Empty Verbs

by Jacqueline Schaalje

Empty verbs or delexical verbs are verbs that are used in expressions and that don’t have meaning on their own.

What do I mean?

For instance imagine someone who tells you about their Saturday morning:

I started my morning doing the dishes. I had a look outside the window and it seemed sunny enough. I took my bike to the park where my friends and I had a lovely picnic. We had heaps of fun and even got a little tipsy. After lunch I went home and took a nap.

Did you notice all the empty verbs?

Here is the mini story again, but I’ve underlined the empty verbs.

I started my morning doing the dishes. I had a look outside the window and it seemed sunny enough. I took my bike to the park where my friends and I had a lovely picnic. We had heaps of fun and even got a little tipsy. After lunch I went home and took a nap.

So you see that empty verbs are simple, everyday verbs that most people know how to use.

In this little story I’ve used the verbs do, have, ride, get, go and take. I could have told you a million other stories with these verbs. That’s because the verbs in themselves don’t carry much meaning. The meaning of the story comes from the words that follow the verbs.

In the first sentence you’ll note that I’ve used do the dishes.

This means something else than do your homework.

Or do your hair up.

You see, you can say many other things with do.

Which Verbs are Used as Empty Verbs?

In grammar books and websites you can find long lists of empty verbs and expressions that you can use with them. Maybe I’ll make a list of them once, but not now (because I’m too lazy :-)). I’d like to show you something else, which is that the empty verbs are usually informal language, and when you don’t use the empty verbs, you’ll get something that is much more formal.

What do I mean?

I meant that many expressions with empty verbs have an equivalent (= something that means the same) in more formal verbs. And because you sometimes need to speak formally and sometimes informally, you need to be able to use both ways of speech.

Let’s see how this works.

Verb 1: Do the dishes

For instance, in everyday languages you say do the dishes.

Now imagine that you want to sell a dishwashing liquid. So what would you say when you made a commercial to sell your product? You probably would want to use some more formal expression, so you could say: Magic Bubble makes washing your plates and glasses effortless and quick.

So you see, I’ve used wash as a verb. It just sounds more formal to say wash the dishes than do the dishes. Instead of wash I could also have used rinse, clean or scrub.

I could also have said: Magic Bubble makes dishwashing effortless and quick. I’ve avoided the verb altogether and changed the action into a noun (dishwashing).

Verb 2: Have a look.

Have a look is very informal.

More formal options are: look outside, glance at the weather, view, evaluate the weather, survey the sky, inspect the clouds, take in the view. These examples have varying degrees of formality. In general, the longer words (from Latin and Greek roots) are more formal. So, evaluate, survey and inspect are very formal. You will need these verbs if you say or write in an academic context (in a text that gives information about something scientific for example).

Verb 3: Take my bike.

More formal would be to say ride your bike.

Alternatives are: spin your bike, whirl your bike or pick up your bike. These aren’t more formal than take your bike, but they are more poetic/colourful.

Verb 4: Have a picnic.

More formal would be to say eat, dine or consume.

You wouldn’t use those verbs to describe your picnic, but when you describe a formal dinner you could use those words. If you read on the internet about the dinner for the Queen’s birthday, for instance, there could be information on how the guests dined on grilled swordfish with potato gratin, or whatever they ate. You see, dined, which is a more formal verb.

You can also say enjoy dinner instead of have dinner. That also sounds more formal.

Verb 5: Have fun.

To make have fun more formal you would say something like enjoy yourself, revel, relish, live it up, take joy in or have a good time. Have a good time and take joy in are also expressions with empty verbs, but they’re more formal than have fun.

Verb 6: Get tipsy.

Another term for this, also with an empty verb, is of course get drunk.

Formal words for get drunk is inebriate or get inebriated, or carouse. Another informal word is booze.

Verb 7: Go home.

If you’d like to say this in a formal context, you’d say return homeward(s), leave or depart, or even travel or journey.

And the last one.

Verb 7: Take a nap.

Well, that’s easy. Just use sleep, go to sleep or fall asleep. Nod off or doze off is also nice when you want to be more colourful.

How can you know all these expressions with empty verbs?

The expressions with empty verbs are the most common in the English language. You want to use these when you talk about everyday matters. Want to say things that are less common and/or more formal? Well, then you’d better get yourself a computer memory, because English is incredibly rich in expressions.

If you are interested in learning more expressions and learning how to extend your knowledge of the English language, use a thesaurus. There you can find synonyms and equivalents of words and expressions, including the expressions with empty verbs. If you’re using google, just type the expression that you want to check + thesaurus, and see what you can find.

Like this:


However, it doesn’t work with all expressions. Sometimes you just need to check the empty verb on its own. For example, I put go home into the thesaurus and it didn’t turn up any other expressions. But for go alone you can find lots of ideas.

Now you can do a quiz about Superman’s Monday Morning.



You’re going to read about Superman’s Monday morning

Make suggestions how to make the sentences less formal by choosing an expression with an empty verb.

Example: Superman decided to swim.

Less formal: Superman made a decision to go swimming.

Click here to do this quiz online. 

1 After a hard night of saving the world from disaster, Superman nodded off for a couple of hours. What could you say instead of nodded off?

went mad

took a nap

got groggy

2 He got up and straightened his bed sheets. What could you say instead of straightened his bed sheets?

made his bed

wrinkled his pillow

pushed his plate

3 He popped some melon muffins into the microwave and drank his morning coffee. What could you say instead of drank his coffee?

had his coffee

did his coffee

ate his toffee

4 He rinsed his plate and cup and put on his office clothes. What could you say instead of rinsed his plate and cup?

watered his dishes

did the dishes

got his dishes

5 On the train, Superman conversed with Wonder Woman about her dinner plans. What could you say that is a bit less formal than conversed?

got up

had an argument

had a chat

6 Wonder Woman glanced in her diary and discovered she was set to date with Batman that evening. What could you say instead of glanced?

had a view

had a look

took a stare

7 Superman told Wonder Woman to enjoy herself and dialled Catwoman’s number. What could you say instead of enjoy herself?

have fun

take a good time

enjoy her stay

8 But Catwoman was bathing and didn’t answer. What could you say instead of bathing?

She was having a hot bath.

She was taking her milk.

She was out in the sun.

9 She called him back later and they arranged to go saving children together at 7 pm. What could ou have said instead of arranged?

made a decision

created an appointment

made a plan


Want to do more quizzes about verbs?

Have a look here:

Irregular Verbs with -en

List of Common Verbs – Present and Past

Words that take a singular verb

Every Sentence in English must have a Verb

Words like Present – Presentation

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