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definition - Finite_verb

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Finite verb


A finite verb is a form of a verb that has a subject and can function as the root of an independent clause; an independent can, in turn, stand alone as a complete sentence. In many languages, finite verbs are the locus of grammatical information of gender, person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and voice.[1] Finite verbs must be distinguished from non-finite verbs, which are not generally inflected for these grammatical categories.



The finite verbs are in bold in the following sentences, and the non-finite verbs are underlined:

This sentence is illustrating finite and non-finite verbs.
The dog will have been trained well.
Tom promises to try to do the work.

In many languages (including English), there can be just one finite verb per clause (unless the finite verbs are coordinated), whereas the number of non-finite verbs can reach up to five or six, or even more, e.g.

He was believed to have been told to have himself examined.

Most types of verbs can appear in finite or non-finite form: full content verbs can appear in finite or non-finite form; some auxiliary verbs can appear in finite or non-finite form; strong verbs can appear in finite or non-finite form; weak verbs can appear in finite or non-finite form; etc.

It might seem that every grammatically complete sentence or clause must contain a finite verb. However, sentences lacking a finite verb were quite common in the old Indo-European languages. The most important type of these are nominal sentences.[2] Another type are sentence fragments described as phrases or minor sentences. In Latin and some Romance languages, there are a few words that can be used to form sentences without verbs, such as Latin ecce, Portuguese eis, French voici and voilà, and Italian ecco, all of these translatable as here ... is or here ... are. Some interjections can play the same role. Even in English, utterances that lack a finite verb are common, e.g. Yes., No., Bill!, Thanks., etc.

  Grammatical categories of the finite verb

Due to the relatively poor system of inflectional morphology in English, the central role that finite verbs play is often not so evident. In other languages however, finite verbs are the locus of much grammatical information. Depending on the language, finite verbs can show inflections of the following grammatical categories:

  • Gender: e.g. masculine or feminine
  • Person: e.g. 1st, 2nd, or 3rd (e.g. I/we, you, he/she/it/they)
  • Number: e.g. singular or plural (or dual)
  • Tense: e.g. present, past, future
  • Aspect: e.g. perfect, perfective, progressive, etc.
  • Mood: e.g. indicative, subjunctive, imperative, optative, etc.
  • Voice: e.g. active or passive

The first three categories represent agreement information that the finite verb gets from its subject (think subject-verb agreement). The second four categories serve to situate the clause content according to time in relation to the speaker (tense), extent to which the action, occurrence, or state is complete (aspect), assessment of reality or desired reality (mood), and relation of the subject to the action or state (voice).

English is a synthetic language, which means it tends to express these categories with the help of auxiliary verbs. At most, a finite verb in English can show number, person, tense, and mood, e.g.

Sam laugh-s a lot. - 3rd person singular present indicative

The -s on laugh conveys 3rd person singular present indicative. English entirely lacks gender inflections on finite verbs, and in order to express aspect and voice, auxiliary verbs must be added. Languages like Latin and Russian, however, can at times express six (or perhaps all seven) of these categories in one finite verb.

  Finite verbs in theories of syntax

Finite verbs play a particularly important role in syntactic analyses of sentence structure. In many phrase structure grammars - for instance those that build on the X-bar schema - the finite verb is the head of the finite verb phrase and as such, it is the head of the entire sentence, and in dependency grammars, the finite verb is the root of the entire clause and is thus the most prominent structural unit in the clause, e.g.

Finite verb trees 1'

The phrase structure grammar trees are the a-trees on the left; they are similar to the trees produced in the Government and Binding framework.[3] The b-trees on the right are the dependency grammar trees.[4] Many of the details of these trees are not so important for the point at hand. The issue that is important, though, is clearly visible in these trees. This issue is that the finite verb (in bold each time) is the structural center of the clause. In the phrase structure trees, the highest projection of the finite verb - IP (inflection phrase) or CP (complentizer phrase) - is the root of the entire tree. And in the dependency trees, the projection of the finite verb (V) is the root word of the entire structure.

  See also


  1. ^ For similar definitions of the finite verb, see for instance Quirk et al. (1979:43f.), Greenbaum and Quirk (1990:25ff.), Downing and Locke (1992:6, 180), Klammer and Schulz (1996:276f.).
  2. ^ Concerning nominal sentences in old Indo-European languages, see Fortson (2004:143).
  3. ^ Concerning such GB trees, see for instance Cowper (1992) and Haegeman (1994).
  4. ^ Concerning such dependency trees, see for instance Eroms (2000).


  • Greenbaum, S. and R. Quirk. 1990. A student's grammar of the English language. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman.
  • Cowper, E. 1992. A concise introduction to syntactic theory: The government-binding approach. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Downing, A. and P. Locke. 1992. English grammar: A university course, second edition. London: Routledge.
  • Eroms, H.-W. 2000. Syntax der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Fortson, B. 2004. Indo-European Language and Culture. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Haegeman, L. 1994. Introduction to government and binding theory, 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Klammer, T. and M. Schulz. 1996. Analyzing English grammar. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Oxford English Dictionary 1795. "finite [...] Of a verb: limited by number and person.
  • Quirk, R. S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik. 1979. A grammar of contemporary English. London: Longman.



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