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an example of parallel structure

College Prep Writing


English has basically two kinds of verbs: main verbs and auxiliary verbs (or helping verbs). Each of the following sentences has one main verb—had, lost, and found.

 Neal had a new iPad.

 He lost the iPad.

 Then he found it.

The following sentences have the auxiliary verbs can, do, and should and the main verbs find, forget, and check.

 Now Neal cannot find his laptop.

 He didn't forget it on the bus.

 He should check in his car.

Unfortunately, the system of English verbs is not quite as simple as main and auxiliary verbs because both of these categories can be divided further.

Auxiliary Verbs

There are two kinds of auxiliary verbs: modals and the verbs do, have, and be.


Modals are can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, ought, and must. Think of be able to and have to as modals also.

In the following three sentences can, must, and will are modals. The main verbs are believe, be, and ask.

 I cannot believe it.

 It must be a mistake.

 I will ask someone.

Modals are unusual because they do not have the four principle parts that main verbs have. All modals have a base form, which serves as present tense. Some have a past form as well.

modal forms

base (present)   past

 can                      could







 will                        would

The modal shall does not get much use in American conversational English. The tradition of using shall in legal language continues, however.

Be able to and have to are unlike other modals because they have the same principle parts that main verbs have. However, be able to and have to are never main verbs in a sentence.

Auxiliaries be, have, and do

In the following sentences, the auxiliary verbs are be, do, and have. The main verbs are have, get, and be.

 We are having a good time.

 I don't get it.

 I have never been there.

Be, do, and have may be both auxiliaries and main verbs, even in the same sentence. Compare the use of be, do, and have as auxiliaries and as main verbs.

 Be as an auxiliary and main verb: I am being patient.

 Be as a main verb: I am patient.

 Have as an auxiliary and main verb: I have had second thoughts about it.

 Have as a main verb: I have second thoughts about it.

 Do as an auxiliary and main verb: I didn't do it.

 Do as a main verb: I did it.

The auxiliary verb do gets an especially good workout as an auxiliary verb because it is used with yes-no questions and with negatives.

 Did you finish everything?

 No, I didn't finish anything.

Be able to and have to are unlike other modals because they have the same principle parts that main verbs have. However, be able to and have to are never main verbs in a sentence.

Main Verbs

Main verbs may be transitive or intransitive or both.

intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs do not take objects. In the following examples, adverbs follow the verbs, not objects.

 Jimmy works at a bakery.

 He died on 9 May 1986.

transitive verbs

A transitive verb requires an object. Objects normally follow verbs.

 Celine assured us.

 They canceled their contract.

Want is an example of another transitive verb. It always needs an object. In the following sentence, the object of want is what.

 What do you want?

It is easy to find the object if you put the subject first.

You want what?

Sometimes an object is an infinitive.

 She wants to get a degree.

both intransitive and transitive

Some verbs may be both transitive and intransitive. Sing is an example.

Intransitive: She sang.

Transitive: She sang an aria.

We do not have a choice with lie, come, and go, however. They are always intransitive. Most verbs in English are transitive. In that way, English is different from many other languages.

Linking Verbs

A number of verbs serve as connectors or links between a subject (a noun or a pronoun) and a complement (a noun, a pronoun, or an adjective). These verbs are linking verbs. Be is the most common linking verb. Linking verbs are always intransitive.

In the following short sentences, the verb be (is) links or connects a pronoun and a noun (he and artist) and a pronoun and an adjective (this and unique). Artist is a subject complement (not an object) and unique is an adjective complement.

 He is an artist.

 This is unique.

Be cannot link a noun to an adverb because an adverb cannot modify a noun, nor can an adverb modify the verb be. For example, I am quickly is incorrect because quickly is an adverb. It may help to think of a linking verb as a kind of equal sign (=).

Except for be, linking verbs look like main verbs. Some of them are feel, look, smell, sound, and taste. In the following example, good modifies curry, not taste. Good is an adjective complement.

 This curry tastes good.

The following may also be linking verbs when the word after the verb modifies the subject, not the verb: appear, become, grow, seem, remain, stay, turn, and prove. Good, happy, stale, and unpleasant are adjective complements in the examples below.

 He feels good about his grades. (Good modifies the subject he).

 They seem happy. (Happy modifies they.)

 Some people sound unpleasant early in the morning. (Unpleasant modifies some people.)

Two-Word Verbs

Some of the little words that you see in sentences are actually parts of verbs. Some of these combination-verbs, like come apart, die off, fall for, speak out, and wait for, are not separable. That is, both parts of the verb must stay together.

 We are waiting for the librarian to unlock the door.

 You need to speak out in the class.

There are many more combination-verbs that are separable, including bring about, call off, find out, take off, and write down. An object may separate the parts of the verb, such as in the following example with write down.

 If you get an idea, write it down so you don't forget it.

Adverbs and prepositions often do not provide a clue about the meaning of a combination-verb. For example, slow up and slow down have the same meaning. On the other hand, make up has several different meanings, and they are not similar to each other.