Chapter 8: Overview of Verbs

A minimal grammatical sentence requires a subject (which can be a pronoun or a noun) and a verb. In the next chapter we will learn some irregular verbs. This chapter is designed to familiarize you with the various roles verbs can play in a sentence. We will review all this material in Chapter 11, when we encounter regular (both strong and weak) verbs.

Verbs are action words, expressing things that happen.

Alfred ruled the West Saxon people.

"Ruled" is the verb in the sentence.

There are several kinds of verbs:

Main verbs

These verbs express the main action of a sentence or clause:.

Alfred ruled the West Saxon people.

"Ruled" is the main verb of the sentence.

Auxiliary Verbs

These verbs (sometimes known as helping verbs) are combined with the main verb:

Alfred had ruled the West Saxon people for ten years.

"Had" is an auxiliary linked to the main verb, "ruled."

Linking Verbs ("is," "was," "are" and other forms of the verb "to be") are used to rename or describe a subject. One useful way to analyze them is to think of linking verbs as being the same as an equals sign (=) between two things:

Alfred is a king.

"King" is called a subject complement or predicate nominative. It renames "Alfred" and is therefore separated from "Alfred" by the linking verb "is." A subject complement will be the same case ( the nominative) as the noun it renames.

Modal Verbs

These verbs (also known as modal auxiliaries) can be used to indicate additional information about the verb such as its limited or conditional use.

Alfred could defeat the Vikings.

"Could" is a modal verb modifying "defeat". "Might", "must," "should", and "would" are some of the most common modal verbs (use "coulda, woulda, shoulda" as a mnemonmic for modals).


These verbs indicate action that can happen at any point in time (hence, "infinitive"). In Modern English they are constructed by adding the word "to" to the root form of the verb.

Alfred learned that it is difficult to rule a fragmented nation.

Alfred learned something about ruling in general that could be applied to any person in any time.


Participles are verbs used as adjectives:

Alfred's aching back caused him much pain.

"Aching" is a verb ("ache" +ing) used as an adjective (it modifies the noun "back"). This is an example of a present participle because the "-ing" form is in the present tense.

Alfred's tired eyes kept him from doing as much reading as he wanted to.

"Tired" is a verb used as an adjective. Because it is in the past tense, it is a past participle.

Gerunds are verbs used as nouns.

Reading was Alfred's favorite leisure activity.

"Reading" is a verb ("read" +ing) used as a noun (it is the subject of the sentence).

Inflected Infinitive

Some grammar books call this the "Old English Gerund," which is not precisely correct, but gives the idea of what the inflected infinitive is communicating. Regularly preceeded by the Old English preposition to, the inflected infinitive is a verb form generally used to express the idea of purpose:

Alfred sent troops to guard the bridge.

The reason the troops were sent was to accomplish the purpose expressed by the infinitive "to guard". Another way of translating, one that preserves the gerundive "feel" of the word would be "for guarding" or "for the purpose of guarding."

You can almost always translate the inflected infinitive as a Modern English infinitive:

Infinitive: bewerien = to guard

Inflected infinitive: to bewerienne = for the purpose of guarding

The specific form of the inflected infinitives is listed in the paradigm for each verb.


Like Modern English verbs, Anglo-Saxon verbs change form depending upon who performs an action (the person of the verb), how many perform the action (the number of the verb), whether the action was in the past or the present (the tense of the verb), and whether the verb is a statement, command, or prediction (the mood of the verb). Writing out the various forms of a verb for each of its possible grammatical uses is called conjugating the verb.

For Modern English, we recognize three persons and two numbers for a verb:

Person Singular Plural
1st I We
2nd You You ("y'all" or "younz"
3rd He, She, It They


Although we recognize past, present and future tenses in Modern English, Old English does not have a future tense. (One bad joke that Anglo-Saxonists sometimes make is: "Old English: there's no future in it.") Old English communicates the idea of future happenings with the present tense and the subjunctive mood (discussed below).

For the Modern English verb "to walk" we conjugate as follows:

Present Tense

Person Singular Plural
1st I walk We walk
2nd You walk You walk
3rd She walks They walk


Past Tense

Person Singular Plural
1st I walked We walked
2nd You walked You walked
3rd It walked They walked



Luckily, you don't have to memorize the entire paradigm in order to learn the verb. For Modern English we only need to know:

1. The stem of the verb: The stem of a verb is the underlying root form of the word. For weak verbs it is unchanged regardless of the word's grammatical function. It is the part of the verb onto which endings are attached.

2. The ending "s" for third person singular present tense.

3. The ending "ed" to indicate all past tenses.

Thus our simplified chart for "to walk" would be (the dash - means that there is no ending added to the stem):

To the stem "walk" add:

Present Tense

Person Singular Plural
1st - -
2nd - -
3rd s -


Past Tense

Person Singular Plural
1st ed ed
2nd ed ed
3rd ed ed



We also recognize three moods in verbs:

  1. The indicative mood is used for statements: "I walk quickly."
  2. The imperative mood is used for commands: "Walk to the store!"
  3. The subjunctive mood is used for predictions or possibilities and can indicate hypothetical statements or obligations. In Modern English we often use a modal or an if-clause to indicate a subjunctive: "I might walk to the store later." "I could walk to the store tomorrow." "If I were to walk to the store, I would get that for you."


Verb Classes


Old English verbs can be divided into four main categories:

Weak Verbs, in which endings are added to a stem to indicate different persons, numbers, and tenses.
Walk ==> Walked is a Modern English example. Weak verbs are the subject of Chapter 12.

Strong Verbs, in which a vowel inside the verb is changed to indicate different persons, numbers, and tenses. Ring ==> Rang would be a Modern English example. Strong verbs are the subject of Chapter 13.

Preterite-Present Verbs, which combine features of both strong and weak verbs (strong past tenses are shifted to present and weak endings are used in the past tense). Preterite-Present Verbs are the subject of Chapter 14.

Irregular Verbs, such as "to be" and "to go," which do not follow the major patterns. We cover the irregular verbs in Chapter 9.