The verb is possibly the most significant word class of all: in fact, it is often the grammatical driving force in a sentence. All sentences, except minor sentences, contain a verb. The verb is also the most versatile and complex word class, appearing in many guises. To begin with, it is sufficient to be able to distinguish between a finite verb and a non-finite verb.

Finite Verb

The finite verb inflects (changes ending) to show person, number and tense. The verb to walk thus inflects to show changes in person (I walk, she walks), to show changes in number (he walks, they walk) and to show changes in tense (you walk, you walked). All the finite verb forms can be expressed by looking at the present and past tenses of a verb:

person Singular Plural Singular Plural
1 I dance we dance I danced we danced
2 you dance you dance you danced you danced
3 he/she/it dances they dance he/she/it danced they danced

So, the finite forms of dance are: dance; dances; danced

Some other pointers to identifying finite verbs:

  • Where there are a string of verbs in a sentence, one after another, as in 'You should have been listening!' the first verb in the sequence is usually the finite verb.

  • The verbs to be, have and do are very frequently used in English in their finite forms: is; are; was; had; has; does; did are always finite verbs.

  • Verbs like can/could, shall/should, will/would, might are always finite verbs.

  • Imperative verbs are finite verbs: Go away! Put that down.

Once you have understood the finite verb, many other elements of grammar are much easier to understand, so it is worth spending time checking that you have understood it. Without understanding finite and non-finite verbs, it is very hard to get to grips with clauses. Look at text in newspapers and magazines and try to identify the finite verbs.

Check your understanding! Read the extract below from Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse and click on the finite verbs.

Mr Ramsay glared at them. He glared at them without seeming to see them. That did make them both vaguely uncomfortable. Together they had seen a thing they had not meant to see. They had encroached upon a privacy. So, Lily thought, it was probably an excuse of his for moving, for getting out of earshot, that made Mr Bankes almost immediately say something about its being chilly and to suggest taking a stroll.


Non-finite verb:

  • The non-finite verb exists in three forms: the infinitive, the present participle and the past participle.

    Infinitive: (to) walk (to) dance (to) love
    Present participle: walking dancing loving
    Past participle: walked danced loved

  • Unlike the finite verb, the non-finite form does not inflect to show changes in person, tense or number.

    Example 1 Example 2 Explanation
    Finite: I dance I danced The finite verb has changed from dance to danced to demonstrate a change in tense.
    Non-finite: I am dancing I was dancing Although the tense has changed here, it is the finite verb be which changes from am to was; dancing remains the same in both verb strings and is non-finite.
    Non-finite: He has danced You have danced Although the person changes here from first to second person, it is the finite verb have which indicates that change, from has to have. The non-finite verb danced remains the same in both verb strings.
    Non-finite: I am dancing They are dancing Although the number changes here from singular I to plural they, it is the finite verb which changes: am to are. The non-finite dancing remains the same in both verb strings.

The present participle is easy to identify as it always ends in -ing and is always non-finite.

However, it is easy to be confused by the -ed ending as this can indicate a past tense or a past participle. In the examples given above danced occurs twice, in both finite and non-finite forms: if the verb is preceded by other verbs in a phrase (I could have danced), then it is a past participle and non-finite; whereas if it follows a noun, pronoun, or occasionally an adverb (I danced, I quickly danced), it is a past tense and therefore finite.

Look at the examples of past participles and past tenses below. The participles are coloured red and the past tenses are coloured dark green.

I could have walked for hours. [past participle following two other verbs, could (finite) and have]

She walked home, late again. [past tense; she walks - she walked]

They all watched the solar eclipse from Dartmoor. [past tense: they watched - they watch]

She had watched her baby all night. [past participle following the finite verb, had]


  • Once the distinction between finite and non-finite verbs is understood, many other aspects of the verb are easily understood. In the extract below, the finite verbs are coloured red, and the non-finite verbs are coloured green. Read the extract and try to understand why the verbs are finite or non-finite.

It soon became clear that everything was in chaos. No sooner had I settled down and made friends in one unit than I was transferred to help make up numbers in another, and then I was transferred again. We had almost no transport and we were made to march from the Yugoslav border to the Greek one and back again. P31

  • One way to establish whether verbs are finite or non-finite is to recast the passage in the tense in which it is not written. With a few exceptions, the verbs you alter are finite, and the verbs that remain the same are non-finite. Look at what happens to the verbs when the passage above is rewritten in the present tense.

It soon becomes clear that everything is in chaos. No sooner have I settled down and made friends in one unit than I am transferred to help make up numbers in another, and then I am transferred again. We have almost no transport and we are made to march from the Yugoslav border to the Greek one and back again. P31

Check your understanding!

Read the passage below - Austen at her most ironic! Decide whether the verbs are finite or non-finite by clicking the appropriate box in the table below. If you feel confident, or just would like to see how much you have understood, you can also try to classify the non-finite verbs as present participles, past participles or infinitives. The table will allow you to categorise the verbs highlighted in red in the text.

Mr Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet's head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what everybody must think and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet's coming to Hartfield.

Please note: due to technological constraints, you cannot 'unclick' a box. If you accidentally click the wrong box you will have to start again!

Remember, it may be appropriate to choose more than one category for each word!




















It is important to note that English has only two tenses - past and present. A tense is a grammatical term for a verb which inflects to express time or mood. In Latin there were many tense forms and the names for those tenses have often been used to label the way we replicate that construction in English. But in English we can only inflect to show the present tense (I walk, he lives) and the past tense (I walked, he lived). All other constructions to indicate time rely on other verbs to create the expression (I was walking; I had walked etc)

Look at the difference between English and French in this respect.

I love j'aime
I loved j'ai aimé
I will love j'aimerai
I was loving j'aimais
I would love j'aimerais

In English only the first two constructions are inflected; whereas in French all, except the second construction, are inflected.

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