Saturday, July 24, 2010

How finite verbs differ from non-finite verbs

I’m sure all of us here are familiar with the verbals. They are, of course, the infinitives, the gerunds, and the participles—once-upon verbs transformed by grammatical alchemy into noun forms (in the case of infinitives and gerunds) and adjectives (in the case of participles). At one time or another, however, you must have also come across the terms “finite verbs” and “non-finite verbs” and couldn’t make heads and tails of them. Precisely what are they and how do they differ from the verbs we know? Do they have anything to do with a verb being transitive or intransitive?

Sometime in 2004, in fact, a reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times posed this question to me: “What do you mean by a true finite verb?” I must admit that answering her question wasn’t an easy task, for it required going back into a discussion of the very nature of verbs and their role in language, and explaining how their becoming verbals transforms them from their finite into their non-finite forms. I ended up devoting an entire column to answer her question.

My answer took the form of the essay below, “When verbs assume non-finite forms,” which I am now posting in the Forum in the hope of making those transformations likewise clear to you. (July 24, 2010)

When verbs assume non-finite forms

A reader, Ms. Clara Tong, e-mailed me last week after coming across a long-ago column of mine extolling the virtues of the absolute phrase. She said: “My question may sound strange, but I certainly hope you can answer it. I discovered your article today through Google and I enjoyed it immensely. I can’t agree with you more when you said that ‘a major virtue of absolute phrases is that they can neatly and efficiently wrap telling details into sentences.’ But in that column, you made a reference to a ‘true finite verb.’ What did you mean by that?”

Going over that column again, I saw at once what had mystified Clara. But let me backtrack a little to put my answer in better perspective. In that column, I described the absolute phrase as a unique grammatical form that consists of a participle and a noun or pronoun that it modifies. I pointed out that unlike the other kinds of phrases, an absolute phrase does not directly connect to the rest of the sentence or modify a specific word in that sentence; instead, it functions as an independent parenthetical element modifying the whole sentence: “
Her heart brimming with joy, the winner extended a reconciliatory arm to her political enemies.” “Their egos stung by defeat, the losers vowed never to concede.” “The bitterly fought election [being] over, the nation braced itself for the tough times ahead.” The absolute phrase can neatly give a sentence context and texture, but it can be knocked off and the sentence can still stand by itself.

Another distinguishing feature of an absolute phrase, I observed in that column, is that it contains
a subject (“her heart,” “their egos,” and “the bitterly fought election” in the sentences above) but not a true finite verb. Instead of a finite verb, I said, it uses a participle (“brimming with joy,” “stung by defeat,” “being over”) to modify that subject. The problem is that I did not elaborate on what a “finite verb” and a “non-finite verb” were. Only after reading Clara’s e-mail, in fact, did I realize that I should have made a clear distinction between them.

So, better late than never, I am doing so now.

A “verb,” as we all know, is a word that serves as the grammatical center of a predicate and expresses an act, occurrence, or state of being. It is “finite” if it actually shows tense (past, present, or future), person (first person, second person, or third person), and number (singular or plural). Here are sentences that use finite verb forms expressing an act or occurrence: “I
run.” “He runs.” “We ran.” And here are sentences that use different forms of the linking verb “be” to express a state of being: “I am hungry.” “She was hungry.” “They were hungry.” All of these verbs have duration, meaning that they happen at some point in time, and they change in form (inflect) depending on tense, person, and number; in short, they are functioning as “true” verbs.

In contrast, a verb becomes “non-finite” when it assumes a form that has
no duration and cannot take tense, person, and number. We can liken “non-finite verbs” to actions that congealed as they were taking place, as in a freeze-framed scene from a movie. They become what are known in grammar as the verbals. The verb “take,” for instance, can assume the non-finite forms “to take” (infinitive), “taking” (gerund), and “taken” (participle)—forms that no longer function as verbs but serve as nouns or adjectives instead. 

Let’s look closer at how these non-finite verbs work. As an infinitive phrase (noun): “
To take her hand would not be advisable.” “I have never wanted to take her place.” Gerund phrase (noun): “Taking her hand would not be advisable.” “I have never considered taking her place.” Past or present participle (adjective): “The taken seat was the cause of their quarrel.” “Taking seats without permission is impolite.”

Now I am ready to answer Clara’s question about what I meant by “true finite verb.” In my column on absolute phrases, I used the qualifier “true” for “finite verbs” because it so happens that in English, one of the verb forms—the one that ends with the suffix –
ing—can either be a “true” finite verb or a non-finite one depending on how it is used. It is a true finite verb when used in the progressive tense, as in “She is bluffing about the whole thing.” It is not a true finite verb but a non-finite verb when used as a gerund, as in “Bluffing is her forte.” In fact, we can only be sure that a verb form ending in –ing is a finite verb—is “true”—and not a non-finite verb by checking if it really works as a verb in a sentence. (July 5, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 5, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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