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    Grammatical Functions of English Verbs and Verb Phrases

    Grammatical Functions of English Verbs and Verb Phrases

    English verbs and verb phrases perform seven primary grammatical functions within sentences in the English language. Traditional grammars define verbs as words that name actions and states. Verb phrases consist of a verb plus any modifiers, complements, particles, and auxiliaries. The seven prototypical functions of English verbs and verbs phrases are:

    The following sections explain and exemplify the seven prototypical functions of verbs and verb phrases in English grammar.

    Verbs as Verb Phrase Heads

    The first grammatical function that verbs perform is the verb phrase head. A verb phrase consists of a verb plus any modifiers, complements, particles, and auxiliaries including modal verbs, operators, have, and be. For example, the following italicized verbs function as verb phrase heads:

    • read
    • returned
    • have borrowed
    • will be painted
    • ran quickly
    • rather quietly snorted
    • want to eat some strawberries
    • would rather need to shower
    • listen to the music
    • shall have been worried about the weather

    Verbs Phrases as Predicates

    The second grammatical function that verbs and verb phrases perform is the predicate of a clause. A clause is defined as a grammatical structure that consists of a subject and a predicate. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases function as predicates:

    • My puppy drinks milk.
    • I am studying linguistics.
    • The vase was broken by the cat.
    • We have eaten all the pie.
    • The students will finish their homework.
    • She will have earned her degree in May.
    • Those children have been being bad.

    Verb Phrases as Noun Phrase Modifiers

    The third grammatical function that verbs and verb phrases perform is the noun phrase modifier. Noun phrase modifiers are defined as words and phrases that describe a noun or noun phrase. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases function as noun phrase modifiers:

    • The woman reading the book just yelled at me.
    • My dog is the puppy chewing on the rawhide.
    • I saw the man sleeping on the bus.
    • Do you have a book to read in the car?
    • The food to eat is on the table.
    • The most recent news reported by the anchor made me sad.

    Verb Phrases as Noun Phrase Complements

    The fourth grammatical function that verbs and verb phrases perform is the noun phrase complement. Noun phrase complements are defined as words and phrases that words, phrases, and clauses that complete the meaning of a noun or noun phrase. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases function as noun phrase complements:

    • She has problems finding her shoes.
    • His trouble finishing his degree began years ago.
    • I get anxiety meeting new people.
    • We had troubles buying fresh chives.
    • Her anxiety going out in public makes life difficult.
    • We have a problem finishing assignments on time.

    Verb Phrases as Adjective Phrase Complements

    The fifth grammatical function that verbs and verb phrases in the form of infinitives perform is the adjective phrase complement. Adjective phrase complements are defined as phrases and clauses that complete the meaning of an adjective phrase. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases function as adjective phrase complements:

    • You should be excited to study grammar.
    • My children are sad to see their grandparents leave.
    • Your professor is curious to know why you dropped her class.
    • The students are eager to learn about current events.
    • His coworker is frightened to ask for a promotion.
    • I am irrationally afraid to fly.

    Verb Phrases as Verb Phrase Complements

    The sixth grammatical function that verbs and verb phrases in the form of infinitives perform is the verb phrase complement. Verb phrase complements are defined as phrases that complete the meaning of a verb phrase. Verb phrases in the form of infinitives and base forms can function as verb phrase complements. The infinitive or base form following some catenative verbs functions as a verb phrase complement. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases function as verb phrase complements:

    • The students have to pass the test. (infinitive)
    • She intends to attend the ceremony. (infinitive)
    • My neighbors happen to own a hot air balloon. (infinitive)
    • Grandpa can come start the fire for the barbecue. (base form)
    • He helps manages the student workers. (base form)
    • Would you come wash the dishes? (base form)

    Verb Phrases as Adjunct Adverbials

    The seventh grammatical function that verbs and verb phrases in the form of infinitives and present participles perform is the adjunct adverbial.  Adjunct adverbials are words, phrases, and clauses that modify an entire clause by providing additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession. Verb phrases in the form of infinitives and present participles can function as adjunct adverbials. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases function as adjunct adverbials:

    • Dancing, Margie broke her ankle. (present participle)
    • Sam found a lost wallet walking to the store. (present participle)
    • Running on the ice, the child slipped and fell. (present participle)
    • To bake cookies, begin with butter, sugar, and flour. (infinitive)
    • She opened the window to let in some fresh air. (infinitive)
    • Fill your tank with gas to keep your engine running better. (infinitive)

    The seven prototypical grammatical functions of verbs and verb phrases are verb phrase head, predicate, noun phrase modifier, noun phrase complement, adjective phrase complement, verb phrase complement, and adjunct adverbial.

    For information about additional functions of verbs and verb phrases in English grammar, see Nominal Functions of English Verbs and Verb Phrases.

    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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