Skip to content

Verbs: Part 1 of Many

  • by

This post is the first in a series on Verbs. Dry, dry, horrifically essential stuff.


  1. Discuss the difference between finite and non-finite verbs.
  2. Extract all the verbs from a passage of prose; categorize them as finite or non-finite.

Skill Level: beginner

If the five lexical categories were Tolkien’s infamous rings, the Verb would be the One Ring to rule them all.  For writers, it can make or break a narrative. A wrong verb or a wrong tense on a verb can skew your intended meaning and instantly derail your reader’s focus. It can also summon grammar-wraiths to hammer their shrieking condemnation down upon your head. (Man, how I wish I were only kidding about that.)

Thus, as writers, it behooves us to be well acquainted—and perhaps even intimate—with our friend and sometimes friendly nemesis, the Verb.

In the hierarchy of syntax, the Verb governs the lexical branch (which is why we call that branch the Verb Phrase, or VP). It takes on features of Tense, Mood, Aspect, and Voice—sometimes stacked one upon the next like dancers in a conga line—and each added feature can enhance or detract from the cadence of the sentence as a whole.

For this first post, we start off simply.  Verbs come in two forms: Finite and Non-finite.

Finite Verbs

Finite verbs carry Tense. Specifically, in English, they carry past or present tense. (We express the future tense using modals, a type of Auxiliary.) This form of verb, then, has a nominative subject to which it is tied. Hence, finite verbs are typically easy to identify.

Example 1: I walk to the store three times a week.

Example 2: Henry looks like a cantankerous old man, but he possesses a wry sense of humor.

Non-finite Verbs

Non-finite verbs, then, do not carry Tense. Non-finite verb forms include the infinitive and the two types of participles.

Infinitive: Often considered the base form of a verb, in English we mark the infinitive with the verb particle “to” (not to be confused with the preposition “to”; they are totally different, even if they look the same).

Examples: to live, to breathe, to occupy, to bother

Participles: These carry the Aspect feature. Because grammarians want to make things as confusing as possible, they often refer to participles with the terms “present” and “past”; but the two participles are actually the progressive and the perfect.

  1. Progressive (the so-called present or -ing participle)
    1. expresses ongoing actions
    2. takes the auxiliary “be” to pick up a Tense feature
    3. Examples: singing, carving, dancing, thinking, smelling, perambulating, inching
  1. Perfect (the so-called past or -ed participle)
    1. expresses completed actions
    2. takes the auxiliary “have” to pick up a Tense feature
    3. takes the auxiliary “be” to express Passive Voice (a topic for another post)
    4. Examples: sung, carved, danced, thought, smelled, perambulated, inched

NOTE: Non-finite verbs can act as modifiers:

  • a screaming child
  • the beaten path
  • Lost at sea, the sailors gave up all hope.

Progressive (“present”) participles can also act as gerunds, as briefly mentioned in this post on Nouns.


1. Extract all the verbs (including auxiliaries) from the following paragraph:

“Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes. With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.” —George Orwell, Animal Farm, Chapter 1

2. Categorize the extracted verbs as finite or non-finite.

**And Finally, Some Definitions for Miscellaneous Terms Used in this Post:

Auxiliary: a grammatical class that includes modals and the so-called helping verbs, with  “have,” “be,” and “do” of particular note. Auxiliaries express Tense when the main verb carries Aspect. Auxiliaries also help express Mood, especially the Interrogative and the Conditional.

Modifier: a word or phrase that adds meaning to another word or phrase. Thus, adjectives are modifiers to nouns, adverbs are modifiers to verbs and adjectives, etc.

Nominative (NOM): a noun case typically associated with the subject position of a sentence. Its primary counterpart is the Accusative (ACC) case, which is typically associated with a direct object. (Case is most easily seen in personal pronouns; compare NOM/ACC pronouns I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them. )