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)     -ed (past tense) Expresses past tense. The cat played with the yarn.
We saw a deer.

(5)     -en (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 have seen it many times.

For all verbs, the -ing form is predictable from the bare form, being derived from it by the affixation of -ing (play-ing, see-ing, hav-ing, be-ing). The -s form is similarly predictable for most verbs, with major (be, is) or minor (have, has) exceptions. The past tense and past participle forms are predictable from the bare form in some cases, but not in others. With regular verbs, the past tense and past participle forms are homonyms and are formed by affixing -ed to the bare form. Why bother distinguishing between the two forms? That is, why not just posit a single past form? The reason is that the past tense and the past participle are distinct for irregular verbs such as go, see, sing, or write (past tense went, saw, sang, wrote versus past participle gone, seen, sung, written).

A verb's bare form, past tense, and past participle (in other words, exactly the forms that aren't predictable in general) are known as its principal parts.


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. The finiteness of a clause is determined by the finiteness of its head. For ordinary clauses, the head is Infl. The only nonfinite Infl element is infinitival to; all other Infl elements (present or past tense, modals, auxiliary be, do or have) are finite. For small clauses, which by definition don't contain I, the head is a nonfinite V. All small clauses are therefore nonfinite.

In general, the finiteness of a clause and its Infl head matches the finiteness of the verb. However, if the Infl element is a modal or auxiliary be, do or have, there is a mismatch: the Infl element is finite, but the verb is nonfinite. The opposite mismatch (to helps us, to helped us) does not occur.

The table in (12) summarizes the above. The clauses in focus are in italics.

Example I V Finite I? Finite V?
Ordinary finite clause They helped us. [past] helped yes
Finite clause with mismatch They did help us. did help yes no
Ordinary nonfinite clause They agreed to help us. to help no
Small clause We made him help us. --- help --- no