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Concourse 2

Finite and non-finite verb forms




The first thing to define is the term verb.  In what follows, verb generally means verb phrase.
A verb phrase may be:

a single word
as in, e.g.,
    I went to London
a head verb with an auxiliary verb or verbs before it
as in, e.g.,
    I could have gone to London
a verb or verb phrase modified by an adverbial
The adverbial can be an adverb, a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase or another clause
as in, e.g.,
    I eventually managed it
(adverb pre-modifier)
    I have finished this morning
(noun phrase post-modifier)
    I studied at university in the 60s (prepositional phrases post-modifiers)
    I was happier when I worked alone (finite clause post-modifier)


What the difference between finite and non-finite verb phrases?

Finite verbs
are those which are clearly linked to definable subject and exist either in the present or past tenses.  They show tense (for example, by changing the ending or the central vowel) and person (for example, by adding an -s for the 3rd person singular).  They can also stand alone and retain their meaning.
Non-finite verbs
are not specifically tied to a subject and do not show tense or person.  They can be:
    It's a smoking gun
    The window's broken

    I like playing cards in the evening
    I hate waiting for buses

    I came to help
    I want to complain

For example, the following contain finite and non-finite verb phrases, some modified, some not.

  1. John went to see about the problem.
  2. I very much enjoy sitting around doing nothing in the garden.
  3. They spent all their money buying junk.
  4. I am not near finishing the work.

As a short exercise, comment on the verb phrases in the following, deciding if they are finite or non-finite.
Then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

She has stolen the money
eye open
This is a finite verb phrase identifiable from the inflected form of the verb.  It contains the non-finite stolen.
It’s tidy
eye open
This is a finite verb phrase with an inflected form of the verb be.
Smoking is banned here
eye open
This is a non-finite verb operating as a noun.
I'm smoking too much
eye open
This is the same form of the verb but in a finite verb phrase with an inflected form of the verb be.  It contains the non-finite smoking.
It made me sick
eye open
A finite verb phrase identifiable by the inflected past form of the verb make.
You must go now
eye open
A finite modal verb.

Note that in the third example, there's a finite form in the passive (is banned) and in the last example, there's a non-finite form: go (that's what the term infinitive implies, of course).

Confusion 1

Some confusion is caused in this area by the fact that verbs in English do not show very many inflexions.  A verb may look the same but be performing different grammatical functions.  In, e.g.
    I am playing
we have a finite verb phrase but in
    I enjoy playing
we have a non-finite use of the verb play.
Equally, in
    The game is played here
we have a passive finite verb phrase and in
    A much played game
we have a non-finite use of played as an adjective.

Confusion 2

It is possible to describe individual verbs (rather than verb phrases) in the same terms.  For example, the verb playing in I am playing is often described as a non-finite form (because it carries no marker for tense and person).  However, in combination with the verb be, as in He is playing, the form is part of a finite verb phrase.  We need to be careful with our terms and distinguish between a finite or non-finite clause and a finite or non-finite verb form.


Finite verb forms

Finite verbs in English are sometimes identifiable by the changes to the verb form.  Figure out which of the following English can show by changing the verb form and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

eye open
English has no way to show this either in the singular or the plural.  In some languages, the verb form will change depending on the gender of the subject (or the speaker)
eye open
The -s inflexion in the present simple of a verb indicates the third person singular.  This is the only person inflexion on regular verbs in English.
eye open
The verb be distinguishes plural from singular (am vs. are, is vs. are) but the system is incomplete and most verbs only use the third-person -s to note singular vs. plural (he/she/it goes vs. they go).
eye open
This is indicated for most verbs by a change of form or the addition of a suffix (smoke-smoked, come-came etc.).  Some common verbs, such as put and set, do not even show this change for tense.
eye open
English uses auxiliaries to indicate aspect (the verb be for the progressive [she is arriving now] and the verb have for the perfect [she has arrived]).
eye open
English only omits subjects in the imperative (Go home!), sometimes uses an uninflected base form to indicate the subjunctive (If it be him) but does not otherwise indicate mood.
eye open
English has only two: active and passive.  The voice is indicated by the use of the verb be, get or have (in causative structures).

As you can see, English finite verbs are barely inflected at all.  Other languages do things very differently.  In some languages, all of the above may be indicated by a change in the finite verb form and most inflected languages will show a greater range than English.

star field

Non-finite verb forms

English has only three non-finite forms:

  1. infinitives (with and without to):
        he must go
        I want to help
  2. participles (past and present):
        he has left
        she is running
  3. gerunds:
        he dreads meeting her
        overeating is a cause of illness

Note that the distinction between a participle and a gerund is by no means as clear cut as this classification would imply.  It is probably better to consider a cline from purely participial use (he is running) at one end and purely gerundial use (running is tiring) at the other, with less easily categorised forms in between (I watched him running / I objected to his running).  For more, see the article in response to a visitor's question.

However, non-finite forms appear all over the place in different guises.  What are they in the following?
Decide and then click on the eye open to reveal the answers.

Running is tiring
eye open
Gerund as the subject
I hate running
eye open
Gerund as the object
He is good at running
eye open
Gerund as the complement of a preposition
I want to go
eye open
Infinitive with to after a main verb
He let me go
eye open
Infinitive without to after a main verb
To go would be foolish
eye open
Infinitive with to as a subject
There's no call to go
eye open
Infinitive with to post modifying a noun phrase
I am going
eye open
Present participle
I have gone
eye open
Past participle
I was forbidden to run
eye open
Passive participle + infinitive with to

The last example shows something called a verb chain.  There are two in this case, as is usual.  For example,
    They came to help to make the cake
    The hoped to persuade her to come
    They remembered asking me to help
where the non-finite forms have no dependent subjects.


Non-finite verb forms as subordinators

One important function of non-finite verb forms in English is to subordinate one clause to another.  For example, instead of
    When he opened the bonnet he saw the problem (using when as a subordinating temporal conjunction)
we can have:
    On opening the bonnet, he saw the problem
and instead of:
    If you say that, he'll be furious (a subordinating conditional using if)
we can have
    Saying that will make him furious
Learners, incidentally, do not invariably recognise the in-built conditionality that many non-finite clauses contain because some languages simply cannot do that.

There is a guide to subordination on this site.


Comparing languages

English is extremely concise in some ways.  For example, the -s ending on She works indicates:

  1. person (third)
  2. number (singular)
  3. tense (present)
  4. aspect (simple)
  5. mood (indicative)
  6. voice (active)

However, at other times the language seems clumsy, ambiguous and inefficient.  For example, She might have been told contains three auxiliaries (and a non-finite form) which separately indicate:

  1. modality (might)
  2. perfect aspect (have)
  3. passive voice (been)

To make matters worse, some of these auxiliaries indicate different things at different times.  For example, in They will have been working, the auxiliary been now indicates progressive aspect and not passive voice.  That can be deeply confusing for learners of the language, especially those whose first languages have different ways to signal progressive forms (if they do so at all) and the passive.

In other languages, such as Greek or Russian, most or all of these can be expressed in a single verb form (as English did in the example She works).

Related guides
conjunction for more on how clauses are connected and links to other guides to subordination and coordination
clauses for more on clause structures
verb and clause types for a guide to the six main sentence structures in English
phrases for a general guide to phrase structures
nominal clauses for an analysis of the ways finite and non-finite clauses can act as noun phrases

Take a test on some of this.