What Is a Compound Verb?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In English grammar, a compound verb is made up of two or more words that function as a single verb. Conventionally, verb compounds are written as either one word ("to housesit") or two hyphenated words ("to water-proof"). Also called a compound (or complex) predicate.

Similarly, a compound verb can be a phrasal verb or a prepositional verb that behaves either lexically or syntactically as a single verb.

In such cases, a verb and its particle may be separated by other words ("drop the essay off"). This structure is now more commonly known as a multi-word verb.

The term compound verb can also refer to a lexical verb along with its auxiliaries; in traditional grammar, this is called a verb phrase.

See Examples and Observations below.

Examples (Definition #1)

  • "Television has, it would seem, an irresistible ability to brainwash and narcotize children, drawing them away from other, more worthwhile activities and influences."
    (David Buckingham, "A Special Audience? Children and Television." A Companion to Television, ed. by Janet Wasko. Blackwell, 2006)
  • "After lunch Dos Passos and the Fitzgeralds, who had rented a scarlet touring car and chauffeur, househunted on Long Island."
    (Sally Cline, Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise. Arcade, 2004)

    Examples (Definition #2)

    • "[Stella] broke off the engagement, and I got out the dinghy and rowed off."
      (P.G. Wodehouse, "Rallying Around Old George")
    • "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty."
      (President John Kennedy)

    Examples (Definition #3)

    • "And then I was playing over and under and through all of this, and the pianist and bass were playing somewhere else."
      (Miles Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, with Quincy Troupe. Simon & Schuster, 1989)
    • "Although all three musicians had been playing earlier that night, they had not been together."
      (Erik Nisenson, Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation. Da Capo Press, 2000)

    Observations:

    • Placement of Adverbs in Verb Phrases
      "Although most authorities squarely say that the best place for the adverb is in the midst of the verb phrase, many writers nevertheless harbor a misplaced aversion, probably because they confuse a split verb phrase with the split infinitive. H.W. Fowler explained long ago what writers still have problems understanding: 'When an adverb is to be used with [a compound] verb, its normal place is between the auxiliary (or sometimes the first auxiliary if there are two or more) and the rest. Not only is there no objection to thus splitting a compound verb..., but any other position for the adverb requires special justification' (MEU1)."
      (Bryan A. Garner, The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. Oxford University Press, 2000)