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Finite and Non-finite Verbs

Finite Verbs

Some verbs change their form, or may change their form, depending on what their subject is or on whether they are referring to the past, the present or the future.

Any verb that changes, or that may change, in form to match its subject or to indicate present, past or future is a finite verb.

If there is only a main verb in a sentence, then it will be a finite verb:

  • Coffee gives me migraines.
  • That gives me an idea.
  • My brother teaches chemistry.
  • My parents teach English.
  • He leaves tomorrow morning.
  • He leaves tomorrow morning.
  • am very proud of you.
  • am very proud of you.
  • have a question to ask.
  • have a question to ask.
  • Coffee and chocolate give me migraines.
  • That gave me an idea.
  • My parents teach English.
  • My parents taught English.
  • We leave tomorrow morning.
  • He left last night.
  • We are very proud of you.
  • was very proud of you.
  • John has a question to ask.
  • had a question to ask.

In verb phrases, it is the auxiliary verb that is the finite verb, the verb that agrees with its subject or that indicates past, present and future:

  • He is going to school.
  • He is going to school.
  • Have you lost your key?
  • Have you lost your key?
  • don’t like goats’ cheese.
  • They can go tomorrow.
  • They are going to school.
  • He was going to school.
  • Has she lost her key?
  • Had you lost her key?
  • My sister doesn’t like it either.
  • They couldn’t go last week.

Where there is more than one auxiliary verb in a verb phrase, it is the first auxiliary that is a finite verb, agreeing with its subject or indicating past, present or future:

  • have been looking for you for ages.
  • He has been looking for you for ages.
  • They may have been here.
  • They might have been here.

Notice that although modal auxiliary verbs are finite verbs and change to indicate reference to the past, the present or the future, they do not, unlike other finite verbs, change in form to agree with their subject:

  • sing
  • can sing
  • He goes
  • He may go
  • She sings
  • She can sing
  • They go
  • They may go

Modal auxiliaries have no -s ending when the subject of the verb is he, she or it.

Verbs that express wishes or commands are also considered finite verbs, even though they do not change in form to agree with their subject, and in fact usually do not have a subject expressed in the sentence at all:

  • Give me that knife.
  • Tell him what I said.
  • Don’t talk so loudly.
  • Pick that up, please.

In any sentence with a finite verb, there is usually a word or phrase that represents the subject of that verb. However, finite verbs expressing wishes or commands are generally found without subjects:

  • Please help me.
  • Don’t touch that!
  • Sign your name there.

The unexpressed subject of commands and requests is always you, as can be seen from sentences in which the you is expressed, for example, when making a contrast or distinction:

  • You hold onto that rope, John, and Fiona, you hold onto this one.

Non-finite Verbs

Any verb that is not a finite verb is a non-finite verb.

Non-finite verbs do not change in form to agree with a subject or to indicate past, present and future.

Present participles, past participles and infinitives are the non-finite verbs of English.

Non-finite verbs remaining unchanged with a change of subject:

  • He is working very hard.
  • am looking for a new handbag.
  • Have you got a map?
  • have bought the tickets.
  • We can go to the cinema tomorrow.
  • They are working very hard.
  • She is looking for a new handbag.
  • Has she got a map?
  • My brother has bought the tickets.
  • You can go to the cinema tomorrow.

Non-finite verbs remaining unchanged with a change from present to past time:

  • I am [finite verb] looking [non-finite verb] for a new handbag.
  • He is working very hard.
  • I have got the tickets with me.
  • He is working very hard.
  • I have bought the tickets.
  • I was looking for a new handbag.
  • He was working very hard.
  • I had got the tickets with me.
  • They are working very hard.
  • I had bought the tickets.

Note from the examples above that a non-finite verb usually occurs in a sentence alongside a finite verb that does agree with its subject and indicate past, present and future.

There are two ways of looking at the structure of a verb phrase. A verb phrase consists of one or more auxiliary verbs plus a lexical verb:

  • She is [auxiliary verb] singing [lexical verb]
  • She can [auxiliary verb] sing [lexical verb]
  • She has [auxiliary verb] been [auxiliary verb] singing [lexical verb]

A verb phrase can also be analysed in terms of finite and non-finite verbs. A verb phrase consists of a finite verb plus one or more non-finite verbs:

  • She is [finite verb] singing [non-finite verb]
  • She can [finite verb] sing [non-finite verb]
  • She has [finite verb] been [non-finite verb] singing [non-finite verb]

An infinitive need not always follow an auxiliary verb; it may also follow a lexical verb. But note that whilst an auxiliary verb is followed by a bare infinitive (an infinitive without to), a lexical verb is usually followed by a to-infinitive (an infinitive with to):

  • I can help them.
  • He will come with us.
  • We will arrive at 12 o’clock.
  • I try to help them.
  • He wants to come with us.
  • We expect to arrive at 12 o’clock.

Both bare infinitives and to-infinitives are non-finite verbs.

Adjectives and nouns are also sometimes followed by to-infinitives:

  • We were very glad to see him.
  • I was afraid to ask for more money.
  • I have no desire to harm him in any way.
  • It’s time to leave, I think.

A to-infinitive may also be the subject of a sentence:

  • To behave like that in public is quite unacceptable.

participle need not always follow an auxiliary verb. Sometimes it can stand on its own without an auxiliary:

  • The dog just stood there, looking at me with its tongue hanging out, wagging its tail enthusiastically.
  • The wizard was standing with his arms stretched out, chanting a magic spell.

A present participle may also follow an adjective:

  • The boys were happy playing football while their father was busy working in the garden.

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