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Phrases: Verb, Infinitive, and Adverbial Phrases

Phrases III

How to Use Verb Phrases, Infinitive Phrases, and Adverbial Phrases

by Owen Fourie

In Part Two, we looked at gerund phrases, adjectival phrases, and participial phrases.

In this part of our study, there are three more kinds of phrases to consider.

The Verb Phrase

In a sentence, a verb is a word that has a subject, and it tells something about the subject. A verb phrase has a subject, and it tells something about the subject.

All the words that make up the verb phrase come together and act as one part of speech. They perform the function of a verb.

Think about this:

Heather should be finished with her piano recital by 3:00 PM.

  1. Is the verb phrase the verb and its auxiliaries (or helping verbs): should be finished?
  2. Is the verb phrase the verb, its auxiliaries, its complements, and other modifiers, in other words, the predicate of the sentence: should be finished with her piano recital by 3:00 PM?

Answers vary.

  • Some say #1 yes; #2 no;
  • Others say #1 yes, but #2 yes too, and #2 is preferred.

Saying yes to #2 might stir up controversy.

Here are a few examples identifying

  1. the basic verb phrase: the main verb and its auxiliaries;
  2. the verb phrase including its complements and other modifiers.
  • Justin has been preparing an outline for his new story.
  1. has been preparing (the helping verbs are has and been; the main verb is preparing);
  2. has been preparing an outline for his new story.
  • Has Chloe finished her painting?

To identify the verb phrase, turn a question into a statement:

Chloe has finished her painting.

  1. has finished (the helping verb is has; the main verb is finished);
  2. has finished her painting.
  • Don’t trip over that paint tin.

The subject is understood to be “You.”

Don’t is the contracted form of do not.

Not is an adverb that makes the verb negative.

  1. do trip (the helping verb is do; the main verb is trip);
  2. don’t trip over that paint tin.
  • Emma will certainly buy a new car before the summer vacation.

In this sentence, there is an adverb, certainly, separating the helping verb will from the main verb buy.

  1. will buy;
  2. will certainly buy a new car before the summer vacation.

Be aware of the difference that exists in identifying verb phrases. If you are a student, be sure to know your instructor’s point of view.

The Infinitive Phrase

When you see the word to and it is followed by a verb, you are looking at an infinitive:

  • to write
  • to paint
  • to trip
  • to buy

An infinitive phrase will begin with an infinitive and it can include any modifiers or complements closely connected to it.

An infinitive phrase can function as a noun, as an adjective, and also as an adverb.

Here are some examples in which the infinitive phrases are italicized:

  • To see Chloe’s painting was an inspiration to everyone.

This is an infinitive phrase acting as a noun and subject of the sentence.

Note that the second to is a preposition followed by its object, an indefinite pronoun, not a verb, so you are not looking at another infinitive.

  • Emma wanted to buy the silver blue car.

The infinitive phrase is acting as a noun and the direct object of the sentence.

  • Emma’s decision to get rid of her old car was a good one.

The infinitive phrase is acting as an adjective modifying the noun decision.

  • Chloe is attending art classes to improve her skills.

The infinitive phrase is acting as an adverb modifying the verb phrase is attending and telling why Chloe is attending art classes.

The Adverbial Phrase

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adverbial phrases can also modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.

Adverbial phrases are found in the form of prepositional phrases answering the questions: When? Where? In what way? How? To what extent? Why? How much? How often? Under what condition?

Here are some examples with the adverbial phrase italicized:

  • Chloe astounded her instructor with her perceptiveness.

The adverbial phrase modifies the verb astounded and reveals how Chloe astounded her instructor.

  • Emma feels sick about the small dent in her new car.

The adverbial phrase modifies the adjective sick and reveals the reason for her feeling this way. Note that sick is a predicate adjective describing Emma after the linking verb feels.

  • Emma drove carefully through the construction area.

The adverbial phrase modifies the adverb carefully revealing where and why she was careful.

Adverbial phrases can be other than prepositional phrases. Note these examples:

  • Chloe completed her next painting amazingly quickly.

The adverbial phrase modifies the verb completed.

  • Chloe’s instructor was quite unexpectedly harsh in his criticism.

The adverbial phrase modifies the adjective harsh.

  • Emma drove most embarrassingly slowly.

The adverbial phrase modifies the adverb slowly.

In Part Four, we’ll look at prepositional phrases.

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Are there any phrases mentioned here that you find difficult to identify? If so, which are they and what confuses you? What are your particular struggles with English Grammar? If you need help with any grammar problem, ask here. Do you have any useful insights? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

Copyright © 2011 by English Essay Writing Tips www.englishessaywritingtips.com


2 comments

  1. French

    I have trouble identifyinge verb phrases within questions like: “Have you done the homework?”. Is the verb phrase have done the homework? And just excluse the subject (you? Or is it just “have done”?

    I’m aware that some prefer one way or the other but, is one preferred exclusively among grammarians or is it problematic to just them as well…?

    1. English Essay Writing Tips

      French: The trick to use with questions is to turn them into statements.

      In the example you have cited, the statement derived from the question is “You have done the homework.” This will make it easier for you to see that you have correctly identified which words must be taken for the verb phrase—all, excluding the subject “you”: “have done the homework”; or only “have done.”

      As to which of these two is preferred, it really depends on whether you follow traditional grammar or generative grammar. If you are studying under an instructor, you need to know what his or her preference is. Traditional grammar would take “have done” as the verb phrase. Generative grammar would take “have done the homework” as the verb phrase.

      Traditional grammar regards the verb phrase as the main verb and its auxiliaries. Generative grammar sees the verb phrase as the main verb, auxiliaries, objects, modifiers, and complements—in short, the predicate of the sentence.

      Grammarians continue to differ over this, so it is necessary for you to follow whichever grammar your instructor prefers. In the absence of an instructor, it’s your choice, but be consistent and stick to it.

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