Identify the Verb, not the Imposters

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It seems easy to identify the verb in a sentence: look for the action word, and you’ve found the verb. Unfortunately, there are several imposters. If you aren’t careful, they can fool you into thinking they function as the verb.

These three imposters—gerunds, infinitives, and participial phrases–look like verbs because they contain action words. But they don’t indicate tense. That is how these imposters can fool you into thinking they are the verbs of a sentence.

A verbal is not a mistake or something to avoid. Indeed, they are impossible to avoid. But if you need to identify the verb in a sentence, don’t let one fool you.

What is a Participial Phrase?

A participial phrase is a verb that has an -ing ending. They function as adjectives, not verbs. And they often come right after the noun they modify.

The man trying to start the car couldn’t find his keys.

A participial phrase can also end in -ed (stolen, reached). In those cases, they are called past participials, which makes sense since the verbal takes the past tense form.

The stolen keys keys kept him from driving off.

You can identify both types of participial phrases because they don’t change when you change the tense—time—of a sentence.

What is a Gerund?

A gerund is also a present participle (a verb that ends in -ing). But gerunds function as nouns. They can be subjects, subject complements, direct objects, or the object of a preposition.


Jogging is excellent exercise if you want to stay fit.

Subject Complement.

An excellent way to stay fit is daily jogging.

Direct Object.

Athletes usually enjoy jogging.

Object of a preposition.

The American Heart Association has written about the benefits of jogging in an exercise regime.

When asked to identify the verb in a sentence, determining whether the verbal is the subject, subject complement, or direct object is rarely essential. Unless you are asked to identify how the gerund functions, all you need to know is how to find the imposters. To do that, use the time trick discussed in this post.

What are Infinitives?

An infinitive can be a noun, adjective, or adverb. However, they are easier to spot because they take the form to + verb (to call, to find, to spot).

When acting as nouns, infinitives can be in any noun slot in a sentence—subject, subject complement, or direct object.

To drive without wearing a seatbelt is dangerous.

Infinitives functioning as adjectives usually appear after a noun.

The chance to drive excited the teenager.

And an infinitive working as an adverb will modify the verb.

The volunteers prepared themselves to drive through the muddy terrain.

Infinitives are the easiest imposters to identify. A verb with the word to in front of it will almost always be an infinitive.

Infinitives are also what the Grammar Police don’t want you to ever, never split.

So please don’t do that unless you want to totally trigger them.

To keep from triggering the Grammar Police:

So please don’t do that unless you want to trigger them totally.

Conclusion– Identify the verb and Ignore the Imposter

If you need to identify the verbs in a sentence, don’t be fooled by verbals. Remember that verbs need to tell time. Placing different time words at the beginning of a sentence and listening for the word that changes helps you to identify the verb and avoid being fooled by imposters.

identify the verb by changing the time of a sentence
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Curious who makes all these rules? Then check out Who Makes Grammar Rules.

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