What is a verb

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to your favorite German learning website on the whole world.
And today, we actually have the start of the epic special “Grammar in May” – or Grammay for short.
To give you a little bit of background… I’m working a lot on my dictionary at the moment (you might know it as “search” :), and one part of that is grammar terminology. There are lots of grammar terms out there, some well known, some obscure and some invented by me, and I want to include all of those in my dictionary, so you can get up to speed with the jargon.

I’ve entered quite a few already (I’ll leave a link to the archive below), but it’s very brief and I figured it’d be cool to have actual explanations for the terms. More than just a couple of lines. And so I’ve decided to dedicate May to grammar and go over the most important grammar terms, add them to the dictionary, but also tell you about it, so come June you’ll be the absolute grammar jargon master, and all this stuff won’t be Latin to you any more. Well, it’ll still be Latin most of the time, but you’ll be like “Latin… I got you figured out. You don’t scare me no more!”

So yeah, throughout May I’ll be posting more than usual, and most of the posts will be rather short, because for many things there isn’t much to say.
But no so today, because today we’ll start with what’s to me the most important word type of them all

The Verb

And this one got so long interesting, that I decided to make it into a proper post.
So we’ll explore what verbs are, if we need them (spoiler: yes and no), and how German feels about them. And just so you know… I’m having wine and it’ll get philosophical.
So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go!

Verb is one of the most “mainstream” grammar terms. Most people are familiar with it and they can give loads of examples for verbs right away. That’s not the case for a term like conjunction for example. 

The origin of the word is the preposterously ancient Indo-European root *were, which was about the idea of speaking.  In Ancient Greek, this became rhētōr (speaker), which is where rhetoric comes from. In the Germanic languages, we see it as *wurda-, which is the ancestor of word and das Wort. And in Latin, the root became verbum.
Now, the original sense of that was simply “word“, and this sense is actually still alive. If Maria verbally abused Thomas, that was mean with verbs, but with words.
But for the word verb itself, the focus slowly shifted more and more on one specific group of words… the verb.
No wonder, considering that verbs might just be the most important word type ever.

What are verbs

The quick, intuitive answer to that question is to say that verbs are words that represent an activity (or the lack thereof), but that’s actually kind of misleading. I mean, Yoga is an activity after all, but it’s not a verb.
To really understand the essence of verbs, it helps to think terms of a physics.
Yeah, I know… half of you are like “Booooring.” but bear with me for a second.
So… in the universe, we essentially have mass and energy. They’re very different in nature, but they interact (energy moves mass, mass stores energy) and you can’t have one without the other because as we know since Einstein, one can be converted into the other.
And I think we can see the same in language. And it’s not a crazy parallel at all. I mean, language evolved in this universe, as a way for the universe to talk about itself, so it’s just natural that it has the same “fundamentals”.
So yeah… the nouns and pronouns in a language are the mass. They’re the “objects” or “units”, if you will.
And verbs are … the energy.
And just like in the real universe, they can be converted into each other.

  • The unicorn is cleaning the fridge.
  • The cleaning is making the unicorn angry.

And here you can see why the quick definition of “verb is activity” is kind of misleading. Yes, the act of cleaning generally is an activity, but what matters is what it represents in our sentence. Is it mass, or is it energy.
In the first example, we have the entities (the masses) “unicorn” and “fridge” and cleaning is the energy that’s in the sentence.
In the second sentence, cleaning is converted into a thing, mass, and the energy is making.

And if you find that hard to grasp, then that’s actually normal because energy IS hard to grasp. Like… can you tell what energy is in the real world? Not really. We can really only understand the effects of the energy at work. A cup is falling or our laptop screen is shining… yeah, that’s the effects of energy doing its things.
And it’s no different in language. In the first sentence, the observable effect of the energy at work is that the fridge gets cleaner. So the verb (the energy) is to clean.
And in the second sentence, on the other the effect is that the unicorn gets angrier. So even though the cleaning is an generally an activity, it is NOT the energy working in that sentence. Or in other words, it’s NOT the verb.

Now, of course you don’t really have to think that way to learn a new language. But it is helpful to understand the difference between word type “verb” in a dictionary and the role “verb” in a sentence.

And this metaphor of mass and energy can also help answer one important question we can ask about any word type… do we need it.

Do we need verbs

I’m sure, most people would intuitively say yes to that, seeing how an central role the verb plays, how many there are and how most people know the term.
But the truth is… we don’t really need them. There are some languages that do NOT have “verb” as a distinct word type, because it’s simply impossible to decide whether a word is a noun or a verb.
And while that sounds kind of exotic, we don’t actually have to look very far to see how something like that might look like… because English does it all the time.

  • I’ll take an Uber home.
  • I’ll uber home.
  • Maria is angry because Thomas yoloed all his money into Doge.

Well, okay… the second is not based on a noun, but what is uber? A noun, a verb? How should we classify that? And if you’re like “This ain’t isn’t proper English.” then you might want to think again.

  • Book a room!
  • Salt your soup!
  • Voice your opinion!
  • Chair the meeting!
  • Bench 100 pounds.

I’m pretty sure that we’d think of all of those words as nouns, if I were to make a break after them. But in context, we accept them as verbs and it’s not slang or bad colloquial style. So what are they? Nouns or verbs?
English grammar has chosen to put them into two categories, after a certain point of adoption is reached. It does that because it sees language through the “Latin” grammar lens, and also because for the most part, making the distinction is easy.

But there are languages out there where ALL nouns are also verbs.
Does that language have nouns? Does it have verbs? Does it even make sense to use these categories?
We definitely don’t really need the word type “verb” in a dictionary. A language can live without it just fine.
But what about the “role” of a verb? Do we need that?
Well… technically, I guess we could communicate all our stuff without verbs.

  • My head a thoughts the topic a beer.

But at least to all of us, there is an implicit of energy… to be (existing).
And I’m not sure if it’s possible for humans to not have this implicit verb there.
As we said, language is a mapping of the universe into sounds (which then get mapped to words and letters), and just like there’s no universe without energy in some form (even in the form of mass), there won’t be a language without an expression of energy in some form. And most languages do have a separate category called verbs.
And in German, I think it’s fair to say that the verb is actually the most important part of a sentence.

Verbs in German

People always talk about German compound but the true passion of German is its verbs.
Plain and simple. It has a billion of them, it likes having a distinct verb for all kinds of different things, it fractals them up with prefixes, the verb is absolutely dominating the German sentence structure. If you’ve read my series on word order or the position of nicht you’ll know that the verb is at the end so often, because German finds it the most important part.

And German doesn’t only love its verbs a lot. It’s also kind of a purist. Because it prefers its verbs the most is in their normal, boring verb phrasing…  so stuff like “Someone does something.”, “Something is happening.” and so on.
English and the Romance languages, too, tend to go with less “active”, more descriptive phrasings more often.

  1. Thomas sits on the bench and thinks about beer.
  2. Thomas sits on the bench, thinking about beer.

The second version sounds lean and elegant in English. And it is technically possible in German… but it sounds really weird and no one talks like that.
With the exception of the various “zu”-constructions, German generally does not do these types of phrasings and that’s actual a really good advice to improve your style… be boring!
Use normal sentences and side sentences with “dass” or “weil” or “bevor” and so on. Instead of…

  • “When doing yoga, it is important…”

say

  • “When you do Yoga, it is important…”

I mean, in German, of course.
If you can get yourself to only think in these simple terms, even if it seems repetitive … you’ll speak much more natural German.

So yeah… I think that’s it for today, and it turned out way longer than expected. And yes… that’s what she said.
Seriously though if you have any questions about verbs or any thoughts about my universe metaphor, let me know in the comments.
I really hope you enjoyed this, have a great day and I’ll see you soon with the next fun grammar term :)

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Perkins
Perkins
1 year ago

I am lost. About a week (or was it 2 weeks?) ago, I left a comment about the difference between “waiting” and “awaiting”, but I can’t find it? I can’t remember where I posted it. Did it ever go thru?

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

So German does not use the gerundive tense?

Judit Brandmair
Judit Brandmair
1 year ago

“Improve your style: be boring ”
Emanuel, many thanks you for your funny artickles and jokes, they make me always laughing and give me good mood

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

Back when I didn’t know what a verb was, and we were doing Mad Libs, my sister would always say that the verb is the “doing” word.

Teresa García
Teresa García
1 year ago

Hello Emmanuel, what happened to the menu? I was trying to continue with my “grammar course”…but now I cannot find a way to get there. Also, the word of the day.. In general. I don´t understand how to get to the whole content now.

Sophie
Sophie
1 year ago

Danke für den Artikel! My observation: When teaching what a verb is (in the native language – I always start there because a lot of students have no idea what a verb is), I have started saying “if you had to change this sentence into the past tense, which word would you change?” That’s the verb. After all, it’s not the word itself that holds the attribute of being a verb or a noun, it’s how it is used in a sentence. Grammar relates to function, not the word itself – I find that this is the hardest thing for those who don’t have a grammar background, to understand. This is why the German cases are so confusing for many learners – they’re not used to thinking about the function of words. But that’s another topic altogether. :)

Eluned
Eluned
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Years ago, when I was studying Chomsky’s Linguistic theory (about deep structure and surface structure), it was put to me that one way of thinking about it is: imagine that the syntactic items are like the separate train-trucks of the whole train (the sentence). The semantic items are the meaning-vocabulary items which are loaded into the trucks. Together, both deliver the intended / intentional meaning.

John
John
1 year ago

As important as the verb is in German, they also tend to leave it off sometimes at the end, presumably so they can get back to drinking their beer that much more quickly.

“Ich muss nach Hause.”
“Ich kann Deutsch.”
“Ich hatte zu viele Biere; ich muss mal.”

C J
C J
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

And German really loves its Nominalisierung, yo.

Nikola
Nikola
1 year ago

Emanuel. ich kann die Artikeln nicht lesen. Ich habe mich registriert und angemelded, aber etwas funktioniert nicht. Kannst du mir helfe? ich entschuldige mich

FLgulfcoast
FLgulfcoast
1 year ago

Thank you Emmanuel! Your hard work for us German language lerners is really appreciated. I am amazed at how many of the grammar terms and their meanings I have forgotten. Your “mass/energy” analogy was also useful; Of course, nouns and verbs I recall, but many of the other terms I find myself having to google to jog my memory……Your best advice for me, came at the end of today’s article: “keep it simple.” I seem to always trip myself up when trying to make a really long sentence! Best wishes for a wonderful Grammay, and keep up the great work!

haton
haton
1 year ago

Wow, you are entering a really complex and fraught theme. Linguists will tell you that languages come in absolutely all shapes, sizes and colors.
Just an example from my little knowledge of Chinese: in Chinese the nature of a word is far less strict than in european languages. For instance, most verbs can be employed as a noun (and so without any modification, since there is no conjugation in Chinese), most prepositions are verbs, adjectives can be used as verbs, etc.
Another example, Arabic has verbs, but it doesn’t have a verb “to be”: if you say “I German” then “am” is understood. Similarly it doesn’t have a verb “to have”, but uses a specific sentence form to indicate possession.

haton
haton
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Then you should read Borges :) I remember he wrote a whole short story in which he imagines languages without any verb, languages made only of verbs, etc.!

pmccann
pmccann
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That would be “Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis”: well, that’s the story where there’s a language without nouns, at least. (I think it’s usually included in the collection “Fictions”. (“Fiktionen”?)

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

pmccann is right, it’s from a book called Fictions. Here’s a link to the most relevant two paragraphs in English and Spanish.

And here in German. Start on the second to last line, “Die Völker dieses Planeten sind”.

There’s also a full version in English, for anyone who’s really curious. 16 pages. There are parts I never really understood, but I think it’s interesting how he plays with the idea of what’s imagined and what’s real.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think part of the problem is that it’s not so easy to translate. “Lunecer” sounds like “amanecer” (to dawn, to wake up). Which can also be a noun (el amanecer, the dawn), but when the verb is conjugated, there’s no mixing them up.

Amaneció. (it dawned, the sun rose, the day broke)

Or the same idea with the night:

Anocheció. (es wurde dunkel, der Abend dämmerte)

Whereas “moon” just sounds like a noun to me. Well, except to my inner 10 year old.

The -ing forms definitely feel verb-y no matter what grammatical hat they’re wearing. The act of rising.

You could even throw an adverb into your example to play with that:

Rising and gently shining happened in the darkening behind flowing.

(creative writing hat off, back to work :))

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  haton

Hebrew is the same as Arabic re: “to have” – if you want to say “I have a dog,” you say “there is a dog for/to me.” (It does have a “to be”-verb, though the “there is” word in that sentence is different, like the Spanish hay.)

Danielsurf
Danielsurf
1 year ago

Thanks a lot for all this precious knowledge! Also I would like to thank everyone behind the creation and managing of this community, and a very special thanks to everyone that contributes and donates for memberships of people that maybe have it a little more difficult. Thanks to them today I got my subscription, and I promise taking the best out of it!

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

Is the universe expanding at a constant rate?

kalamazoo
kalamazoo
1 year ago

“the true passion of German are its verbs” should have “is” instead of “are”

Adrian
Adrian
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

‘Verbs are the true passion of German’ – plural agreement with ‘verbs’;
‘the passion (of German) is’ – passion is singular so ‘is’ feels more natural in that order…. formal grammaticists might have other ideas though :)

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian

Yeah, number most naturally agrees with the subject, and the subject is whatever comes first.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I’m certainly used to reading/hearing it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a mistake I still make regularly in writing/speech.

Hiland
Hiland
1 year ago

You gave these examples of English sentences without verbs:

  • I’ll book a room.
  • I’ll salt my soup.
  • I’ll voice my opinion.
  • I’ll chair the meeting.
  • I’ll bench 100 pounds.

but you ignored the hyphen, I’ll is a contraction of I will. So in each of these examples, the verb is will.

Adrian
Adrian
1 year ago
Reply to  Hiland

Book a room! … etc – are these not imperative forms of ‘to book’, ‘to salt’ etc – so then they are the verbs, albeit verbed nouns (verbed being a verbed version of verb….)

Mihai
Mihai
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Your energy – matter metaphor applied to speech parts is cool and has impressive explanatory power. However, some of the arguments employed are quite bold IMO, like: =There are some languages that do NOT have “verb” as a distinct word type, because it’s simply impossible to decide whether a word is a noun or a verb= While it is true that some languages allegedly lack Noun/Verb distinction when analyzed through the looking glass of Europocentric grammar, most languages do have them. Furthermore, from the assessment that some language`s user cannot easily tell verbs and nouns apart doesn’t necessarily follow that the language lacks the category of „verb” (as understood by English, German, Russian grammarians etc.). It can equally mean that it lacks the “European” category of noun. = But there are languages out there where ALL nouns are also verbs= In fact, languages that do lack N/V distinction are usually described as having either no nouns, or verb-behaving nouns. Some Amerindian, Polynesian languages, classical Arabic sometimes fall into this category. I am no specialist in any of those, but AFIK the debate is far from over on whether they lack the distinction altogether or they simply mark it differently (syntax, intonation etc.). The only verb-lacking language I know of is Kelen, which is a constructed one. Moreover, there are cases where languages initially lacking N/V distinction acquired it in time. Israeli Sign Language for example took three generations to develop this distinction using markers as mouthing, manner of moving (quick-sharp movement for the noun and smooth-slower movement for the verbal counterpart) etc. While the examples you provided clearly show that an English verb and noun can be identical as solitary written words, it doesn’t mean that they are identical in a sentence. It also doesn’t mean that words like “book” or “voice” are more matter that energy, to use your terms. It only appears so because English tried its hardest to get rid of inflection. Historically those words derive from energy-words (Middle English ”voicen” and „booken”). Speakers treat them as energy words when using them in 3nd person (books, voices), past tense (booked, voiced) or gerundial forms (booking, voicing). I think in gerunds the energy content is still very high, even though they are technically nouns/ matter. The “bench” example kinda supports your case, in that “bench” is truly a noun, but only because the expression probably underwent an elision of the verb: Bench press 100 pounds! Even in that case the speakers treat it as verbs: He benchES 100 pounds. Sure, people do follow norms that can be traced back to Classical Latin, but they say things like „He benches 100 without breaking a sweat” not because Cicero is breathing down their neck, but because they feel „bench” is a verb in this context and not treating it accordingly would be ungrammatical. Then again, you could argue that would only be ungrammatical because Cicero loving cucks have been saying so for the last 600 years. The energy-words voicen and… Read more »

Nikola
Nikola
1 year ago

Hallo Leute. Vielen Dank an die Leute, die mir ermöglicht haben, Mitglied von Daily German zu werden. Vielen Dank an die Sponsoren. Ich hoffe es, dass ich meine Deutschkentnisse verbessern werde. Tschüss

Berenice
Berenice
1 year ago

Hey everyone,

Emanuel has given me an account to practice German and he mentioned that this is thanks to other users. I am grateful to Emanuel and to all of you for giving me the opportunity to learn German

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago

Hello,
Only one typo :)
“it sounds really weird and no one talks like” (it sounds really weird and no one talks like that)

Wow, you’re pretty much not typoing anymore!
Lots of verbs get “invented” in English, like “to google” and “to text”, etc…

How would you say this in German:
I’ll google it and text you afterwards… or maybe I’ll just email you.

Bis bald!

DEmberton
DEmberton
1 year ago
Reply to  Elsa

Ich googele es und texte dir danach. Oder vielleicht emaile/maile ich dir.

I’m not sure about texten. I dict.cc’d it, and it’s there as “to text” but it’s not clear that it means send an SMS.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

I think it’s a neat analogy and it makes sense.

A little off topic, but I love documentaries about space. It’s my favorite thing to fall asleep to. Endlessly fascinating, so it drives all the other thoughts out of my head, but still somehow soothing. If anyone is interested, Terra X has some good ones and they usually have subtitles. Just plug “faszination universum” into Youtube.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I thought of it because I was just watching a documentary called Der Tod der Sterne and it kind of blows my mind that stars die and explode into dust that can turn into new stars or black holes. The circle of life.

I’m glad you mentioned the one about love because I’ve been staring it at thinking it looked interesting but somehow I never clicked on it. I’ll definitely check it out, and the other one too. It’s always fascinating to get an up close and personal look at life in other places.

It’s hard to pick favorites, but I really liked the one about the Romanian hospitals. Korruption tötet. I thought it was going to be similar to the Station nightclub fire, and it turned out to be more of an inside look at how journalists uncover corruption in the healthcare system. Courage, determination, and sticking up for what’s right.

Thanks for the recommendations, I’m excited to have some new stuff to watch :)

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

Relevant comic from Calvin and Hobbes

It’s kind of a blessing that German tenses are so straightforward, what with the verbs being so specific. I also noticed it seems pretty common to make up new verbs on the spot (going by what I can’t find in a dictionary). Two that I read today: “reinhageln” and “weginformieren” (irrationale Ängste lassen sich nicht weginformieren).

English on the other hand, good luck with the tenses, plus it has a thing for letting words slip into different roles without even changing costume:

Clean the fridge. (verb)
I gave it a good clean. (noun)
It’s nice and clean now. (adjective)
The fridge flew clean through the wall (after Maria threw it at me) (adverb)

I don’t know enough about other languages to say if that’s unusual, but I imagine it’s kind of strange if you’re not used to it.

Speaking of tenses, I would say “the verb absolutely dominates.” To me, “is dominating” is for when something happens during a limited time period. Like a product dominating the market or an athlete dominating their field, it’s happening right now, but it wasn’t always that way and it will likely end at some point. If something is always true, I would just say “it dominates”.

Sorry to nitpick, I just really liked that whole sentence and couldn’t help it.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  coleussanctus

That C&H cartoon was the first thing that popped into my head too :)

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago

“Am Anfang war das Verb ” sagt Gott in Bible .
Sicher ist das Verb , die Tat das Zentrum eines Satz .
Man sagt immer dass das konjugiertes / finites Verb kommt an das Zeiten Stelle eines Satz und non finites Verb am Satzsende .
Dann ,Wie könnte Man ein solches Satz( unten gegeben) analysieren ?
Umstritten ist die Entscheidung der Behörde im Bezug Coronavirus …….
Warum Umstritten steht am erste Stelle ?
Im Voraus , vielen Dank

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hertzlichen Dank,
Schöne Grüsse aus Paris .