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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

infinitives, with and without to:
    I came to help
    I want to complain

    She must help us

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

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 -en form, stolen.
It’s tidy
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This is a finite verb phrase with an inflected form of the verb be.
Smoking is banned here
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This is a non-finite verb operating as a noun.
I'm smoking too much
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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
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A finite verb phrase identifiable by the inflected past form of the verb make.
You must go now
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A finite modal verb with the non-finite bare infinitive.

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 (with the non-finite -ing participle) but in
    I enjoy playing
we have a non-finite use of the verb play and a finite use of the verb enjoy which, in English, is not marked for tense or person.
Equally, in
    The game is played here
we have a passive finite verb phrase with the marked form of the verb be and the non-finite -en participle and in
    A much played game
we have a non-finite use of played as an adjective modified by the adverbial much.

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.

Confusion 3

The -ing form and the -ed forms are both non-finite and often called present and past participles respectively.  This is slightly misleading insofar as:

  1. Regular verbs take -d or -ed depending on their morphology in both the past tense and the perfect forms so it becomes impossible simply by looking at the verb to say whether, e.g., played is the finite past tense of play or the non-finite past participle in, e.g., They have played.
    The same confusion can arise with irregular verbs as many, such as catch, teach, read etc. have the same form for both past tenses and non-finite participles.
    For this reason, many analyses distinguish them by calling the past tense form the -ed form and the past participle form the -en form.  That is the system used above.
  2. The -en form (or past participle) is not confined to past tense structures.  It occurs for example, in
        She will be invited
    where it forms part of future passive form and
        She is having her house redecorated
    where it forms part of a present-tense causative structure.
    Calling it the past participle may lead learners to conclude that it can only be used in past-tense structures.
  3. The so-called present participle or -ing form exhibits similar problems because it can appear in non-present tense forms such as
        She had been running to catch the bus
        We will be spending our holidays in France next year
    Again, calling it the present participle can mislead.
  4. The -ing non-finite form has multiple functions.  It can, for example,
    1. form a gerund in:
          She dislikes swimming
    2. form part of a progressive tense form in
          She is swimming
    3. form part of an iterative (repeated) tense form in:
          She was singing in the choir during her teenage years
    4. form part of a continuous tense form as in
          She was hoping for a pay rise
  5. The -ing form is often said to be either a participle or a gerund but that, too, leads to confusion.  The form can, in fact, occupy an intermediate position between a gerund proper (i.e., a verbal noun) and a participle (i.e., part of a finite clause).  In, for example:
        The buildings were damaged
    the noun buildings has been derived from the verb build but functions only as a noun (taking a plural form and not allowing an object as the verb does).  Other derived forms work similarly, such as booking, carving, christening, clipping, covering, crossing, drawing, failing, flavouring, heading, meeting, mooring, offering, peeling, rambling, ruling, saving, setting, shaving, sighting, swelling, turning, warning etc. which can all be made plural and rarely take objects.  Whether these should be described as gerunds or nouns is not clear.
    However, in
        Playing the bagpipes is difficult
    the word playing is slightly more verb-like insofar as it cannot take a plural (as countable nouns do) but may be treated as a mass noun although it clearly takes an object (the bagpipes) which nouns cannot do.
    It may also appear with a possessive determiner as in:
        His playing was awful
    where it is noun-like insofar as it forms the subject of the copular verb (was) with the complement attribute, awful.  Compare, for example:
        His music was awful
    which is parallel but clearly has a noun as the subject.
    The form can, of course be fully verb-like in, e.g.:
        He was playing the bagpipes
    when it forms part of a transitive verb phrase.
    In between, we encounter some less obvious cases of noun-like and verb-like behaviours mixed and where the line is drawn is difficult to see.  For example, in:
        I heard him playing the bagpipes
    the reference is clearly to a progressive event (i.e., a finite tense form proper) and the -ing form takes an object.  It is somewhere in between and could be classified as a gerund or a participle.


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.

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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

The distinction between a participle and a gerund is by no means as clear cut as this classification would imply as we saw above.  It is probably better to consider a cline from purely participial use:
    He is meeting his wife at the airport
at one end and purely gerundial use
    That was an awful meeting
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
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Gerund as the subject
I hate running
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Gerund as the object
He is good at running
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Gerund as the complement of a preposition
I want to go
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Infinitive with to after a main verb
He let me go
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Infinitive without to after a main verb
To go would be foolish
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Infinitive with to as a subject
There's no call to go
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Infinitive with to post modifying a noun phrase
I am going
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Present participle
I have gone
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Past participle
I was forbidden to run
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Passive participle + infinitive with to

The last example shows something called a verb chain (they are catenative verbs to which there is a guide on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end).  There are two in this case, as is usual.  For example,
    They agreed to try to come
    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 or prepositions

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.
Cause and effect are often signalled by non-finite forms following prepositions as in, for example:
    To do it, he worked all night
    As a result of working all night, he got it done
    He went in order to see her

Some non-finite forms have become established as conjunctions and occur frequently in that role.  For example:
    Providing that you pay the rent, she can't evict you
    Granted that we can find the money, I see no problem
    Supposing it rains?
    Provided only that we have time, we'll see you on Friday

Others may take on the nature of prepositions as in, for example:
    Including Mary, we shall need six tickets
    I see no problem regarding the timescale

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
infinitive for the analysis of one sort of non-finite form
catenative verbs for a guide to important uses of non-finite forms
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.