Finiteness in English

Verb forms

Verbs in English can take the various forms listed in (1)-(5).

Name Description Examples

(1)     Bare Default form in present tense sentences. They play together.
I see.
Also appears in various nonfinite contexts, such as in to infinitive clauses, I want to play.
They need to see you.
after modals, They may play.
We will see.
and in connection with do support. They don't play lacrosse.
Do you see?

(2)     -s Special form used in the present tense to mark agreement with a third person singular subject. Lukas runs for miles.
The cat enjoys treats.

(3)     -ing As present participle, combines with auxiliary be to express various aspectual nuances The cat is playing with the yarn.
I was seeing her until a week ago.
Also occurs on its own as the gerund. Playing with landmines is dangerous.
We always enjoy seeing you.

(4)     Past tense The morphological simplest way of expressing the past tense. The cat played with the yarn.
We saw a deer.

(5)     Past participle Combines with auxiliary be to form passive forms. Baseball is played all over the world.
She was last seen off Mozambique.
Combines with auxiliary have to form perfect forms. They have never played lacrosse.
I had never seen it before.


Finiteness of verbs

The verb forms just discussed are classified into two categories: finite and nonfinite. The basic difference between the two categories in English is that finite verbs can function on their own as the core of an independent sentence, whereas nonfinite verbs cannot. Rather, nonfinite verbs must ordinarily combine with a modal, an auxiliary verb, or the infinitival particle to.

A verb's -s form and past tense form are always finite, and the two participles (the -ing and -en forms) are always nonfinite.

(6) a. Finite verb: She gives both of them a back rub.
b. She gave both of them a back rub.
(7) a. Nonfinite verb: She is giving both of them a back rub.
b. She has given both of them a back rub.

To complicate matters a bit, a verb's bare form can be either finite or nonfinite. Bare forms that express the present tense are finite; otherwise, they are nonfinite. Examples are given in (8) and (9).

(8)   Finite verb: We give both of them a back rub.
(9) a. Nonfinite verb: We will give both of them a back rub.
b. We promised to give both of them a back rub.

The finite character of a bare form that expresses the present tense fits with the following fact. When the subject in (8) is replaced by a third-person singular subject, as in (10), the bare form of the verb becomes ungrammatical and needs to be replaced by the -s form.

(10) a. * She give both of them a back rub.
b. She gives both of them a back rub.

Since the -s form is finite, it is sensible to classify the functionally equivalent bare form the same way.

The table in (11) summarizes the above.

Example Verb form Finite?
play-s, see-s present tense yes
play-ed, saw Past tense
play, see Bare (present tense)
Bare (otherwise) no
play-ing, see-ing Present participle
play-ed, se-en Past participle

Finiteness of clauses

Finiteness is a property not only of verbs, but also of clauses. Ordinary clauses - ones that can stand alone - are finite. All finite clauses contain exactly one finite element per clause. In the simplest case, this finite element is a finite verb, as illustrated in (12).

(12)     They helped us. - finite clause, finite (main) verb

It is also possible for a finite clause's finite element to be (i) a finite form of the auxiliary verbs be, have, or do or (ii) a member of the set of modals, which are finite by definition and include the words can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would. In this case, illustrated in (13), the entire clause is finite, the auxiliary verb or modal is finite, but the main verb is nonfinite.

(13)     They did help us. - finite clause, finite auxiliary verb, nonfinite main verb

Clauses can also be nonfinite. The verb of a nonfinite clause is always nonfinite. (14) illustrates the case that is easiest to recognize - the case where the nonfinite clause (enclosed in square brackets) contains the particle to, which precedes the nonfinite verb either immediately, as in (14a), or is separated from the nonfinite verb by an intervening adverb, as in (14b). The case in (14b) is known as a "split infinitive" and at one time was the focus of much prescriptive attention.

(14) a.   They agreed [ to help us ] . - nonfinite clause, nonfinite main verb
b.   They agreed [ to quickly help us ] .

You might be wondering why exactly we classify the subordinate-clause verb in (14) - help - as nonfinite. After all, help is a bare verb form, and so in principle might be finite (recall the table in (11)). The reason is that the verb neither expresses present tense nor agrees with a third-person singular subject. We can see this clearly by changing the past tense verb of the main clause to present tense and the main-clause subject to third-person singular. As shown in (15), help does not change to help-s, as we would expect if it were finite.

(15)     He agrees [ to { help, *help-s } us ] .

The same reasoning as in connection with (15) extends to cases where the nonfinite clause has a subject of its own, as in (16) and (17). (Note that nonfinite clauses as in (16) do not count as small clauses, which by definition do not contain modals or to. We discuss small clauses directly.) (17a) is analogous to (15); we add (17b) to show that neither a subordinate-clause nor a main-clause third-person subject causes the small clause verb to change form.

(16)     They expected [ you to help us ] .
(17) a.   They expect [ him to { help, *help-s } us ] .
b.   She expects [ him to { help, *help-s } us ] .

Finally, let's consider small clauses where the predicate is a verb, as in (18).

(18)     We made [ you help us ] .

Are small-clause verbs - help in (18) - finite or nonfinite? Once again using the same reasoning as above, as illustrated in (19) and (20), we conclude that the verb is nonfinite. Since small clauses contain no further finite element (by definition, as we just mentioned), not just the verb is nonfinite, but the small clause as a whole.

(19) a.   We make [ him { help, *help-s } us ] .
b.   She makes [ him { help, *help-s } us ] .

The table in (20) repeats and summarizes the above. In the general case, all columns agree; there is only one row containing a mismatch.

Example Is the clause finite? Does the clause contain a finite element? Is the main verb finite?
They helped us. yes yes yes
They did help us. yes yes no
They agreed [ to help us] . no no no
They expected [ you to help us ] . no no no
They made [ you help us ] . no no no