When I was in the 9th grade at Brooklyn Technical High School, my English teacher stood at the board and said, ‘Your textbook defines a verb as a word that describes an action or state of being.’ On the board she wrote:
A verb describes an action or state of being.
Next she wrote this sentence on the board:
Eating custard pie, Peter is a picture of happiness.
Then she called on me to identify the verb in the sentence.
It seemed clear to me that eating expresses an action, so I answered, ‘Eating.’
To my surprise the teacher said, ‘No, eating is not the verb.’
I protested, ‘But the book says a verb is an action word. Eating is an action.’
The teacher responded with what was to her an apparently clear explanation: ‘Yes, but eating is a participle, not the verb in this sentence.’
I had no idea what a participle was, but I began looking for another action word in the sentence—without success.
Sensing my frustration, the teacher offered a hint. ‘Remember that a verb can describe a state of being.’
State of being, I thought. What is a state of being?
Scanning the sentence to find a word expressing a state of being, I considered happiness. Happiness seemed to express a state of being. I figure that if I knew what a verb was, I would be in a state of happiness. Unsure but hopeful, I asked, “Is happiness the verb?”
‘No,’ came the judgment.
After another minute or so, the teacher answered her own question:
‘The verb in this sentence is is.’
But it didn’t matter. Grammar made no sense to me, and I dismissed it as something I would never understand.