Finite and non-finite verbs

In a sentence, there is normally at least one verb that has both a subject and a tense. When a verb has a subject and a tense, it can be referred to as a finite verb. The opposite is an non-finite verb. Finite and non-finite verbs are clear to distinguish.

A finite verb (sometimes called main verbs) is a verb that has a subject, this means that it can be the main verb in a sentence. It shows tense (past / present etc) or number (singular / plural).

  • We want Charlie to act as club secretary.
  • I like taking photographs of insects.
  • Coming home last night, I saw a deer run across the road.

Some forms of a verb are referred to as non-finite. The present and past participles and the to infinitive are the most common of these. The base form is often used in a non-finite way. Every verb can be used in a clause in either a finite or non-finite way.

A verb is finite if it is found in a clause in combination with a subject and a tense.

  • I walked home.
  • We saw a deer.
  • They appreciate a little praise now and then.

It is non-finite if it is used:

- without the verb having a tense.

    • To open, tear off the tab.
    • Looking around, he noticed a letter on the floor.
    • Worn out by the heat, they stopped for a drink.

- with no agreement between the subject (if there is one) and the verb.

      • That plan failing, he gave up.
      • Our guests departed, we felt a little depressed.

A compound verb is actually made up of one finite part, which is always the first auxiliary verb, while the remaining non-finite parts are the base form or the participles.In the following examples the finite part of the verb phrase is in blue italic:

      • I may have been joking when I said that.
      • Helen was running around screaming.
      • I had been living in a dream for months.
      • Olivia is coming round at 6 o’clock this evening.

The present simple and past simple forms of a verb are always finite.

      • I sing.
      • We tell stories at night.
      • Maya laughed.
      • The shelter collapsed.
      • A non-finite verb is sometimes used immediately after a finite verb.
      • I like to get up early at the weekend.
      • Harriet really dislikes cleaning the cooker.
      • I certainly wouldn’t want to see him again.
      • We persuaded them to join us.

Often a noun or pronoun can come between the finite verb and the non-finite one. 

    • We want Charlie to act as club secretary.
    • She wanted him to wash his hands in the bathroom.
    • I don’t like you cleaning your boots over the sink.
    • When the second verb is an -ing form coming after a noun or pronoun, there can be a difference in grammar between two similar sentences. Both sentences below are acceptable, although the first example might seem ambiguous to some people. In the second sentence, the -ing form is used as a verbal noun.
    • She didn’t like him cleaning his boots over the sink.
    • She didn’t like his cleaning his boots over the sink.
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