic implications because will resist -ing as in I'm knowing) v Action verbs (to kick) is probably the most common axis of classification with many variations and elaborations
  • Perception verbs
  • Verbs of motion
  • Etc.

There are virtually no limits to semantic classifications of verbs. They are also less likely to be useful for learners. You will find them in research literature rather than use guides and grammars.

Some of these categories will be exclusive, others complementary. So for instance, a single verb cannot be transitive and intransitive at the same time. But a verb can have multiple senses, so for instance 'I see' vs. 'I see you'. Some categories do not apply to some types of verbs. So for instance, the transitive/intransitive distinction does not apply to modal or auxiliary verbs. Some semantic categories will tend towards certain syntactic categories but with many exceptions, so verbs of motion will tend to be intransitive (to go, to walk - but to drive sth).

Of course, then there are also cross-linguistic comparisons related to verbs. For examples, some languages tend to express the manner of motion as part of the verb (verb-framed, e.g. enter) and others do it with an external particle (satellite-framed, e.g. come in - more common in English).

Finally, remember that few of these classifications will work across languages. For instance, German has strong/weak verbs, Russian perfective/imperfective, etc. Modal verbs in some languages don't stand out as much as they do in English. Some languages don't have the infinitive, etc. Many languages will classify verbs according to their morphological properties into various classes and models sometimes numbering in the low tens.

  • Dominik, thank you very much - that makes a lot more sense! So there are groups of classification, which explains some of my confusion. I also now know why dictionaries don't carry such information. Are there things like dictionaries that do? And for someone studying English (college), which type (semantic or syntactic) should my son be looking at?
    – user4830
    Aug 2, 2014 at 10:34
  • To be honest, I don't understand why your son should know any of this, unless he knows these types of questions will be on some sort of entrance exam. I can see some marginal utility to knowing how transitive and intransitive verbs work to gain greater facility with forming passive constructions, but even that is quite a far reach. It's probably worth knowing about modals and phrasal verbs. Just because they're well-known. However, if you want a useful dictionary-like reference, I'd recommend Swan's Practical English Usage. It's aimed at non-native learners but it's clear and easy to navigate. Aug 2, 2014 at 11:57
  • Dominik, it's simply a matter of starting at A and then looking at what we find. We covered the course stuff already, but decided to push a little further, and fell into all these terms, differences of classification etc. I think we've both got a bit excited at how much there is :)
    – user4830
    Aug 2, 2014 at 14:00
  • Studying English verbs because it's an interesting subject is the best reason of all. In that case, I'd recommend spending some time with English grammars. I'd start with Kennedy's 'Structure and Meaning in English' which is very comprehensive and easy to navigate at the same time. For a more semantic treatment, I'd try Dixon's 'Semantic Approach to English Grammar' and for a more cross=linguistic approach his 'Basic Linguistic Theory'. Dixon is not aimed at the general reader though, so his writing can be quite dense. But well worth the effort. Aug 2, 2014 at 22:39
  • Thank you Dominik, well see if we can find those and have a go.
    – user4830
    Aug 3, 2014 at 8:56

I'm stuck with the large number of types of verb - finite/infinite, transitive/intransitive, auxiliary/main, stative/dynamic, ergative etc

Your first statement here gives an impression that verbs are 'classified' in a strict hierarchical scheme, as for say plants or animals. But the classifications are overlapping. Imagine if we had silly classes like {2-lettered / 3-lettered / 4-lettered ...} and {beginning with a / beginning with b ...}.

There is even debate over whether auxiliaries should be considered as verbs as they are so different in function and behaviour.

Sussex University linguists give an article which, while not perfect, addresses the issues faced when analysing word classes; the section on verbs gives a good overview of the topic.

Nordquist has an introduction to the way verbs are analysed, which will be a start, but each individual type of classification really needs individual study. Other terms to look at include punctive or punctual / durative; multi-word; delexical. The 'subjunctive' and 'middle' usages also need to be examined; there are plenty of threads on ELU.

I'd like to add this as a comment above; I can't yet, but the following needs saying. The usages of say have in I have been here before and I have a car are totally different, syntactically and semantically (where appropriate!) In the first sentence, have is the auxiliary, whose function here is to combine with be to give the intended construction; in the second, have is a main / lexical verb meaning possess or similar. Those people saying that auxiliaries are not verbs would almost certainly insist that these are two different words. At the very least, it should be seen that saying 'have is auxiliary - transitive' is less than helpful.

  • Edwin, thank you. I could see that some classes were not exclusive, but could not see it written anywhere. It also seems that some classes are ignored by some in favour of others (again, no real confirmation/explanation found so far). I was hoping for some sort of dictionary or left/icon that would include the majority of the different classes - but I think we should be able to work it out as we read bits over.
    – user4830
    Aug 1, 2014 at 12:35

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