Finite and Nonfinite Verbs and How They Are Used in the English Language Research Paper

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Finite and Non-Finite English Verbs

Verbs do much of the semantic labor in a language -- their use allows us to mean things that cannot be conveyed by mere nouns and adjectives. In our study of syntax, we can identify several important classes of verbs by their behavior and use, and the way in which they interact with negation: finite and non-finite verbs. These verb classes allow us to do a variety of things: distinguish perfect (i.e. finished) and imperfect (not yet complete) actions without the cumbersome use of case markers, use verbs as the core of an independent sentence (finite verbs only), and form the base for clauses that employ auxiliary verbs (nonfinite verb-based clauses). The acquisition of finite and non-finite verbs in English is interesting to many scholars (Theakston, Lieven, & Tomasello, 2003). These forms also respond to negation in distinctive ways compared to other verbs. Below, I will describe the use of finite and non-finite verbs in English, their place in the schema of language acquisition, and their relationship to negation.

The quality of finite-ness indicates that the verb defines or delimits the subject or the time in which the action takes place (Hudson, 2011). This can be demonstrated in sentences with the verb go, such as the following.

1. We went to the store. (finite)

2. They go to the store. (non-finite)

3. She is going to the store. (non-finite, auxiliary use)

In sentence 1, the action of going is completed -- thus, the verb is finite. In sentences 2 and 3, the action is clearly not yet complete. In sentence 3, the core verb is the copula is, and going is used as an auxiliary non-finite verb. As mentioned above, only non-finite verbs can be employed as auxiliaries. This allows English speakers to construct "verb chains" based on a non-finite verb with one or several other non-finite verbs attached. An example of this phenomenon is the phrase she is going hunting, which uses the non-finite copula as its base and adds two gerunds, both non-finite verbals.

In English, sentence contexts as well as verbs can be finite or non-finite. This is clearly seen in the early acquisition pattern in which children use both finite and non-finite verbs in finite contexts, for example in the typical child sentence "Mommy drive truck." This sentence can be interpreted either as an imperative (i.e. "Mommy, please drive the truck") or more commonly as a reduced form of "[My] mommy drives a truck." Because children between the ages of 1-3 experience many novel verb exposures, a good hypothesis for this initial syntactic mistake is that parental use of these verbs highlights the finite form, as in "What does mommy drive?" A study by Theakston et al. (2003) shows that the newness of a verb is related to how often its finite form is preferred by 2.5- to 3-year-old speakers. Because adults' questions use the finite form -- e.g. "What does mommy drive" and the like -- children's early uses of these verbs are more likely to misplace the finite form in a non-finite context.

During this phase of language acquisition, children are also experimenting with negation. Semantically, negation can refer to two states of the world: (1) non-existence, as in "it's not there," (2) refusal, as in "I don't want to," and (3) denial, as in "it's not mine." While some theories of child language hold that children learn by ostension (otherwise known as the "dubbing ceremony" that links nouns with objects in the world), more recent theories posit that children

The interaction of negation with finite/non-finite verb forms has a long history in English. For the purposes of this paper I will not distinguish between modal verbs such as will, do, and be which form common negated clitics, and other verbs that are negated. Early Middle English negation used the particle ne which was placed before the verb. This particle is retained in the French negation construction, as in il ne veut pas travailler (he doesn't want to work). Frisch (1997) claims that these two particles' English analogues, ne and not, coexisted in Early Middle English but due to other syntactic changes occurring in the Middle Ages, ne was replaced and augmented by never, and not was grammaticalized so thoroughly that it was incorporated into contractions of modal verbs such as won't, don't, and isn't. Table 1 presents Frisch's historical analysis of the use of these different types of negations over time.

The proportion of usage of ne and the combined construction ne…not dominates the use of negated verbs until sometime in the late 1300s. This is also the same time period that saw English become the official language of the British courts, pushing out Latin and French, and the publication of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (McCrum, MacNeil, & Cran, 2002). Current usage clearly privileges post-verbal not as the negative, although post-verbal ne/nae is still occasionally used in written depictions of the Scots dialect, as in "I'll nae go wi' ye" (I won't go with you) (ibid.).

Negation in English is used most often, both pre-posed and post-posed, with non-finite verbs (Horn, 1989). Specifically, in the average English clause any negation applies to an auxiliary verb, as in "it hasn't been written yet." Because syntax is taken to be a reflection of the logic or cognitive structure of a language, the movement of negation to an auxiliary verb reflects its importance to hearers or readers. Syntactic elements that occur earlier in the sentence are processed first, so for English speakers it is clear that the idea of negation is very important in how events are represented. Leaving negation to the end of a sentence would confuse a listener who had formed a cognitive model of the event as having happened or existed (Horn, 1989). Negating finite verbs is lower-frequency than negating non-finite verbs; examples tend to sound archaic, as in "he walked not upon the green." It is much more common to attach the verb to a non-finite negated auxiliary, as in "he didn't walk." Negation, and its ability to produce contractions, may indeed be one reason for the proliferation of verb chains in English, and thus the growth of non-finite verbs as core elements of clause syntax.


Horn, L. (1989). A Natural History of Negation. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Hudson, D. (2011). KS3 Grammar. Retrieved from, September 25, 2011.

McCrum, R., MacNeil, R., & Cran, W. (2002). The Story of English: 3rd Edition. New York: Penguin.

Theakston, A., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. (2003). The Role of the Input in the Acquisition of Third Person Singular Verbs in English. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 46, 863-877.

32 S. Frisch I Lii~,cyu 101 (1997) 2144

immediately relevant in Table 1 is the high use of not with ne even in the first time period (1150-1220). I show below these early uses of not are not as a constituent of NEGP, but instead are instances of a more generic use of not as a sentence adverb.

Table I

Use of ne alone, nc MIX, and not alone in declaratives

Time period ne not Total

I lSO-1220 I50 82 3 235 64% 35,s I %

II 20-I 290 II2 67 5 I84 61% 36% 3%

1290-1360 I86 I91 44-421 44% 45% 10%

1360-1430 29 II0 607-746 4% 15% 81%

1430-1500 2-0 341-343 1% 0% 99%.

The oddity in the initial rates of use of ne and ne nor can be seen more clearly in a chart of the rates of use in Table 1. Fig. 5 is a chart of the rates of use of ne, ne not, and nof in Table 1. The rise in the use of not alone follows the familiar S-

shaped pattern which is modelled by the…

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