verb phrase (VP)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

verb phrase
In this sentence, the subject is You and the verb phrase is must have been frightened.


(1) In traditional grammar, a verb phrase (often abbreviated as VP) is a word group that includes a main verb and its auxiliaries (helping verbs). Also called a verbal phrase.

(2) In generative grammar, a verb phrase is a complete predicate: that is, a lexical verb and all the words governed by that verb except a subject.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "V[erb] P[hrase]s can be identified by . . . substitution procedures. Consider the sentence Lou cried, where cried constitutes the VP. Among many others, the following strings can substitute for cried in the slot Lou _____. They thus fit the frame and are VPs (the verb in each VP is italicized):
    Lou fell.
    Lou lost the race,
    Lou won a prize for his efforts in the tournament.
    (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)
  • Identifying Verb Phrases
    "[7] I was reading the letter to John.
    . . . I will make two crude assumptions (i) and (ii) about what is inside the verb phrase, along with the verb (which is its head) . . ..
    (i) The verb phrase contains anything which follows the verb within the same sentence.
    (ii) The verb phrase contains the auxiliary verbs which precede the verb (i.e. words like might, could, should, have, be and do) and the negation word not.
    Based on these assumptions, the only word in [7] which is not in the verb phrase is the word I, this being the noun phrase which precedes the verb. The verb phrase thus takes up most of the sentence."
    (Nigel Fabb, Sentence Structure, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)

  • Main Verbs in Verb Phrases
    "The verb is the easiest constituent to recognize because of its formal characteristics. The verb of the sentence takes the form of a verb phrase, and the first or only word in the verb phrase indicates present or past tense. Thus, like is present in [1] and liked is past in [1a]:
    [1] I like the music.
    [1a] I liked the music.
    In [2] have is present tense even though have thanked refers to past time:
    [2] I have thanked them for the gift.
    In contrast, had is past tense:
    [2a] I had thanked them for the gift.
    In [2a] had thanked is the verb phrase, and thanked is the main verb. The phrase can be replaced by the one word thanked, in which case thanked is past tense and its corresponding present is thank.
    [2b] I thanked them for the gift.
    [2c] I thank them for the gift.
    (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996)

  • Putting Auxiliary Verbs in Order
    "In the sentence Immigration figures may have been rising, the main verb rising follows three auxiliaries: may, have, and been. Together these auxiliaries and main verb make up a verb phrase.
    • May is a modal that indicates possibility; it is followed by the base form of a verb.
    • Have is an auxiliary verb that in this case indicates the perfect tense; it must be followed by a past participle (been).
    • Any form of be, when it is followed by a present participle ending in -ing (such as rising), indicates the progressive tense.
    • Be followed by a past participle, as in New immigration policies have been passed in recent years, indicates the passive voice.
    . . . [W]hen two or more auxiliaries appear in a verb phrase, they must follow a particular order based on the type of auxiliary: (1) modal, (2) a form of have used to indicate a perfect tense, (3) a form of be used to indicate a progressive tense, and (4) a form of be used to indicate the passive voice. (Very few sentences include all four kinds of auxiliaries.)

    "Only one modal is permitted in a verb phrase."
    (Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)