You may already know that a sentence needs a subject and a verb to be complete. But why does that verb need to be finite, and what’s the difference between finite and non-finite verbs? Keep reading to find the meanings and examples of both types of verbs, and why you’ll never mistake them again.
A finite verb is the main verb in a sentence. It’s the root word that drives the rest of the sentence. Almost every verb in the English language can be used as a finite verb as long as it has these qualities in a sentence:
- a subject
- agreement with the subject
- a tense (present or past)
Every sentence must have a finite verb – even sentences that are not in the present or past tenses. Finite verbs can stand alone in a sentence or as part of a verb phrase. If there is more than one verb in the sentence, the finite verb is usually the one closest to the subject.
It’s easier to find finite verbs in a sentence than it seems. No matter how long or short the sentence is, there is always at least one finite verb.
- Orlando swims three times a week.
- I cooked dinner last Thursday.
- Shawna is a teacher.
- We had a chemistry lesson yesterday.
- Our study group worked really late last night.
The rest of the sentence depends on the finite verb. Finite verbs can be action verbs or helping verbs. They can appear in both dependent and independent clauses, as long as they have a subject, agree with that subject, and are set in either present or past tense.
Non-finite verbs are as easy to understand as finite verbs. If a verb doesn’t have a subject or a tense, or is part of a verb phrase, it’s a non-finite verb. Examples of verbs that can function as non-finite verbs include verbals, such as:
- infinitives (“to” + verb)
- participles (verbs that function as adjectives)
- gerunds (“ing” verbs that function as nouns)
Verbals function as parts of speech other verbs, so they can’t be the finite verb in a sentence. They also can’t be the only verb in a sentence; finite verbs must accompany non-finite verbs to establish both the subject and tense of a sentence.
Most sentences that include a phrase have both finite and non-finite verbs. The trick is telling them apart, which you can do by identifying the subject and tense of the sentence. Combining finite and non-finite verbs creates the 12 different verb tenses.
Here are some examples of sentences written with only finite verbs, and then again with both finite and non-finite verbs. The finite verbs are bolded and the non-finite verbs are underlined.
- Pearl wrote a story. (past tense; finite verb only)
- Pearl was writing a story. (past progressive tense; past-tense finite verb and present participle)
- Pearl had written a story. (past perfect tense; past-tense finite verb and past participle)
- My family celebrates birthdays together. (present tense; finite verb only)
- My family likes to celebrate birthdays together. (present tense; present-tense finite verb and infinitive)
- My family has always celebrated birthdays together. (present perfect tense; present-tense finite verb and past participle)
- Charlie wants a puppy. (present tense; finite verb only)
- Charlie is wanting a puppy. (present progressive tense; present-tense finite verb and present participle)
- Charlie has been wanting a puppy. (present perfect progressive tense; present-tense finite verb and present participle)
Sentences can (and usually do) include both finite and non-finite verbs.
- My sister went to college to become a doctor.
- The class was reprimanded for behaving badly at the assembly.
- I was raking the leaves when I saw a caterpillar on the ground.
- We have been working on the school musical for months.
Basically, if a word ends in -ing, comes after “to,” or follows a finite verb in a verb phrase, it’s a non-finite verb. These verbs are important when filling out the larger picture of a sentence, but not in establishing subject or present vs. past tense.
Verbs such as will, would, shall, should, might, must, ought to, could, and can are known as modal auxiliary verbs. Modal verbs do not change their tense, but when they are in a sentence, they are the finite verbs. There are no non-finite forms of modals because they are not parts of verb phrases.
- You should clean your room.
- My professor might give us an extension on our project.
- Can you tell me the time?
- I will pack Javier’s lunch later this afternoon.
It may seem odd that modal verbs are actually finite verbs. Keep in mind that the verbs that follow modal verbs are known as bare infinitives – infinitives without the word “to” but that are still used as an infinite would be. Modal verbs can be used in several sentence moods, including indicative, subjunctive, and conditional sentences, but are always finite verbs whenever they appear.
Choosing the right finite verb can set the whole tone of your sentence. Whether you’re working on finite or non-finite verbs, it’s important to know how to conjugate them correctly. Review these rules for conjugating verbs based on subject-verb agreement, verb tense and aspect, and sentence mood.