Chapter 2: 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 carry most of the meaning of a sentence or clause:.

Alfred ruled the West Saxon people.

"Ruled" is the main verb of the sentence.

Auxilliary Verbs

These verbs (better known as Helping Verbs) are combined with the main verb:

Alfred had ruled the West Saxon people for ten years.

"Had" is an auxilliary linked to the main verb, "ruled." "Had ruled" is called a verb phrase.

Linking Verbs ("is," "was," "are" and other forms of the verb "to be") are used to rename or describe a subject:

Alfred was a great king.

"Great king" (which is called a "subject complement" or "predicate nominative") renames "Alfred" and is therefore separated from "Alfred" by the linking verb "was."

Modal Verbs

These verbs (also known as Modal Auxilliaries) can be used to indicate additional information about the verb:

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"). They are constructed by adding the word "to" to the base 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.

(Infinitives are often classified as verbals, like participles and gerunds)


Verbals are verbs that don't behave like verbs (unless they are given an infinitive). There are two basic types: participles and gerunds.

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 infitive is communicating.

Regularly preceeded by the 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:

to bewerienne = to guard

The specific form of inflected infinitives are listed in each verb paradigm.


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

While we recognize past, present and future tenses in Modern English, Old English does not have a future tense.

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

The charts above that give the possible endings for the verbs examples of paradigms.

But we don't have to memorize the entire paradigm in order to learn the verb. We only need to know:

1. The stem of the verb:

The stem of a word includes only those elements of the word that are unchanged regardless of the word's grammatical function. It is the part of the verb onto which endings are attached.

To find the stem, take the infinitive and subtract the ending "-an".

The stem of the verb "motan" = "to be able" is "mot".

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 s

Past Tense

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


We also recognize three Moods in verbs:

Indicative is a statement: I walk quickly.

Imperative is a command: Walk to the store!

Subjunctive is a prediction or possibility. In modern English we need to use a modal to indicate a subjunctive: I might walk to the store later. I could walk to the store.


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 would be 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 ending 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 3.