A finite verb is a form of a verb that has a subject (expressed or implied) and can function as the root of an independent clause; an independent clause can, in turn, stand alone as a complete sentence. In many languages, finite verbs are the locus of grammatical information of gender, person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and/or voice. Finite verbs are distinguished from non-finite verbs, such as infinitives, participles, etc., which generally mark these grammatical categories to a lesser degree or not at all, and which appear below the finite verb in the hierarchy of syntactic structure.
The finite verbs are in bold in the following sentences, and the non-finite verbs are underlined:
- Verbs appear in almost all sentences.
- This sentence is illustrating finite and non-finite verbs.
- The dog will have to be trained well.
- Tom promises to try to do the work.
In many languages (including English), there can be just one finite verb at the root of each clause (unless the finite verbs are coordinated), whereas the number of non-finite verbs can reach up to five or six, or even more, e.g.
- He was believed to have been told to have himself examined.
Finite verbs can appear in dependent clauses as well as independent ones:
- John said that he enjoyed reading.
- Something you make yourself seems better than something you buy.
Most types of verbs can appear in finite or non-finite form (and sometimes these forms may be identical): for example, the English verb go has the finite forms go, goes, and went, and the non-finite forms go, going and gone. The English modal verbs (can, could, will, etc.) are defective and lack non-finite forms.
It might seem that every grammatically complete sentence or clause must contain a finite verb. However, sentences lacking a finite verb were quite common in the old Indo-European languages, and still occur in many present-day languages. The most important type of these are nominal sentences. Another type are sentence fragments described as phrases or minor sentences. In Latin and some Romance languages, there are a few words that can be used to form sentences without verbs, such as Latin ecce, Portuguese eis, French voici and voilà, and Italian ecco, all of these translatable as here ... is or here ... are. Some interjections can play the same role. Even in English, utterances that lack a finite verb are common, e.g. Yes., No., Bill!, Thanks., etc.
A finite verb is generally expected to have a subject, as it does in all the examples above, although null-subject languages allow the subject to be omitted. For example, in the Latin sentence cogito ergo sum ("I think therefore I am") the finite verbs cogito and sum appear without an explicit subject – the subject is understood to be the first-person personal pronoun, and this information is marked by the way the verbs are inflected. In English, finite verbs lacking subjects are normal in imperative sentences:
- Come over here!
- Don't look at him!
And also occur in some fragmentary utterances:
- [It] doesn't matter.
- [I] don't want to [verb].
Grammatical categories of the finite verb
Due to the relatively poor system of inflectional morphology in English, the central role that finite verbs play is often not so evident. In other languages however, finite verbs are the locus of much grammatical information. Depending on the language, finite verbs can inflect for the following grammatical categories:
The first three categories represent agreement information that the finite verb gets from its subject (by way of subject–verb agreement). The second four categories serve to situate the clause content according to time in relation to the speaker (tense), extent to which the action, occurrence, or state is complete (aspect), assessment of reality or desired reality (mood), and relation of the subject to the action or state (voice).
English is an analytic language (old English is frequently presented as a synthetic language), which means it has limited ability to express these categories by verb inflection, and often conveys such information periphrastically, using auxiliary verbs. In a sentence such as
- Sam laughs a lot.
the verb form agrees in person (3rd) and number (singular) with the subject, by means of the -s ending, and this form also indicates tense (present), aspect ("simple"), mood (indicative) and voice (active). However most combinations of these categories need to be expressed using auxiliaries:
- Sam will have been examined by this afternoon.
Here the auxiliaries will, have and been express respectively future time, perfect aspect and passive voice. (See English verb forms.) Highly inflected languages like Latin and Russian, however, frequently express most or even all of these categories in one finite verb.
Finite verbs in theories of syntax
Finite verbs play a particularly important role in syntactic analyses of sentence structure. In many phrase structure grammars – for instance those that build on the X-bar schema – the finite verb is the head of the finite verb phrase, and as such it is the head of the entire sentence. Similarly, in dependency grammars, the finite verb is the root of the entire clause and is thus the most prominent structural unit in the clause. This is illustrated by the following trees:
The phrase structure grammar trees are the a-trees on the left; they are similar to the trees produced in the Government and Binding framework. The b-trees on the right are the dependency grammar trees. Many of the details of these trees are not important for the point at hand, but they show clearly that the finite verb (in bold each time) is the structural center of the clause. In the phrase structure trees, the highest projection of the finite verb – IP (inflection phrase) or CP (complementizer phrase) – is the root of the entire tree. And in the dependency trees, the projection of the finite verb (V) is the root of the entire structure.
- Concerning the appearance of a subject as an important criterion for identifying finite verbs, see Radford (1997:507f.).
- For similar definitions of the finite verb that point to the finite verb as the locus of tense, mood, etc., see for instance Quirk et al. (1979:43f.), Greenbaum and Quirk (1990:25ff.), Downing and Locke (1992:6, 180), Klammer and Schulz (1996:276f.), Radford (1997:508), Finch (2000:92f.) .
- Concerning nominal sentences in old Indo-European languages, see Fortson (2004:143).
- Concerning such GB trees, see for instance Cowper (1992) and Haegeman (1994).
- Concerning such dependency trees, see for instance Eroms (2000).
- Greenbaum, S. and R. Quirk. 1990. A student's grammar of the English language. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman.
- Cowper, E. 1992. A concise introduction to syntactic theory: The government-binding approach. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Downing, A. and P. Locke. 1992. English grammar: A university course, second edition. London: Routledge.
- Eroms, H.-W. 2000. Syntax der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Finch, G. 2000. Linguistic terms and concepts. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Fortson, B. 2004. Indo-European Language and Culture. Blackwell Publishing.
- Haegeman, L. 1994. Introduction to government and binding theory, 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Klammer, T. and M. Schulz. 1996. Analyzing English grammar. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Oxford English Dictionary 1795. "finite [...] Of a verb: limited by number and person.
- Quirk, R. S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik. 1979. A grammar of contemporary English. London: Longman.
- Radford, A. 1997. Syntactic theory and the structure of English: A minimalist approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.