Non-Finite Verb Phrases

As we saw on the page Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs, words can move very easily from one word class to another. Verbs are especially flexible in this way, and we very commonly find verb forms functioning as subjects, completers, or modifiers. Take, for example, the following proverbs:

Teaching teaches the teacher.

By writing, one learns to write.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

The finite verbs in these sentences are teaches, learns and let. But, of course, teaching, writing, to write, sleeping, and lie are also verb forms, although they’re not finite verbs. In the first proverb, teaching is the subject of teaches., and the completer, teacher, is a noun formed from the verb. In the second proverb, writing is the completer of the preposition by, and to write is the completer of learns. In the third, sleeping modifies dogs, and lie is one of the completers of the imperative verb let (dogs is the other completer). Verb phrases like these, which do not function as finite verbs, are called non-finite verbs. We’ll look first at the forms that non-finite verbs can take and then continue to discuss their functioning.

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Non-Finite Verb Forms

The main word of any non-finite verb phrase consists of one of three forms:

Infinitive -ing Participle -ed Participle
(to) hug hugging hugged
(to) eat eating eaten
(to) roll rolling rolled
(to) sting stinging stung
(to) have having had
(to) slurp slurping slurped
(to) go going gone
(to) hang hanging hung
(to) be being been

The infinitive (“not finite”) form is also called the base form. It’s the form that “names” or “identifies” the verb. Infinitives could logically be called participles too, since all three forms literally “participate” (Latin for “take part in”) in making various verb forms. That is, as you may have already realized, the forms listed above are also used to make finite as well as non-finite verb phrases; for instance, “you got,” “she is hugging,” “they have been stung,” and so on.

As you also may have noticed from the previous examples, an -ed participle does not literally have to end in -ed. Irregular verbs take a variety of forms in the -ed participle and also in the past tense.. But since the majority of verbs have -ed in this form, -ed participle is a convenient name. All -ing participles are regular, consisting of the infinitive (or base) form plus -ing (with some variations in spelling).

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Infinitives Without To

The to that appears before an infinitive is not a preposition (as in to the lighthouse) but a structural marker: it signals that the following verb form is an infinitive. When an infinitive is one of the two double completers of a verb, the to is usually omitted:

Please help [to] feed the swine, Elsie. [Feed and swine are double completers of the imperative help.]

Did you hear Senator Venoma hiss? [Senator Venoma and the infinitive hiss are the double completers of did hear.]

Yes, but I couldn’t see him slither. [Him and slither are double completers of couldn't see.]

She always makes Fang giggle. [Fang and giggle are double completers of makes.]

Everyone who speaks English fluently has a feel for when to place to before an infinitive and when to leave it out. We’re interested here primarily in how to recognize infinitives when the to signal isn’t there, or, really, in how to avoid anxiety about recognizing them. When to is left out, there’s always a combination of verbs involved, as in help…feed, hear…hiss, see…slither, or let…lie. Even if you were to see such combinations as a kind of “double” finite-verb phrase, you would still have a good feel for the structure of the clause.

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Non-Finite Auxiliary Verbs

Non-finite-verb phrases often include, along with the infinitive form, non-finite forms of be or have as auxiliary verbs. I’ve listed the possible combinations below. The terms active and passive refer to both finite and non-finite verbs. The active form is used when the subject of the verb is “active”—when the subject performs the action of the verb. The passive form is used when the subject is “passive,” when the subject so to speak doesn’t do anything but has the action happen to it (it’s often said that the subject of a passive verb “receives” the action). The examples following the list of forms should make this distinction clear.

Active Forms

to be tickling to be flying
having tickled having flown
to have tickled to have flown
to have been tickling to have been flying

Passive Forms

being tickled being flown
to be tickled to be flown
having been tickled having been flown
to have been tickled to have been flown

Here are some examples. From now on, I’ll be enclosing non-finite verb phrases in square brackets […]:

[Having tickled a million toes], Miss Hiss feels ready to start on some tummies. [Having tickled is active: the speaker did the tickling. The non-finite verb phrase as a whole modifies Miss Hiss, the subject of the main clause: you'd ask, who having tickled a million toes?]

We missed [being hissed] when we performed the dance of the windshield vipers in Ireland. [Being hissed is passive: the dancers wanted to receive the hissing. The phrase as a whole is the completer of missed: we missed what? The “when” clause modifies missed.]

[To have slept on a pea] remains every princess’s dream, though what the pea wants is [to be starred in a gourmet recipe]. [To have slept on a pea is the subject of remains. It’s active; it’s something a princess would do if she had the chance. The phrase to be starred in a gourmet recipe is the completer of is. It is passive: some chef will have to do it to the pea.]

The little airplane said that it had been thrilling [to have been piloted by Colonel Gander]. [To have been piloted is passive: Colonel G. did the piloting. The phrase is an adverb modifying thrilling: You ask what to have been piloted?]

[Having been raised in a snake pit], Monty learned [to love slithering]. [Having been raised… modifies Monty. The phrase is passive: Monty received the training. To love slithering is the completer of learned. It’s active: it’s something Monty did himself.]

Besides showing whether the action of the verb is active or passive, non-finite auxiliaries can mark relative past time. For instance, in the first example, having tickled indicates that the activity began in the past and has continued up to the present (the speaker hasn’t given up tickling). In the second example, the princesses want the pea-ordeal to be already over: they want to have slept on the pea, not to be sleeping on it. In the third example, the airplane spoke in the past of something that happened even further in the past.

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Completers in Non-Finite Verb Phrases

It’s helpful to think of non-finite verbs as having been adapted not to have subjects—as though the connections for what I’ve been calling “who-or-what? magnetism” is lacking from their “front” ends (but see Absolute Phrases at the end of this page). At their “back” ends, however, they’re capable of taking exactly the same completers that finite verbs do (and, of course, they are freely modified by adverb phrases and clauses). In the following examples, I’ve enclosed non-finite verb phrases in square brackets, subordinating-connective clauses in curvy brackets, and prepositional phrases in parentheses (round brackets):

I don’t remember [insulting the entire skinny-dipping team.]. [The entire skinny-dipping team is the completer of the non-finite verb phrase insulting. Insulting the entire skinny-dipping team is the completer of the main verb of the sentence, don't remember.]

["Feeling proud (of [being very poisonous"] ) ] is the new motto of the Cobra Society. ["Feeling proud (of being very poisonous)" is the subject of is. The main word of the phrase is Feeling. Working backwards from the end of the phrase: very poisonous is the completer of being. Being very poisonous is the completer of the preposition of. Of being very poisonous modifies proud: you ask, what of being very poisonous? Proud is the completer of feeling.]

[Telling a frog {he's cute} ] will make him [wiggle his tush]. [The non-finite verb telling takes double completers: a frog and the subordinating-connective clause [that] he’s cute. The non-finite verb phrase as a whole: telling a frog he’s cute is the subject of will make, the finite verb of the main clause. Will make also takes double completers: him and the infinitive-phrase wiggle his tush. His tush is the completer of wiggle.]

The king accused the princess (of [refusing [to kiss the frog] ] ). [Working backward from the end of the sentence: the frog is the completer of to kiss. To kiss the frog is the completer of refusing, and refusing to kiss the frog is the completer of the preposition of. The complete prepositional phrase: of refusing to kiss the frog modifies accused, the finite verb of the sentence.

It really makes Pandora mad [to be asked {why she opened the box} ]. [The wh-word clause why she opened the box is the completer of the passive infinitive to be asked. The entire non-finite verb phrase to be asked why she opened the box is the subject of the main verb of the sentence makes. It is a “dummy subject”; it lightens the rhythm of the sentence, which would otherwise sound somewhat awkward: “To be asked why she opened the box really makes Pandora mad.”]

[Knowing that cobras are extremely touchy], I hardly expected [to have had such a wonderful first date]. [If you compare this sentence with the three below, you'll be able to see how non-finite verb phrases allow us to combine a number of clauses into a single well-constructed sentence:

I know that cobras are touchy.

Therefore, I didn't expect a wonderful first date.

However, I had a wonderful first date.

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Complex Sentence Redefined

On the page Introducing Complex Sentences, I defined complex sentence as one that contains one or more dependent (subordinate) clauses. Now we can see that the definition may be expanded:

A complex sentence is one that contains one or more dependent clauses or non-finite verb phrases.

We could, however, ignore very short non-finite verb phrases and think of sentences like the following as simple sentences:

Vigorous hissing gives me heartburn.

To snore is to bore.

Crushed ice isn’t much good for cobra bites.

But when the non-finite verb phrase takes a completer or is heavily modified, we obviously have a complex sentence:

Though we managed [to install a new serpent alarm], [finding a good cobra-whisperer within the time the judge allowed us] proved to be harder.

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Absolute Phrases

I’ve said that non-finite verb phrases don’t take subjects, but there is a exception to that rule. Absolute phrases (sometimes called absolute clauses) are non-finite verb phrases that do contain a subject. I’ve italicized the absolute phrases in the following examples:

The fleas having been pacified, the performance was saved.

Jumbo denounced the entire cast, his trunk waving wildly while he spoke.

The piranhas permitting, we will all go skinny dipping.

Absolute phrases get their name from the fact that they seem to stand apart structurally from the rest of the sentence (Latin absolutus = “unrestricted”). Some grammarians say that absolute phrases modify the main clause as a whole. I see the absolute phrase in the second example above as modifying Jumbo, and in the first and third examples as, so to speak, vaguely modifying the finite verbs (was saved and will go). Absolute phrases are fairly rare in English except in rather formal writing.

Download practice sentences for Non-Finite Verb Phrases.

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