Are verbs just doing words?

If I had a dollar for every time I heard verbs being described as doing words…

You get the idea. The traditional grammar language of verbs that classifies words is very restrictive. This has lead to many educators (and I will raise my hand as guilty) describe verbs in an overly simplistic way.

So, is there really any harm in describing verbs as doing words? Is it too simplistic to explain that the process is a happening? Surely this is all a 5 year old can handle!

Picture this; green marker at the ready I read the opening line of Mutt Dog by Stephen Michael King (one of my all-time favourite picture books).

“In the city there lived a dog…”

I ask myself, “What’s happening?” and stare again at the clause. Right, too hard for my brain, how about the next line;

“who belonged to nobody.”

I give up! This is too hard! This dog isn’t doing anything! I can’t find a single thing that is happening! Next line!

“He ate whatever he could find”

Yes! Finally! This dog is doing something. Something is happening! He is eating! It is an action I can visualise. I finally get to use my patiently waiting green marker.


As I have been saying, all this transitivity stuff is great, we can unlock the secret codes of language, improve student writing and comprehension. But this all means nothing if you and your students can’t identify the parts of a clause.

And what is the first part of the clause that we need to identify?

The process. The happening. Which is usually a verb/verbal group.

So what if there is nothing happening in the clause? What if no-one is “doing” anything. Does that mean there is no verb/process? Which must mean it isn’t a clause after all!

You see the problem?

Therefore, the way we talk about verbs/processes is important. We need to extend the description of verbs. Merely saying, “it is something you do” or “something you can see happening” is not enough. It is far too restrictive.

And don’t get me started on lists of verbs…


This is why when I introduce the happening (process) I also introduce the different process types at the same time. This usually occurs naturally because of a scenario like the one I have retold above.  As I inquire into clauses with my students, we will always reach a clause in which nothing is physically happening. This is a perfect point to pose the question;

“What are some different ways that things happen?”

This question easily leads to a discussion of the different types of processes. There are different labels for these processes in functional grammar, however sometimes this language isn’t particularly child friendly. So, although I use the labels I will also use words to describe each type of process, these are placed in brackets in this graphic.

process types

Students can usually easily list doing, thinking, speaking and behaving processes. However, it is when introducing relating and existing processes that care needs to be given. These types of processes are found so often in narrative writing that for students to be successful analysing clauses they do need to understand them.

Existential processes are all about existence such as in the first sentence from Mutt Dog, “in the city there lived a dog”. What is happening? the dog is living, it is existing in the city so it is an existential process.


Where as relational processes are about the relationship between two participants (usually). these processes were explained to me perfectly as words that can be replaced with an equals sign. In the clause, “Mutt dog is brave”, the process “is” is a relational process as it can be replaced with an equals sign (Mutt dog = brave).


See how great processes are!


Understanding the different process types can lead to such rich learning. Identifying the different types in different genres gives students and understanding of the word level features of different texts.

One activity I have used is when each student has a different process type and students hold up their processes type when it appears in the text (you can even score points each time a processes appears). Enjoy seeing students tune into the language used in each genre and also the wails of “I haven’t got any points” from the child with the verbal process in an information text. From this activity students see that good writers use a variety of process types.

The second activity leads on nicely from this. Analysing their own writing students set goals to include more process types of a type that may have been lacking.

Using these activities I have seen student writing develop quicker than you can say,”‘verbs are doing words”.


When the definition of a verb is expanded by using the description of processes its beautiful complexity is better captured. And isn’t this a great metaphor for life?

Life isn’t all about doing.

It is about seeing, tasting, sensing, speaking, feeling, relating, thinking

and sometimes just being.



2 thoughts on “Are verbs just doing words?

  1. Another brilliant blog! Clarifying and making grammar real, useful and usable is not easy. You achieve the impossible through humour ( how do you insert those great clips?!), great personal examples and clear explanations. You should copyright your work!!


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