Nonfinite Verb Forms (Verbals)

by Tina Blue
May 15, 2002

In English, we call nonfinite verb forms verbals.  The types of verbals are infinitives, participles and gerunds

The difference between a finite verb and a verbal (nonfinite verb form) is that a finite verb is completely inflected.  In English, verbs are inflected according to five aspects:

Person: first, second, or third
Number: singular or plural
Tense: past, present, future, or any of the other tenses
Mood: indicative, imperative, or subjunctive
Voice: active or passive

The reason verbs thus inflected are called finite is that these inflections limit the verb.  A nonfinite verb form has not been completely limited by inflection, in the same way that a blank sheet of paper has all sorts of possibilities that a paper with writing or drawing on it no longer has.

A clause can only have as its predicate a finite verb, or if it has a verb phrase for a predicate, the auxiliary (helping) verb must be finite.

An infinitive is the uninflected, or plain, form of the verb.  In English we usually use the particle "to" when talking or writing about infinitives: to run, to jump, to see, to think, to be.

A participle acts as an adjective (running shoes; broken vase; lost child; unread book), or as the main verb in a verb phrase (the last verb in the series of words that make up a verb phrase: to have run; am walking; had bought; would be thinking).  A participle can be either present tense or past tense, but will not have any of the other four inflections found in finite verbs. 

A gerund is the ing form of a verb used as a noun.  The gerund form of a verb looks exactly like the present participle, but they function differently in a sentence. The gerund will fill a noun slot (subject, direct object, object of preposition, etc.), but the participle will be either an adjective or part of a verb phrase:

~Running is good exercise. (gerund)
~Are those new running shoes? (participle)
~He is running his last race today. (participle)

~Don't even think about buying that dress! (gerund)
~This is the new buying guide for used cars.  (participle)
~I won't be buying a new car until I can save up a decent down payment. (participle)

None of these nonfinite verb forms can act alone as the predicate of a clause.  You cannot say any of the following things:

~I to be late for work.
~I being late for work.
~I been late for work.

You can only say something like:

~I was late for work.
~I am late for work. 
~I will be late for work. 
~I have been late for work.

In all of these cases, the predicate is either a finite verb or a finite verb phrase, in which the nonfinite verb form (verbal) is supported by a finite (fully inflected) auxiliary verb.

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