Subjects and Finite Verbs

There exist, I’ve been told, over a million words in English. However, all these words can relate to each other syntactically in only five different ways. In syntax the way a word relates to another is called a function. Here are the names of the five possible functions:
1. subject
2. finite verb
3. completer
4. modifier
5. connective

Structural Backbones

The first three functions, subjects, finite verbs, and completers, are components of the structural backbone of a sentence. Like an animal’s backbone, the structural backbone gives sentences their basic form (not a perfect analogy, but it’s helpful for visualizing the relationships involved). As a general rule, a sentence contains at least one subject and one finite verb: that’s the essential relationship. Many sentences contain completers, but not all do. So English grammar has two basic backbone structures:

subject + finite verb
subject + finite verb + completer

Since I’ll need to mark functions, I’ll be using colors for the backbone functions: blue for subjects, red for finite verbs , and green for completers. To illustrate, here is a traditional spell for keeping yourself safe outdoors at night:

I see the moon and the moon sees me;
God bless the moon and God bless me.

Since the primary relationship is between subjects and finite verbs, we’ll start with them and bring completers into the picture afterward.

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Subject-Finite Verb Relationships

Most sentences are identical in two respects. First, they contain a word or phrase that names something—something that the sentence as a whole tells or asks about. This naming element is the subject.

Secondly, sentences contain a word or a phrase that states or asks something about the subject. This stating- or asking-element is the finite verb. A traditional definition of verbs is that they’re words that express an “action” or “state of being” (we’ll be seeing a little later what finite means).

Some simple sentences follow. Say each one, preferably aloud, in order to feel the relationship between the subject and finite verb:

1. Fish swim.
2. Birds fly.
3. Cobras hiss.
4. Babies cry.
5. My great-aunt’s parrot can sing in seven languages.
6. But no one has heard her squawk.
7. The majority of ducks dance very well.
8. Still, most of them waddle their evenings away.

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Main Words in Phrases

Syntactic functions can consist of single words, as in examples 1 through 4, or they can consist of phrases, like my great-aunt’s parrot and can sing in example 5, or has heard in example 6. I noted on the previous page, on sentence rhythm, that phrases are groups of words that stick together and make sense as a unit. Because of this, it makes no difference whether a function consists of a single word or a phrase.

One of the words in a phrase is the main word, the “topic” word to which all the other words relate. In example 5, for instance, the main word of the subject is parrot, the one who sings. In example 7, it may be less easy to see that the main word is majority; the other words of the phrase (the and of ducks) specify what majority the speaker is referring to. In example 8, the main word is most (a pronoun substituting for “majority”). In the example sentences on the rest of this page, I’ll be marking the main words of phrases by showing them in bold, as for example, the majority of ducks or my great-aunt’s parrot.

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One-Word Phrases

Of course, if there’s only one word in a function, as in Birds fly, that word is the main word. So we can say that birds and fly are each one-word phrases. Since we ordinarily think of phrases as having at least two words, the idea of a one-word phrase may sound silly at first, but it’s a useful concept in syntax.

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The Who-or-What? Test

The force that binds functions together is a powerful mental attraction: a kind of psychological magnetism. While listening or reading or talking, you unconsciously feel this magnetism through the sentence rhythm. When you’re analyzing syntax, you can use this feeling to find how a word or phrase functions. You do this by asking who? or what? in certain places. I’m putting these question words in bold because they should be asked, at least at first, with a good deal of emphasis, as though you were insisting on an answer.

If you ask what? just after a suspected subject, the answer will always be the finite verb or verbs that the subject belongs to. Let’s see how this works with some of the examples already given:

Fish what? Answer: Fish swim.
My great-aunt’s parrot what? Answer:My great-aunt’s parrot can sing
Most of them what? Answer: Most of them waddle.

Similarly, if we ask what? (or, for people, who?) just before a suspected finite verb, the answer will always be the subject of the finite verb. Because you may not know when you ask whether the subject will be a person or a thing, it’s easiest to ask who or what?:

Who or what can dance? Answer: The majority of ducks. …
Who or what waddle? Answer: Most of them …

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The Positions of Functions

In statement sentences (as opposed to questions) the subject generally comes before the finite verb. But the subject can also follow the finite verb, as it does in the following two examples:

Around his terrified limbs crept the slimy tentacles. [Test for subject: who or what crept? Answer: the slimy tentacles…Test for finite verb: the slimy tentacles what?… Answer: crept:]

Around his terrified limbs crept the slimy tentacles.

Here comes that idiotic elephant again.[Test for subject: who or what comes? Answer: that idiotic elephant. Test for finite verb: that idiotic elephant what?… Answer: comes

Here comes that idiotic elephant again.

Whether the subject comes before or after the finite verb, It’s crucial to see that the position of the test words always stays the same. To find the subject, we place who or what? directly in front of the finite verb. To find the finite verb, we ask what? directly after the subject.

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Separated Subjects and Finite Verbs

The mental pull between subjects and finite verbs is very powerful and can operate over long distances. In both the following examples, quite a few words come between the two functions:

George one day in a fit of rage locked his teacher in a hamster cage. [Test for subject: who or what locked? Answer: George. Test for finite verb: George what?… Answer: locked…]

George one day in a fit of rage locked his teacher in a hamster cage.

A snowball in Hell, according to many experts on weather conditions in that part of the universe, lasts hardly any time at all.
[Test for finite verb: A snowball in Hell what?… Answer: lasts. Test for subject: who or what lasts? Answer: a snowball in Hell]

A snowball in Hell, according to many experts on weather conditions in that part of the universe, lasts hardly any time at all.

The who or what? test can be very useful for locating subjects and finite verbs, especially if you think you know where one of them is located but not the other. But, to repeat what I’ve been emphasizing, the test works well only if you first read for sentence rhythm. When you do that, for instance, in the examples above, your understanding tells you what’s going on: that tentacles and not limbs were tightening, and that the elephant is coming. Likewise, you won’t think that the subject of lasts is experts or weather conditions. The point is that if you look at words in isolation, they’re just words: you can’t see the structure. But if you feel the sentence rhythm, the structure will become clear.

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Finite Verbs

Finite means having a boundary. The boundary of a finite verb is one of time, that is, of past, present, or future. The name in grammar for such a time-boundary is tense, from the Latin word for time, tempus (the source also of the French word temps). So a finite verb is one that expresses something about its subject within a relative time frame. (There are also non-finite verbs; these are treated in Non-Finite Verb Phrases.)

Since it’s important to understand the idea of finiteness, of time-boundaries expressed by finite verbs, it will be useful to look at some examples of tenses and the time boundaries they express. There’s no need to try to remember the names of the tenses as long as you see how they relate to time boundaries:

Present time in general
(simple present tense)
I walk She sings We dance
Past time in general
(simple past tense)
I walked She sang We danced
Future time in general
(future tense)
I will walk She will sing We will dance
Actions actually in progress in present time
(present progressive tense)
I am walking She is singing We are dancing
Actions that were in progress in the past
(past progressive tense)
I was walking She was singing We were dancing
Actions that will be in progress in the future
(future progressive tense)
I will be walking She will be singing We will be dancing
Actions starting in the past and extending up into the present
(present perfect tense)
I have walked She has sung We have been dancing
Actions that happened in the past before something else happened in the past
(past perfect tense)
I had walked a mile before the flavor of my gum gave out. [The flavor gave out before the mile was up.] She had hardly sung a single note before the audience fled. [The audience left before she could do much singing.] When the band arrived we had already been dancing for an hour.

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Finite Verb Phrases

You may have noticed that a finite verb phrase can contain from one to four words. Here are some additional examples:

The rain stopped.
But the dam has busted.
Fang and Miss Hiss may be practising the venom mazurka.
They should have been encouraged.

The main verb of a finite verb phrase is the one that names (or identifies) the verb, and it’s always the last word in the phrase. The other words in the finite verb phrases in the examples, have, be, may, and should, can be used with any main verb. They’re called auxiliary verbs (from Latin auxilium: “help”) because they “help” to form tenses.

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Primary Auxiliary Verbs

There are two different kinds of auxiliary verbs in English: primary auxiliaries and modal auxiliaries. The three primary auxiliaries are have, be, and do. In the following examples, you’ll notice that have and be are used to form tenses and that do (in the fifth example) emphasizes the assertion made by the verb:

They have not whined all week.
You were warned about Fang’s cheating at poker.
The message had been carved into the butter.
Have you been admiring the migration ceremony?
It does charm most spectators.

Do is also used to form negatives:

Do not pass “go.”
He did not tickle the princess.

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Be, Do and Have as Main Verbs

Besides serving as auxiliary verbs, be, have, and do can also be main verbs in their own right:

I do a good deed once every hour or so.
He was the cutest of the piranhas.
They have over forty working geese.

Thus, a finite verb phrase can have forms of be, have, or do both as auxiliary verbs and main verbs:

We were being silly for the second time that month.
Since then, we have had several offers to do role-modeling.
Nonetheless, we did do a few devilish things.

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Modal Auxiliary Verbs

Besides the three primary auxiliary verbs, there is also a set in English of what are called modal auxiliary verbs. Modal auxiliaries express a situation other than actual fact. We say, as facts, either positively or negatively, I went or I haven’t gone, she’s very impulsive; it tastes terrible. But if what’s expressed is the possibility or capability or necessity of going, or an obligation to go, or other conditions like these, then we say things such as:

I can go. I could go. I may go. I might go. I ought to go. I would go. I should go. I must go. I have to go. I had to go. I need to go. I will go.

A negative modal auxiliary is still a modal: I cannot go, I shouldn’t go, I might not go, and so on.

Unlike the primary auxiliaries, the modal auxiliaries can’t be main verbs themselves. As you know, sentences like the following are not possible:

Last year didn’t should at all.
We had already been oughting for an hour when the police arrived.

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Phrases Inserted Within Finite Verb Phrases

We’ve already seen several example sentences in which the words that make up a finite verb phrase are “interrupted” by various expressions. Here are some more: I’ve made the interrupting phrases bold:

I would, in any case, have brushed the fleas afterward.
The frog has practically taken over the castle.
We will definitely be disgusted by dinner.
The salamander was merely puckering.
They may, if necessary, bring the snake.

Such phrases are not part of the finite verb phrase. (As we’ll be seeing in due course, they’re modifiers.)

Words that turn sentences negative are “interrupters” too:

The folks around here do not tickle toads.
I have never tried it myself.
You should not tease fleas.
Wouldn’t you give a million to migrate with the flock?
Please don’t snicker while swallowing.

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Types of Sentences

There are basically three types of sentences:


All of what’s been said so far about subjects and finite verbs applies directly to statement sentences, but questions and imperative sentences have a few special characteristics:

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You can ask a question, of course, just by changing the emphasis in a statement sentence and raising the pitch of your voice. In the following examples, the syllables that take the strongest stress are in capitals:

The Princess kissed the FROG?
[Same wording with different emphasis] She KISSED the frog? [instead of just hugging him?]

Usually though, questions use a different word order, in which an auxiliary verb comes before the subject:

Does Tommy Toddle tickle tons of toads?
Why does he do it?
How could he touch their tacky tummies?
Was Fang feeling frisky Friday?

If you ever have trouble finding the subjects and finite verbs in this kind of question, you can mentally change the word order into the form of a statement. If the question starts with a question word, such as who, what, why, when, where, or how, either take it out temporarily or move it out of the way to the end of the sentence. That way the subject-finite verb relationship is easier to spot:

Tommy Toddle does tickle tons of toads?
He does do it? Why?
He could touch their tacky tummies? How?
Freddie was feeling frisky Friday?

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Imperative Sentences

Imperative sentences make requests (requests you can’t refuse are commands). The finite verb in an imperative sentence is called an imperative verb:

Please leave immediately.
Dry your hands, Lady Macbeth.
Hey, my lord, don’t drag your slain lord chamberlains in here.

The subject of an imperative verb doesn’t usually appear in the sentence (it’s often said that the subject is “you, understood”). Even if the person who receives the request or command is directly addressed, as in the third and fourth example above, they’re still not the subject: you can also address someone directly in a statement or question, as in, Gretel, I just love your baking techniques or Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey? When the person who receives the command is named, you can feel the pause (indicated in writing with a comma) between the words used to address the person and the rest of the sentence.

Sometimes, however, the subject of an imperative verb is expressed, either to single out the person to whom the request is addressed or if we’re emotionally charged up. You’ll notice that the subject is stressed in the sentence rhythm in such circumstances and that there’s no pause between the named subject and the rest of the sentence:
YOU stand here.
The REST of you go over there.
I ‘ll phone the vet; YOU catch the cobra. [The first part of the sentence isn’t a command; the second part is.]

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Coordinate Functions

When two or more words or phrases have exactly the same function in the same sentence—say, two or more subjects of the same finite verb or two or more finite verbs that have the same subject—they’re said to be coordinate:

Jack and Jill went up the hill… [Who went? Answer: both Jack and Jill]
Jack fell down and broke his crown. [Jack What? Answer: both fell and broke]
Along came a spider and sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away. [a spider what? Answer: came and sat and frightened]

As we’ll be seeing, all functions can be coordinated.

Download practice sentences for Subjects and Finite Verbs.

–> Continue on to Completers.

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2 Comments on “Subjects and Finite Verbs

  1. Dear Dr. Rower
    Would you please help me to realize the backbone structure of this sentence:

    “the reason I’m ringing is because it’s my birthday next week”

    • Subject: the reason I’m ringing; finite verb: is; completer: because it’s my birthday next week. I’m ringing modifies reason.

      “The reason is because” is a redundancy. If you were writing you might just say, “I’m ringing because it’s my birthday”: then the because clause modifies the finite verb.

      Sincerely, Dr. Ron

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