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Grammatical Forms of English Verb Phrases

A verb phrase is a phrase in which a verb functions as the head of the phrase plus any auxiliaries (modals, operators, perfects, progressives, passives), modifiers, complements, objects, particles, and determinatives. The six grammatical forms that appear within the internal structure of English verb phrases are:

  1. Auxiliary verbs
  2. P-words
  3. Prepositional phrases
  4. Verb phrases
  5. Adverb phrases
  6. Determiners

The following sections define each of the five grammatical forms that form the internal structure of verb phrases as well as provide examples to illustrate use.

Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs are the first grammatical form that appear within verb phrases in the English language. The seventeen auxiliary verbs in English are have, be, do; the nine modal verbs (can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would); and the five quasi-modal verbs (dare, had better/best, need, ought to, used to). Auxiliary verbs perform the grammatical functions of perfect, progressive, passive, operator, and modal within verb phrases. For example:

Progressive Auxiliary Verb | Verb
is | thinking

Perfect Auxiliary Verb | Verb
had | fallen

Passive Auxiliary Verb | Verb
was | returned

Operator Auxiliary Verb | Verb
did | cry

Modal Auxiliary Verb | Verb
might | attend

Auxiliary verbs always precede the main verb within a verb phrase. An intervening adverb such as not may separate the auxiliary verb from the main verb. Operator auxiliary verbs may appear only with the main verb. Progressive, perfect, passive, and modal auxiliary verb may appear with other progressive, perfect, passive, and modal auxiliary verbs. The order in which auxiliary verbs may appear together is Modal-Perfect-Passive-Progressive. For example:

Perfect | Progressive | Verb
have | been | writing

Perfect | Passive | Verb
had | been | stolen

Modal | Progressive | Verb
should | be | showering

Modal | Passive | Verb
might | be | adulterated

Modal | Perfect | Passive | Progressive | Verb
must | have | been | being | cleaned

P-words

P-words are the second grammatical form that appear within verb phrases in the English language. P-words are defined as prepositions and adverbs that no longer perform prepositional or adverbial functions. P-words are function words, which are defined as words that perform definite grammatical functions but that lack definite lexical meaning. Within verb phrases, p-words function as infinitive markers and particles. An infinitive marker is a function words that distinguishes the base form from the infinitive form of an English verb. For example:

P-word | Verb
to | bounce
to | sleep
to | diaper
to | launder

P-words functioning as infinitive markers always precede the main verb.

A particle is a function word that expresses a grammatical relationship with another word or words. The p-word of a phrasal verb functions as a particle. For example:

Verb | P-word
jumble | up
nod | off
quiet | down
wade | through

Verb | P-word | P-word
drop | in | on
hammer | away | at
kiss | up | to
lay | in | on

P-words functioning as particles follow the main verb. Depending on the specific phrasal verb, the particle may separate from the verb. For a list of English phrasal verbs, check out the Phrasal Verb Dictionary.

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases are the third grammatical form that appear within verb phrases in the English language. Prepositions are words that “link to other words, phrases, and clauses” and that “express spatial or temporal relations.” A prepositional phrase is a phrase that consists of a preposition plus another word, phrase, or clause functioning as the prepositional complement. Prepositional phrases function as verb phrase complements within verb phrases. Verb phrase complements are words and phrases that complete the meaning of a verb or verb phrase. For example:

Verb | Prepositional Phrase
abide | by the rules
cope | with the truth
dream | about my future
participate | in the discussion

Prepositional phrases always follow the verb within a verb phrase. Verbs that take verb phrase complements in the form of prepositional phrases are referred to as prepositional verbs.

Verb Phrases

Verb phrases are the fourth grammatical form that appear within verb phrases in the English language. The infinitive or base form following some catenative verbs functions as a verb phrase complement. Catenative verbs form strings of verbs by linking the catenative verb to an infinitive, present participle, or base form of another verb within a single verb phrase. For example:

Verb | Verb
come | play
go | work

Verb | Infinitive
aim | to please
intend | to study
offer | to pay
refuse | to play nice

As with prepositional phrases functioning as verb phrase complements, verb phrases functioning as verb phrase complements also follow the main verb.

Also note that verb phrases in the form of present participles and infinitives also sometimes function as direct objects in English.

Adverb Phrases

Adverb phrases are the fifth grammatical form that appear within verb phrases in the English language. Adverb phrase are phrases in which an adverb functions as the head of the phrase plus any modifiers. Within verb phrases, adverb phrases function as verb phrase modifiers. A verb phrase modifier is a word or phrase that describes a verb or verb phrase. For example:

Verb | Adverb Phrase
shriek | wildly
yawn | tiredly
inquire | curiously
barter | shamelessly

Adverb Phrase | Verb
furiously | scribble
annoyingly | bother
prominently | display
sadly | sigh

Adverb phrases may precede or follow the verb within a verb phrase. Adverb phrases may also intervene between verbs as auxiliary verbs. For example:

  • had not quit
  • might have lovingly disagreed
  • should never have asked
  • could not have been being watched

Determiners

Determiners are the sixth grammatical form that appear within verb phrases in the English language. Determiners are words that provide information such as familiarity, location, quantity, and number about a noun or verb. Determiners function as determinatives within verb phrases. Determiners appear within determiner-present participle constructions in which the present participle performs a nominal function. For example:

Determiner | Verb | Noun Phrase
my | caring | for the baby
her | washing | the laundry
his | mowing | the grass
our | moving | the refrigerator

Determiner | Verb | Prepositional Phrase
the | reading | of the will
the | taming | of the shrew
the | running | of the bulls
a | screening | of the film

Determiners always precede the verb within a verb phrase. Possessive determiners and articles most frequently appear within English verb phrases. A noun phrase that follows a determiner-verb construction functions as a direct object while a prepositional phrase functions as a verb phrase complement.

Other Objects and Complements

In addition to auxiliary verbs, p-words, prepositional phrases, verb phrases, adverb phrases, and determiners, verb phrases may also contain subject complements, direct objects, object complements, and indirect objects. Noun phrases and adjective phrases most frequently function as other objects and complements within verb phrases, although other forms can perform the four functions. For more information, see Forms of the English Predicate.

Combining Grammatical Forms

The six grammatical forms that can appear within verb phrases can also appear in combination with other grammatical forms within a single verb phrase. The six grammatical forms may also appear in combination with subject complements, direct objects, object complements, and indirect objects within verb phrases. For example, the following twenty-five constructions are some of the possible combinations of grammatical forms within verb phrases in English:

  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – Subject Complement
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – Direct Object
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – Direct Object – Object Complement
  • Auxiliary Verb (s) – Verb – Indirect Object – Direct Object
  • Verb – P-word
  • Verb – P-word – Direct Object
  • Verb – Direct Object – P-word
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – P-word
  • Verb – Prepositional Phrase
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – Prepositional Phrase
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Adverb Phrase – Verb
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Adverb Phrase – Verb – Prepositional Phrase
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – Adverb Phrase
  • Verb – Verb Phrase
  • Verb – Verb Phrase – Direct Object
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Verb – Verb Phrase
  • Auxiliary Verb(s) – Adverb Phrase – Verb – Verb Phrase
  • Adverb Phrase – Verb – Verb Phrase
  • Adverb Phrase – Verb – Prepositional Phrase
  • Determiner – Verb
  • Determiner – Verb – Adverb Phrase
  • Determiner – Verb – Prepositional Phrase
  • Determiner – Adverb Phrase – Verb – Prepositional Phrase
  • Determiner – Verb – Direct Object

For example:

Modal | Verb | Subject Complement
must | be | sick

Modal | Perfect | Progressive | Adverb Phrase | Verb | Direct Object
might | have | been | very quietly | reading | a book

Adverb Phrase | Verb | Verb Phrase
immediately | come | study

Perfect | Adverb Phrase | Verb | Verb Phrase
had | thoughtlessly | decided | to fly

Determiner | Adverb Phrase | Verb | Prepositional Phrase
my | obviously | eavesdropping | on the neighbors

Note that more than just the twenty-five constructions of the verb phrase listed above are possible in the English language.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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