How to Use a Nonfinite Verb in English

Nonfinite forms of the verblove

In English grammar, a nonfinite verb is a form of the verb that does not show a distinction in number, person or tense and normally cannot stand alone as the main verb in a sentence. It contrasts with a finite verb, which shows tense, number and person.

The main types of nonfinite verbs are infinitives (with or without to), -ing forms (also known as present participles and gerunds) and past participles (also called -en forms). Except for modal auxiliaries, all verbs have nonfinite forms. A nonfinite phrase or clause is a word group that contains a nonfinite verb form as its central element.

Examples and Observations

In the revised edition of "An Introduction to the Grammar of English," Elly van Gelderen gives examples of sentences that include a nonfinite verb group, which are in italics:

  • Seeing the ordinary as extraordinary is something we all like to do.
  • She forgot to Google them.

Van Gelderen explains that in the first sentence, seeing, is, like, and do are lexical (main) verbs, but only is and like are finite. In the second example forgot and Google are the lexical verbs, but only forgot is finite.

Characteristics of Nonfinite Verbs

Nonfinite verb differs from finite verbs because they cannot always be used as the main verbs of clauses. A nonfinite verb normally lacks agreement for person, number and gender with its first argument or subject. According to "The Theory of Functional Grammar" by Simon C. Dik and Kees Hengeveld, nonfinite verbs are "unmarked or reduced with respect to distinctions of tense, aspect, and mood, and have certain properties in common with adjectival or nominal predicates."

Types of Nonfinite Verb Forms

Three types of nonfinite verb forms exist in the English language: infinitives, gerunds and participles. According to Andrew Radford in "Transformational Grammar: A First Course," infinitive forms are comprised of the "base or stem of the verb with no added inflection (such forms are frequently used after the so-called infinitive particle to.)" 

Gerund forms, says Radford, comprise the base and also the -ing suffix. Participle forms generally comprise the base "plus the -(e)n inflection (though there are numerous irregular participle forms in English)." In the examples Radford provides below, the bracketed clauses are nonfinite since they contain only nonfinite verb forms. The italicized verb is an infinitive in the first sentence, a gerund in the second and a (passive) participle in the third:

  • I've never known [John (to) be so rude to anyone].
  • We don't want [it raining on your birthday].
  • I had [my car stolen from the car park].

Auxiliaries With Nonfinite Verbs

In the second edition of "Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position," Bernard T. O'Dwer says that auxiliaries, or helping verbs, are required with nonfinite verbs to mark nonfinite verb forms for tense, aspect and voice, which nonfinite verbs cannot express. Finite verbs, on the other hand, already mark themselves for tense, aspect and voice. According to O'Dwyer, when the auxiliary verb occurs with the nonfinite form of the verb, the auxiliary is always the finite verb. If more than one auxiliary occurs, the first auxiliary is always the finite verb.

Nonfinite Clauses

Roger Berry, in "English Grammar: A Resource Book for Students," says that nonfinite clauses lack a subject and a finite verb form, but they are still called clauses because they have some clause structure. Nonfinite clauses are introduced by three nonfinite verb forms and are divided into three types, says Berry:

  •  Infinitive clauses: I saw her leave the room.
  •  -ing (participle) clauses: I heard someone shouting for help.
  •  -ed (participle) clauses: I got the watch repaired in town.
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Nordquist, Richard. "How to Use a Nonfinite Verb in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). How to Use a Nonfinite Verb in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How to Use a Nonfinite Verb in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).