Verbs in the Book of Mormon

There are a million ways to read the Book of Mormon. I have read it slowly, quickly, forwards, backwards, and in an altered order. I have read it with a pencil in hand to mark whatever interested me at the time.

A few years ago I had the idea to highlight all of the verbs in the text as I read it. I really can’t remember why I thought that was a good idea. But anyway, I did it, and I ended up learning a lot in the process. This post will be part memoir about the experience and part exhibition of what I learned.

~~~

I obtained a paperback copy of the Book of Mormon and a blue colored pencil, and commenced searching for and marking verbs as I read through the book. I went through a few pencils on my first pass, and on my second pass through I used a black ink pen.

My first observation was that the process was labor intensive. By the end of each chapter I felt fatigued, like I was diagramming sentences in my 7th grade English class again. After a few chapters my verb reading slowed to a trickle because I couldn’t muster the mental effort it required. This project stalled for weeks and even months at a time. Eventually I pushed through and developed the scanning skills I needed to do the work efficiently. It took me over three years to finish my first verb-marking pass through the book.

Even while struggling through the early chapters I noticed that you could almost sense the meaning of the passage just by reading the action words. Those who are familiar with the book should be able to see which chapter this is:

came to pass had come behold was filled was had mourned had supposed had perished had complained telling was saying behold hast led are perish had complained had come to pass spake saying know am had seen should have known had tarried had perished behold have obtained do rejoice know will deliver bring did comfort journeyed to obtain had returned behold was was comforted spake saying know hath commanded to flee know hath protected delivered given could accomplish hath commanded did speak came to pass did rejoice did offer gave had given took were engraven did search beheld did contain gave were have been spoken came to pass found knew was was was was preserved might preserve perishing were led had preserved did discover was had kept saw was filled began to prophesy should go were said should perish should be dimmed prophesied came to pass had kept had commanded had obtained had commanded searched found were could preserve was should carry journeyed

Could you tell that those were the verbs from 1 Nephi chapter 5, when Nephi and his brothers return to their parents after obtaining the record of the Jews on the brass plates? The chapter begins with their mother murmuring and complaining to their father, and ends with Lehi searching the contents of their scriptures. I wonder if he ever marked all of the verbs on the brass plates?

1 Nephi chapter 5 with all of the verbs marked.

A Primer on Verbs

While reading through the book I tried to mark all of the different kinds of verbs in the text, including action verbs, helping verbs, linking verbs, participles, gerunds, and infinitives. I couldn’t remember the names of all of these types of verbs (I looked them up just now), but I found examples of them throughout the text and pondered on their grammar.

For instance: a verb that functions as an adjective is known as a participle, as in the following examples:

“… and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever…” (1 Nephi 14:2).

“… yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed …” (Alma 16:9).

I also marked verbs that followed a linking verb, which also behave as adjectives:

“… for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, and which the Lord had shown unto him” (1 Nephi 1:15).

“… and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe; and he came down and stood in the midst of them; and the eyes of the whole multitude were turned upon him …” (3 Nephi 11:8).

Two types of verbs may function as nouns. First, a gerund usually ends in -ing, as in this gang of gerunds:

“Now those priests who did go forth among the people did preach against all lyings, and deceivings, and envyings, and strifes, and malice, and revilings, and stealing, robbing, plundering, murdering, committing adultery, and all manner of lasciviousness, crying that these things ought not so to be” (Alma 16:18).

(Notice that gerunds may also be plural.)

Second, the infinitive form of a verb is also used as a noun, and is usually preceded by the word to:

“And it came to pass that as he read he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Nephi 1:12)

“… your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand” (Alma 32:34)

“… and he sought to gain favor of those who were not obedient …” (Alma 47:5)

Can a verb act as a preposition? While reading Mosiah I started to wonder:

“And many signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows showed he unto them, concerning his coming; and also holy prophets spake unto them concerning his coming; …” (Mosiah 3:15).

Merriam-Webster identifies this usage of the word as a preposition, but is concerning not derived from a verb? To concern means to relate to or to be about, as in, “This blog post concerns verbs in the Book of Mormon.” Concerning is also an adjective, and it looks like a participle to me.

There are many other passages with a similar construction, some of which are more obviously verbs:

“… for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white …” (Alma 5:21)

“… he shall die as to things pertaining unto righteousness” (Alma 12:16)

“For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel;” (3 Nephi 23:2).

I also noticed several nouns which derive their meaning from verbs — that is, the noun is the person or thing that does that action. A few examples from Alma 5: murderers, liars, partakers. I generally didn’t mark these in the text, although I noticed them in that chapter and made a note about them.

Off to an Uncertain Start

I did not consult a grammar text while reading through for the first time, so I noticed my marking style evolved through the first 150 pages or so as I learned about these verb types. For some reason I started off with the idea that I would only mark the main action verbs and leave the others unmarked. Early on I left out most of the helping verbs, participles, gerunds, and infinitives. This approach led to a number of inconsistencies, and I found myself marking a verb in one verse but skipping it a verse or two later. By the time I reached Alma on the first pass I decided that it was easier to try to mark all the verbs than to invent and try to consistently follow a set of arbitrary rules about which verbs to mark and which verbs to pass over.

When I reached the end of the book I decided to start over at the beginning to see how many verbs I had missed. On my second pass through 2 Nephi 5 I noticed that the way I had marked verse 34 made no sense at all:

“And it sufficeth me to say that forty years had passed away, and we had already had wars and contentions with our brethren” (2 Nephi 5:34).

Notice that the word had appears twice as a helping verb (before passed and had), and was left unmarked, but when the same word appears as an action verb I felt compelled to mark it. The second time through I marked them all.

Another curiosity was 2 Nephi 21, where on my first pass through I had left out all of the helping verbs. On my second pass I noticed that every additional verb that I marked — every single one — was the word shall. I will always think of 2 Nephi chapter 21 as the “Chapter of Shall,” and I think it earns the name; the chapter is a wonderful prophecy of the coming of Christ and of the gathering of Israel in the latter days:

“And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (2 Nephi 21:12, quoted from Isaiah 11:12).

And why marginalize helping verbs — as if helpers were not important? How will this gathering of Israel happen without tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of helpers, all engaged in the latter-day work of the Lord? The more I marked helping verbs on my second pass through, the more I realized that helping is a worthy aspiration, even if helpers don’t get as much attention as they may want.

One inconsistency in my early marking was my approach to the word behold. For some reason I was initially skipping over this frequently-encountered verb. Probably I considered it to be a distraction, or “fluff verb,” or something. Anyway, on my first pass through 1 Nephi 11 I noticed that behold or beheld was the important action word of many sentences, but on my second pass through I found that I had only marked them about half of the time.

About 400 pages later it suddenly struck me that if you had to summarize the message of the Book of Mormon in a single word, behold would be a pretty good choice. It is an imperative verb — a command to the reader that they see, perceive, or pay attention to the writer’s message. And what is the main message of the book?

“…that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations” (Title Page of the Book of Mormon).

Density and Distribution

What do you notice when you mark all of the verbs in the Book of Mormon? The most obvious thing at first is the density and distribution of verbs. I counted the verbs on 11 randomly chosen pages with different narrators and found an average of 116.8 verbs per page (range 73-166). The median number of verbs was 115. Based on this I estimate that the whole book contains a little over 60,000 verbs.

I found 12 verses in the Book of Mormon that do not contain any verbs:

I did not find any verses that are composed entirely of verbs — which doesn’t really surprise me because that wouldn’t make grammatical sense — but there are three entire lines of verbs in the English printing. Here they are:

“Wherefore, as those who have
been destroyed have been destroyed
speedily…” (2 Nephi 26:18)

“… secret works of those people who
have been destroyed, may be made
manifest unto this people …” (Alma 37:21)

“…gave orders that my men who
had been wounded should be taken
from among the dead …” (Alma 57:24)

Honorable mentions go to a couple of lines that almost made it:

“… and these
I had hoped to preserve to have laid
up fruit thereof against the season, …” (Jacob 5:46)

“… many things which cannot
be written, having established the
order of the church …” (Alma 8:1)

An Archaic Verb Sampler

1) King Benjamin uses an interesting verb while warning his people about the consequences of doing evil:

“But, O my people, beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit, which was spoken of by my father Mosiah.

“For behold, there is a wo pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that spirit; for if he listeth to obey him, and remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul; for he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge” (Mosiah 2:32-33).

What does it mean to list? This verb has a few meanings. A boat or other vessel which tilts to one side is said to list in that direction. Do our souls lean, or list, toward following the Lord or towards following the devil? The cargo we carry through life can easily put our lives out of balance. To take just one example, are those political divisions that cause so much contention in our families and neighborhoods really all that important? Are they more important than the Lord’s command to love one another? If we are listing in the wrong direction, then we need to rearrange our load to straighten things out before we smash into the rocks.

To list also means to enlist, as in to sign up for service to something. Someone who enlists is adding their name to the list of people engaged for a cause. Would you enlist in the devil’s host? According to King Benjamin that is what we are doing when we engage in contentions without repenting.

2) Alma the younger described the conversion of his father:

“And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.

“And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved” (Alma 5:12-13).

Wrought is an archaic past tense of the verb work. A modern text would probably use worked instead of wrought. Perhaps the most famous use of this word was by Samuel Morse in the first telegraph sent on the Baltimore-Washington line, which was a quote from Numbers 23:23: “What hath God wrought!”

Who did this work of changing the hearts of people who repented because of their faith? It was God. Our salvation is his work and his glory. (see Moses 1:39)

3) Another archaic construction caught my attention in Alma 24:

“And it came to pass that the Amalekites and the Amulonites and the Lamanites … were stirred up by the Amalekites and by the Amulonites to anger against their brethren” (Alma 24:1).

What part of speech is anger in this sentence? I never thought much about it before I started paying attention to verbs. This word can act as either a noun or a verb, and in this context it looks like an infinitive. A similar construction is used frequently in the Book of Mormon with the verb battle, as in here:

“… therefore they began to prepare for war, and to come up to battle against my people” (Mosiah 10:6).

4) The adjective cunning is a vestige of an Old English verb:

“And thus we see how great the inequality of man is because of sin and transgression, and the power of the devil, which comes by the cunning plans which he hath devised to ensnare the hearts of men” (Alma 28:13).

When I read the verse above I thought that word looked like a participle, but I wasn’t sure which verb it was derived from, so I looked it up. Cunning is the present participle of the verb cunnan, which means “to know.” Over time this word narrowed its meaning to “knowing how to do something,” and eventually morphed into the Modern English verb can as the original form fell out of usage.

Does the devil know how to deceive us? Well, he’s had a lot of practice over the years.

5) This one is not exactly archaic, but I do think it is rarely used:

“… for behold, some have wrested the scriptures, and have gone far astray because of this thing” (Alma 41:1).

To wrest something is “to pull, force, or move by violent wringing or twisting movements.” Unfortunately the word of God has been wrested many times over the millennia, and it is still being wrested today. Much better to let the word of God wrest your soul.

6) What does it mean to wife someone? It sure looks like an infinitive, but I’ve never heard anyone use this construction outside of the scriptures:

“And now, therefore, let my father send for Akish, the son of Kimnor; and behold, I am fair, and I will dance before him, and I will please him, that he will desire me to wife; wherefore if he shall desire of thee that ye shall give unto him me to wife, then shall ye say: I will give her if ye will bring unto me the head of my father, the king.

“And now Omer was a friend to Akish; wherefore, when Jared had sent for Akish, the daughter of Jared danced before him that she pleased him, insomuch that he desired her to wife. And it came to pass that he said unto Jared: Give her unto me to wife” (Ether 8:10-11).

In current online dictionaries I cannot find wife as a verb, but the word wive is a verb with the same meaning used in these verses. To wive someone is to make that person your wife.

I can’t see myself wanting to wife anyone whose father required me to murder the bride’s grandfather before the wedding. Probably I would just break off the engagement, because, really, what girl is worth that kind of trouble?

7) In Alma’s discourse to the people of Gideon I paused on this line:

“… show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism.” (Alma 7:15)

The word willing is generally considered to be an adjective in modern usage. Its form is very similar to running, which may be a noun (gerund) or an adjective (participle). If willing and running are parallel forms, derived from verbs, then the adjective willing is based on the verb to will, meaning to determine something by an act of choice. (“I will this blog post into existence!”)

So repentance is an act of will. We choose to repent and to covenant with God that we will keep his commandments. This is the central commitment we make when we are baptized. Similar language is used in Mosiah 18:8-10 and Moroni 4:3.

A Chiasm

A repeating verb caught my eye, and on further inspection I found that it was part of an inverse parallelism:

” … they have repented not of their
1 evil doings; therefore,
2 I will visit them in my
3 anger, yea, in my fierce
3 anger
2 will I visit them in their
1 iniquities and abominations” (Mosiah 12:1)

Nouning and Verbing

There are many crossover words which may act as nouns or verbs:

“Therefore, what the queen desired (v) of him was his only desire (n). Therefore, he went in to see the king according as the queen had desired (v) him; and he saw the king, and he knew that he was not dead” (Alma 19:7).

The word desire may be a noun, as in, “Writing this blog post is my heart’s desire.” It may also be a verb, as in, “I desire to write this blog post.” In the verse quoted above, the first and third occurrences are verbs and the second occurrence is a noun.

What parts of speech are your righteous desires? Are they nouns: people, places, things? Or are they verbs: to be a better person, to love your neighbor, and to make this world a better place?

Faith is a noun that implies action, as described in the Bible Dictionary:

“Faith is a principle of action and of power, and by it one can command the elements, heal the sick, and influence any number of circumstances when occasion warrants (Jacob 4:4–7). Even more important, by faith one obtains a remission of sins and eventually can stand in the presence of God” (Bible Dictionary: “Faith”).

But as far as I observed, the word faith is never used as a verb in the Book of Mormon.

In theory, you can verb any noun and noun any verb in the English language. It seems that the latter situation is more common than the former. When you see the same word employed as two different parts of speech within the same sentence, it really catches your attention. (Well, maybe only if you are marking all of the verbs.)

“And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble (v) you no more, and only let your sins trouble (v) you, with that trouble (n) which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29).

“For in that day, for my sake shall the Father work (v) a work (n), which shall be a great and a marvelous work (n) among them” (3 Nephi 21:9).

“Ye are cursed (v) with a curse (n), for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation” (3 Nephi 24:9, quoting Malachi 3:9).

Poetic Verbs

1) Alma 24 tells the story of Christian martyrs who refused to fight against their enemies. These Christians were recent converts to the faith, and their enemies were their own countrymen who had rejected the word of God preached by the missionaries. But when they came to battle many of these combatants were greatly moved by the determined pacifism of the Christians.

“Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword …

“And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them” (Alma 24:23,25).

I love how the narrator uses the word stung to describe the terrible remorse and guilt felt by these people. Anyone who has suffered the intolerable pain and irritation of an insect sting can imagine how these people felt in their souls as they realized that they had committed a terrible wrong. This spiritual feeling of being stung is a necessary part of the repentance process.

2) Later in Alma we read the story of a war between the Nephites and the Lamanites, which was prolonged by insurrections among the Nephites. Captain Moroni faced both internal and external opponents with the same decisive approach.

“Behold, it came to pass that while Moroni was thus breaking down the wars and contentions among his own people, and subjecting them to peace and civilization, and making regulations to prepare for war against the Lamanites, behold, the Lamanites had come into the land of Moroni, which was in the borders by the seashore” (Alma 51:22).

Subjecting something mean to make it subservient to, or a subject of, some controlling force. We normally think of subjecting as a negative thing: we subject people to unpleasant experiences like torture or reading endless blog posts. But peace and civilization are not usually thought of as unpleasant experiences — except, I suppose, by anarchists.

3) Amulek contrasts the situation of those who repent of their sins and those who do not, and the difference between them can be summarized in two verbs:

“And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption” (Alma 34:16).

The plan of mercy provides safety for those who repent, while those who refuse to repent are vulnerable. We can choose to be encircled in the arms of safety on the day of judgement, or exposed to the whole demands of justice for whatever our sins have been.

4) One of the most remarked upon verb-related passages in the Book of Mormon is where Helaman teaches his two sons a most important lesson:

“Behold, my sons, I desire that ye should remember to keep the commandments of God; and I would that ye should declare unto the people these words. Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how that it is said, and also written, that they were good. (Helaman 5:6).

The verb remember appears 13 times within 7 verses of this little sermon, clearly a higher frequency than in any other passage in the book. As a father I know something of what Helaman must have felt on that occasion; parents hope with all their hearts that their children will remember the teachings of the gospel so that their lives will be blessed.

And what were Helaman’s sons exhorted to remember? First, that they were named for their righteous ancestors, and their father hoped that this would motivate them to continue their family traditions of faith. Next, that Jesus Christ was their only hope of salvation, and that he would redeem them from their sins but not in their sins. And last, that Jesus was the only sure foundation upon which they could build their lives to withstand all of the trials that would come.

We would all do well to remember the same.

Topical Lists

1) Near the conclusion of a fourteen-year mission to the Lamanites, Ammon summarized their experience with a list of verbs:

“And we have entered into their houses and taught them, and we have taught them in their streets; yea, and we have taught them upon their hills; and we have also entered into their temples and their synagogues and taught them; and we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks; and we have been stoned, and taken and bound with strong cords, and cast into prison; and through the power and wisdom of God we have been delivered again” (Alma 26:29).

The work they did is summarized in two verbs: to enter (homes and places of worship) and to teach. And they did a lot of teaching in a lot of places! The persecution they suffered is also summarized by verbs: to cast (out and into prison), to mock, to spit, to smite, to stone, to take, and to bind. A single verb describes what the Lord did for them: to deliver.

2) Alma’s discourse to the Zoramites includes this verse:

“And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved” (Alma 32:13).

These verbs make a chain of progression, starting from a place of pride, progressing through the steps of repentance, and ending with gospel endurance and the ultimate goal of salvation.

3) The gospel of Jesus Christ may be summarized by selected verbs from this verse:

Turn, all ye Gentiles, from your wicked ways; and repent of your evil doings, of your lyings and deceivings, and of your whoredoms, and of your secret abominations, and your idolatries, and of your murders, and your priestcrafts, and your envyings, and your strifes, and from all your wickedness and abominations, and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins, and be filled with the Holy Ghost, that ye may be numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 30:2, compare with Articles of Faith 1:4)

4) Mormon’s sermon recorded in Moroni chapter 7 contains a description of charity that mirrors Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. Notice that the charity is defined by what it does or does not — by its verbs:

“And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (Moroni 7:45)

And Mormon’s exhortation to us in relation to charity is also given as a verb:

“Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail” (Moroni 7:46)

5) Moroni chapter 6 contains a description of the Church of Jesus Christ which was organized in the America’s by the resurrected Lord. The infinitive verbs in this chapter form a good summary of the purpose and activity of the church:

“… to serve him to the end” (vs 3)
“… to keep them in the right way” (vs 4)
“… to keep them continually watchful unto prayer” (vs 4)
“… to fast” (vs 5)
“… to pray” (vs 5)
“… to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (vs 5)
“… to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus” (vs 6)
“… to preach” (vs 9)
“… to exhort” (vs 9)
“… to pray” (vs 9)
“… to supplicate” (vs 9)
“… to sing” (vs 9)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the same purposes today.

~~~

This verb project was a great way to see the Book of Mormon from a new perspective. Not only did I learn a thing or two about grammar, but I also saw new meaning in passages by peering through this unusual lens. It was labor intensive, but I don’t grudge the time and effort because I learned things I hadn’t considered before. Scripture time is always time well spent.

I also developed the (arguably useless) skill of scanning a text to find all of the verbs. I dunno. Maybe that will come in handy some day.

Bringing a multi-year endeavor to a close is always a little bittersweet. I can finally look at what I did and feel a sense of accomplishment, but it also leaves a void in my routine. What can I do to fill that void? Another scripture study project, of course! I think it would be interesting to highlight and catalogue all of the editorial comments in the Book of Mormon (“And thus we see …”). Another idea is a little more ambitious: to make my very own handwritten Book of Mormon manuscript! Doesn’t that sound like fun?

I will conclude this post with a final thought about verbs in the scriptures: Is there one action which always takes precedence over or is foundational to all others? In other words, what is the first verb?

I suggest that it is to be. Everything else we may ever hope to do depends, in the first case, on our being. Without existence there is no opportunity for any other action.

And that is as true for God as it is for us. In fact, Jehovah used the first person singular form of this verb as his name in ancient Israel:

“And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?

“And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Because God is, we can have faith in him, and can have hope for a better world through his grace. We should strive above all else to be his disciples by studying and following his word.

What unique approaches to scripture study have you taken? Are there any verbs in the scriptures that you particularly like? What’s your favorite part of speech? Leave a comment and let us know.


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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