Non-Finite Verbs

Learning Objectives

  • Identify gerunds, participles, and infinitives

Just when we thought we had verbs figured out, we’re brought face-to-face with a new animal: non-finite verbs. These words look similar to verbs we’ve already discussed, but they act quite differently. A finite verb is one that has a subject and functions as the main verb in a sentence. By definition, non-finite verbs cannot serve as the main verb in an independent clause. This means that they don’t provide the action of a sentence. They also lack a tense. While the sentence around them may be past, present, or future tense, the non-finite verbs themselves are neutral.

For example, look at the following sentences. The finite verbs are in bold in the following sentences, and the non-finite verbs are underlined:

Verbs appear in almost all sentences.
This sentence is illustrating finite and non-finite verbs.
The dog will have to be trained well.
Tom promised to try to do the work.

There are three types of non-finite verbs: gerunds, participles, and infinitives.

Gerunds

Gerunds all end in -ing: skiing, reading, dancing, singing, etc. Gerunds act like nouns and can serve as subjects or objects of sentences. They can be created using active or helping verbs:

  • I like swimming.
  • Being loved can make someone feel safe.
  • Do you fancy going out?
  • Having read the book once before makes me more prepared.

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Participles

A participle is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun, noun phrase, verb, or verb phrase, and then plays a role similar to an adjective or adverb. The two types of participles in English are traditionally called the present participle (forms such as writing, singing and raising) and the past participle (forms such as written, sung, and raised).

Here are some examples of participles being used to modify other elements of the sentence, acting as an adjective or adverb:

  • Present Participle: “The sleeping girl over there is my sister”; “She ducked into the running water”; “Breathing heavily, she finished the race in first place.”
  • Past Participle: “She placed the cooked chicken on the table”; “He put the cut flowers in a vase.”

Participles can also be used with helping verbs to form different tenses, as we learned while discussing complex verb tenses. When the present participle is used with the helping verb to be, it forms the progressive tense. When the past participle is used with the helping verb to have, it forms the perfect tense. For example:

  • Present Participle:Marta was sleeping“; “Aliyah is singing“; “He will be signing autographs at 3:00.”
  • Past Participle: “The chicken has eaten“; “The public had voted him out of office”; “They will have thrown a fit by then.”

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Infinitives

To be or not to be, that is the question.

—Hamlet

Infinitives describe the verb form that includes the word “to” before the verb is used—for example, “to be,” “to try,” or “to make.” The infinitive is the basic dictionary form of a verb, usually preceded by to. In other languages, infinitive verbs are often easy to identify because they are a single word, as in morir (“(to) die”) in Spanish, manger (“(to) eat”) in French, or lieben (“(to) love”) in German, etc.

Here are some examples of uses of the infinitive:

  • With other verbs: “I aim to convince him of our plan’s ingenuity”; “You already know that he’ll fail to complete the task.”
  • As a noun phrase: “To err is human”; “To know me is to love me.” 
  • As a modifier (an adjective or adverb): “The man to save us”; “Nice to listen to”; “In order to win.”
  • In questions: “I don’t know where to go.”

There are some cases in which the infinitive form of a verb is used without the to preceding it. This is called a bare infinitive. The bare infinitive usually comes when following another verb or certain phrases, such as in these examples: “I will wait“; “I heard him sing a lovely song”; “She can speak five languages”; “I would rather die.” All of these are bare infinitives without the to.

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Now that we’ve learned how to use each of the different non-finite verbs, let’s take a look at how they’re used together. The following practice will help you identify each of the types of non-finite verbs and see how they are used together.

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Read the following paragraph and see if you can identify the gerunds, participles, and infinitives. Click on the text below to check your answers.

The Australian magpie is a medium-sized black and white bird native to Australia. Feeding magpies is a common practice among households around the country, and there is generally a peaceful co-existence. However, in the spring a small minority of breeding magpies (almost always males) becomes aggressive and swoop and attack passersby. If someone is on a bike, being unexpectedly swooped can result in loss of control of the bicycle, which may cause injury. Attaching a long pole with a flag to the bike can deter attack. Using cable ties on helmets has become common, as well, and it appears to be an effective deterrent.

 

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