Never underestimate the power of a verb

January 13, 2016

By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision

I have a hard time remembering movie titles. When someone asks if I’ve seen a certain movie, I have to ask what it’s about and who is in it before I can recall it. I get people’s names wrong, too. Even my own kids’. I’m always calling one or another of them “Rhian-Alyss-Logan!” I’ve called each of my dogs “Maggie-Bailey-Ozzie!” They don’t seem to mind.

So it’s not surprising that I had a brain lapse in one of my newspaper columns, “Grammar in School: It’s Elementary.” In case you missed it, the lesson in that column was that a word’s position in a sentence helps determine its function—and vice versa—and that can affect the form the word should take. In the example I used, “yearlong” should be one word when it’s used as an adjective placed before a noun, as in “one yearlong vacation” but it should be two words when it follows a noun and verb, as in “my vacation was one year long.”

I said that “long” was called an object of the verb, but in that instance, it was actually a subject complement. I wasn’t paying attention to the type of verb I had used in my example—and yes, the type of verb does matter.

An object of a verb and a subject complement serve different purposes, but their position in a sentence is generally the same: They usually follow the verb. Whether it was an object or a complement made no difference to the grammar lesson in my column, which is probably why I didn’t notice it—much like the way a dog, trying to sneak a piece of pizza, knows he’s in trouble, no matter whose name you yell in response! But the mistake has created an opportunity to teach the differences between objects and complements and transitive and intransitive verbs.

An object of a verb is a word that follows a verb and completes its meaning, such as “ball” in “Kathy dropped the ball.” Notice that it follows an action verb, “dropped.” “Dropped” is a transitive verb, and “ball” is its direct object. Transitive verbs transfer an action onto a thing—think of them as the athletes of verbs. A direct object is the thing acted on by the verb.

A subject complement also follows a verb, but it refers to or qualifies the subject, such as “long” in “that movie is long.” Notice that it follows a verb of being (“is”) rather than an action verb. Linking verbs and verbs that express being or sensations such as touch or smell are called intransitive verbs. They don’t act on anything. They are the hippies of verbs—happy just to hang out and be aware of their own existential experience of their nouns.

If that isn’t complicated enough for you, some transitive verbs can become intransitive when used in the passive voice, and when that happens, the subject also acts as the object. In addition, verbs of being can function as “helping” verbs when paired with a transitive verb, and when that happens, they can take an object. But I don’t want to confuse you. Just remember that verbs have a lot of power in a sentence, so never underestimate your verb.

If this is more than you ever wanted to know about verbs, and you can barely keep your own childrens’ names straight, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I’ve even caught myself saying my own name wrong since my last name changed a few years ago. Luckily, I’m not going to be tested on it. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2016


Kathy Fox is a longtime Columbia resident, an editor by trade and a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send grammar questions or pet peeves to


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