The Last Verb in a Verb Phrase Must Be a Participle
by Tina Blue
March 27, 2005
In "Verbals: Nonfinite Verb Forms" I explain that some verb forms cannot act as the predicate in a sentence or clause, because they are nonfinite verb forms (infinitives, gerunds, and participles), and the predicate of a sentence or clause must be a finite verb. (In that article I also explain what finite verbs and nonfinite verbs are. Go ahead and read the article--it's actually quite easy to understand even if the terms sound difficult.)
A simple verb is a finite verb that stands alone as the predicate of a clause.
~I ran home for a quick lunch.
~He finished the end table in time for Mother's Day.
~I lost my ticket to the concert.
When a verb takes one ore more auxiliary verbs (i.e., helping verbs), then the verb plus its auxiliary or auxiliaries constitute a verb phrase. In a verb phrase, it is the auxiliary verb that must be finite, not the main verb of the phrase. The main verb of a verb phrase is the last verb in the phrase, and it must be a participle, not a finite verb. This is not a problem when what is needed is the present participle.
~I was runninghome every day for lunch.
~I had been writing at least two papers a week for my classes.
~We could be swimming in the Caribbean by next week.
~They are beginning to get suspicious.
But things get more complicated when what is needed is the past participle. A common error, especially in the West and the Midwest of the United States, is to use the simple past tense of a verb in the main verb position of a verb phrase:
~He could have went home earlier.
~I should have ranhome for a quick lunch.
~I wish I could have sang in the talent show.
~They couldn't have came with us anyway.
~I have broke off the relationship for good.
~We have chose this church for the wedding ceremony.
~I have wrote four full-length papers for that class.
~I hadn't even began the book before I had to return it to the library.
~He actually has swamacross that river, but only during the dry season.
~We have ate too much already!
~I should have knew what you wanted.
~He could have gonehome earlier.
~I should have run home for a quick lunch.
~I wish I could have sung in the talent show.
~They couldn't have come with us anyway.
~I have broken off the relationship for good.
~We have chosen this church for the wedding ceremony.
~I have written four full-length papers for that class.
~I hadn't even begun the book before I had to return it to the library.
~He actually has swum across that river, but only during the dry season.
~We have eaten too much already!
~I should have known what you wanted.
This error is caused by the difference between the past tense and the past participle of irregular verbs. Approximately 200 verbs in English are irregular. As it happens, those irregular verbs are among the most commonly used in the language. Here are the principal parts (infinitive, past tense, and past participle) of a few of the irregular verbs in English:
Infinitive Past TensePast Participle
run ran run
sing sang sung
choose chose chosen
break broke broken
write wrote written
swim swam swum
bite bit bitten
fall fell fallen
begin began begun
eat ate eaten
know knew known
The principal parts of a verb are given in dictionaries, and the principal parts of the most common irregular verbs are provided as a separate list in many dictionaries and also in most usage handbooks. In other words, if you ever have any doubt about what the past participle of a verb should look like, it is quite easy to look it up.
NOTE: The improper use of the past tense rather than the past participle as the main verb in a verb phrase is considered to be a sign of particular ignorance, and therefore it is one that you should learn never to commit. If it is part of your habitual usage, get rid of it as soon as you can!
Here is the rule: Never use the simple past tense rather than the past participle as the main verb in a verb phrase (i.e., the last verb in the phrase).
If the past participle is the same form as the simple past tense (as for such verbs as talked, said, found, finished), then there is no problem. But if the past participle of the verb is different from the past tense, then make sure you are using the past participle, not the past tense! Using the simple past tense in a verb phrase will make you sound embarrassingly ignorant.