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Verb Phrase

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English

A verb phrase is a group of words that includes the main verb and its modifiers, which are called auxiliary (helping) verbs.

The main verb holds information about the event or activity that is being referred to, and the auxiliary verbs add meaning by relating to the time or modality of the phrase.

The examples that follow are some simple verb phrases to help give an initial idea:

  • My dad is cooking today.

  • I have written a letter for you.

  • I have been waiting all day.

The main verbs in the examples are written in bold, and they are preceded by the auxiliary verb.

Verb Phrase Structure

A verb phrase is a part of a sentence that is composed of a verb and its dependants, which can be objects, complements, adverbs or other modifiers. The structure of the verb phrase can affect the subject, tense and mood of a sentence. The structure can be altered by the use of different types of auxiliary verbs.

Auxiliary verbs in verb phrases

Auxiliary verbs are words that join the subject with the verb phrase. They are also referred to as 'helping verbs'.

The three auxiliary verbs in English are:

  • To be - am, are, is, was, were.

  • To have - have, has, had.

  • To do - do, does, did.

In verb phrases these act as finite verbs which work with nonfinite verbs to form a sentence. Finite verbs have a past or present form and help to convey the tense and speaker. Nonfinite verbs do not have tense and are referred to as having infinitive form.

"He is coaching the team"

This sentence uses the finite verb 'is', which indicates the present tense. The word 'coaching' acts as a participle. The verb phrase is formed by the finite verb and the present participle (verb + -ing).

'To be' auxiliary verbs create progressive verb tenses. 'To have' auxiliary verbs create perfect verb tenses. When they are combined a perfect progressive tense is formed.

Modal verbs in verb phrases

Modal verbs are a form of auxiliary verb that express likelihood, ability, obligation and suggestion. They are also finite verbs.

They include words such as: can / could , may / might, will / would, shall / should and must .

Modal verbs are finite verbs that can establish speaker and mood:

  • It might rain tomorrow
  • Would you like some help?
  • May I ask a question?
  • He will drive home.

The first example sentence indicates the likelihood of it raining tomorrow. The second and third sentences are making a request or suggestion.

In certain cases, a modal verb can establish tense. In the fourth example the modal verb 'will' is used to make the future tense.

Types of verb phrase

  1. Main verb.

  • They are here.

  • Nobody heard the alarm.

In these examples, the verb phrase consists of a main verb. The verb can be in the present or past tense. The first example is in the present tense and the second one is in the past tense.

  1. A main verb (-ing form) and the auxiliary verb (to be).

  • Nobody is listening.

  • They were dancing.

In this case, a 'to be' verb is used with a main verb ending with '-ing', which expresses a continuous aspect when combined. A verb with am / is / are and an '-ing' verb shows that the sentence is in the present continuous. A verb with was / were and a '-ing' shows that the sentence is in the past continuous.

Structure: Main progressive verb + 'To be' verb.

  1. A main verb (past participle form) and the auxiliary verb (have).

  • They have relaxed all weekend.

  • Nobody has tried the new flavor.

  • She had started the project.

This type of verb phrase includes a 'to have' verb and a past participle, which express a perfect aspect. The verbs have / has express a present perfect aspect, the verb had expresses a past perfect aspect.

Structure: Main past participle verb + 'To have' verb.

  1. A main verb and a modal verb.

Typical modal verbs include must, shall, will, should, would, can, could, may , and might.

  • He will arrive.

  • They might leave.

Structure: Main verb + modal verb.

  1. A main verb (-ing form) and the auxiliary verb (have, been).

  • Nobody has been watching the show.

  • She had been dancing.

In this case, both the continuous aspect and perfect aspect are expressed. The continuous aspect comes from the '-ing' verb and the perfect aspect comes from the 'have been' verb.

Verbs with 'have / has' express a present perfect continuous aspect. Verbs with 'had' express a past perfect continuous aspect.

Structure: Main progressive verb + 'To have' verb + 'been' verb.

  1. The auxiliary verb (to be), a modal verb and a main verb.

  • They will be relaxing.

  • She might be watching.

Structure: Main verb + Modal verb + 'to be' verb

  1. A main verb (past participle form) and the auxiliary verb (to be).

  • Dinner was being served.

  • The show will be starting shortly.

  • The dishes have been cleaned.

A verb phrase with a 'be' verb and the past participle expresses a passive voice.

Structure: Main past participle verb + 'to be' verb.

  1. A main verb and three auxiliary verbs

  • He should have been promoted this quarter.

  • They must have been working all night.

Some sentences can have three auxiliary verbs preceding the main verb. They have the structure of a modal verb + 'have' verb + 'been' verb + a main progressive verb. It is rare to see three auxiliaries in a verb phrase but they can appear as the examples show.

Structure: Main progressive verb + Modal verb + 'have' verb + 'been' verb.

Negative and interrogative verb phrases

In sentences that have a negative or interrogative nature, the verb phrase gets separated as shown in the following examples:

  • I am not driving anywhere right now

The verb phrase is 'am… driving' and the interrupter is 'not'. The auxiliary verbs in this example create a negative sentence.

  • Has he performed well this season?

The verb phrase is 'Has… performed' and the interrupter is 'he'. The auxiliary verbs in this example form an interrogative sentence.

Emphasized verb phrases

The auxiliary verbs 'do, does, did' can be used to add emphasis to a sentence.

  • I enjoyed the party.

  • I did enjoy the party.

The first example only includes a main verb and the second is emphasized by the auxiliary verb 'did'. The second sentence makes it clear that the person enjoyed the party.

What is the difference between a verb phrase and a verbal phrase?

A verbal phrase is when a regular verb phrase no longer functions as a regular verb. Verbal phrases can take the form of adverbs or adjectives.

  • The man was driving his sports car.

  • Driving his sports car , the man achieved a top speed of 170mph!

The first example is a verb phrase, the main verb 'driving' is preceded by the auxiliary verb 'was'. The second example is a verbal phrase since the verbal phrase 'Driving his sports car' functions as an adjective. The verb 'achieved' appears later in the sentence.

  • He was running on the road. (Verb phrase: was running)

  • Running on the road , he fell over. (Verbal phrase 'Running on the road' functions as an adjective, fell is a verb)

The first example is a verb phrase, the main verb 'running' is preceded by the auxiliary verb 'was'. The second example is a verbal phrase. The verbal phrase 'Running on the road' functions as an adjective and the verb 'fell' appears later in the sentence.

The verbal phrases in these examples do not function as the action but they provide useful information to the reader about the action that is taking place. The verb and verb phrases have the function of describing the action.

Verb phrases in literature

  1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (1813) .¹

'If I had known as much this morning I certainly would not have called on him.'

In this example, the use of the auxiliary verb 'had' establishes the past aspect. There is also a verb phrase 'would ... have' that is separated from by the interrupter 'not'.

2. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (1899) .²

'The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.'

The verb phrase in this example 'was ending' is past continuous.

3. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) .³

'It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America'

In this example, two auxiliary verbs precede the main verb 'rented'.

Verb Phrase - Key takeaways

  • A verb phrase is a group of words that act as a verb in a sentence.
  • A verb phrase has a main verb and auxiliary verbs.
  • Modal verbs express likelihood, ability, obligation and suggestion.
  • Verb phrases can have up to three auxiliary verbs.
  • Verb phrases are different from verbal phrases.

1. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813.

2. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925.

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase is a combination of an auxiliary verb and a main verb. It acts as a verb in a sentence.

A verb phrase is composed of a main verb and at least one auxiliary verb.

An example of a verb phrase is: 'The boy might eat the burger'. In this example, 'might' acts as the auxiliary verb and 'eat' is the main verb.

No, prepositional phrases typically modify verbs.

The progressive aspect shows an ongoing or continuous action. These are demonstrated by verbs that have '-ing' at the end. For example, 'he is texting'.

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs used to express modality, such as likelihood, ability, obligation, permission, suggestions, and advice.

Final Verb Phrase Quiz

Question

What is a verb phrase composed of?

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Answer

A verb phrase is composed of a main verb and at least one auxiliary verb.

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Question

What is an auxiliary verb?


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Answer

A part of a verb phrase that joins the subject to the rest of the sentence.

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Question

What are the common forms of auxiliary verbs?


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Answer

The common forms are 'To be', 'To have' and 'To do'.

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Question

True or False? A verb phrase can only have one auxiliary verb.


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Answer

False. A verb phrase can have up to three auxiliary verbs.

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Question

True or False? The verb 'dancing' expresses a progressive tense.


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Answer

True. Verbs ending with '-ing' express a continuous or ongoing action, which is the progressive tense.

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Question

True or False? The verb phrase 'I am not doing this.' is interrogative. 


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Answer

False. The verb phrase is negative, this is because the phrase 'am ... doing' is separated by the interrupter 'not'.

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Question

True or False? The verbs 'do, did' are used for emphasis.


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Answer

True. The use of these verbs adds emphasis to verb phrases.

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Question

True or False? The verb phrase 'Has he completed the task?' is negative.


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Answer

False. The verb phrase is interrogative.

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Question

What tense does the verb 'am' indicate?


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Answer

It indicates the present tense.

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Question

What tense does the verb 'was' indicate?


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Answer

It indicates the past tense.

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Question

Which of the following is a verb phrase?


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Answer

 I have written a letter for you.

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