In linguistics, a non-finite clause is a dependent clause whose verb is non-finite; for example, many languages can form non-finite clauses from infinitives, participles and gerunds. Like any dependent (subordinate) clause, a non-finite clause serves a grammatical role – commonly that of a noun, adjective, or adverb – in a greater clause that contains it.
A typical finite clause consists of a verb together with its objects and other dependents (i.e. a verb phrase or predicate), along with its subject (although in certain cases the subject is not expressed). A non-finite clause is similar, except that the verb must be in a non-finite form (such as an infinitive, participle, gerund or gerundive), and it is consequently much more likely that there will be no subject expressed, i.e. that the clause will consist of a (non-finite) verb phrase on its own.
Some examples are given below.
- Finite clauses
- Kids play on computers. (an independent clause)
- I know that kids play on computers. (a dependent (subordinate) clause, but still finite)
- Play on your computer! (an imperative sentence, an example of a finite clause lacking a subject)
- Non-finite clauses
- Kids like to play on computers. (an infinitive clause using the English to-infinitive)
- It's easy for kids to play on computers. (an infinitive clause containing periphrastic expression of the subject)
- Playing on computers, they whiled the day away. (a participial clause, using a present participle)
- The kids playing on their computers, we were able to enjoy some time alone. (a participal clause with a subject)
- Having played on computers all day, they were pale and hungry. (a participial clause using a past participle)
- Playing on computers is fun. (a gerund clause)
Some types of non-finite clause have zero in one of the object or complement positions; the gap is usually understood to be filled by a noun from the larger clause in which the non-zero clause appears (as is the subject "gap" in most non-finite clauses). Some examples:
- He is the man to beat. (infinitive clause with zero object., the man is understood as the object)
- That car wants looking at straight away. (gerund clause with zero preposition complement after at)
- The building was given a new lease of life. (past participle clause with zero indirect object)
For more examples of such constructions in English, see English passive voice and Uses of English verb forms: Uses of non-finite verbs.
As a dependent clause, a non-finite clause plays some kind of grammatical role within a larger clause that contains it. What this role can be, and what the consequent meaning is, depends on the type of non-finite verb involved, the constructions allowed by the grammar of the language in question, and the meanings of those constructions in that language. Some examples are noted below:
- To live is to suffer in silence. (infinitive clauses used as noun phrases)
- We went there to collect our computers. (infinitive clause used as an adverbial of purpose)
- They were sitting quietly. (participial clause used as verb complement to express progressive aspect)
- The man sitting quietly is the man to watch. (participal clause used as noun modifier)
- Well beaten, we slumped back to the dressing room. (participial clause used as nominative absolute)
- I like rescuing wasps. (gerund clause used as a noun phrase)
- Carthago delenda est ("Carthage must be destroyed"; Latin gerundive used as a predicative expression)
For more details of the use of such clauses in English, see Uses of English verb forms: Uses of non-finite verbs, and English passive voice.
- Loos, Eugene E.; Susan Anderson; Dwight H. Day, Jr.; Paul C. Jordan; J. Douglas Wingate. "What is a nonfinite clause?". Glossary of linguistic terms. SIL International.
- Loos, Eugene E.; Susan Anderson; Dwight H. Day, Jr.; Paul C. Jordan; J. Douglas Wingate. "What is a subordinate clause?". Glossary of linguistic terms. SIL International.