Verb phrase

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In linguistics, a verb phrase or VP is a syntactic unit composed of at least one verb and the dependents of that verb – objects, complements and other modifiers, but not including the subject. Thus in the sentence A fat man put the jewels quickly in the box, the words put the jewels quickly in the box may be considered a verb phrase – this consists of the verb put and its dependents, but not its subject a fat man. A verb phrase is therefore similar to what is considered a predicate in some contexts.

Verb phrases may be either finite (the head of the phrase is a finite verb) or non-finite (the head of the phrase is a non-finite verb, such as an infinitive, participle or gerund). While phrase structure grammars acknowledge both types of VP, dependency grammars reject the existence of a finite VP constituent (unlike the former, they regard the subject as being among the verb's dependents). In this regard, the understanding of verb phrases can be dependent on which theory is being considered.

VPs in phrase structure grammars[edit]

In phrase structure grammars such as generative grammar, the VP is a phrase that is headed by a verb. A verb phrase may be constructed from a single verb; often, however, the verb phrase will consist of various combinations of the main verb and any auxiliary verbs, plus optional specifiers, complements, and adjuncts. For example:

Yankee batters hit the ball to win their first World Series since 2000.
Mary saw the man through the window.
David gave Mary a book.

The first example contains the verb phrase hit the ball to win their first World Series since 2000. The second example contains the main verb saw, the noun phrase (NP) complement the man, and the prepositional phrase (PP) adjunct through the window, which together form the verb phrase. Additionally, the third example contains the main verb gave, and two noun phrases Mary and a book, both selected by the verb in this case. All three together form the verb phrase. Note that according to this definition, the verb phrase corresponds to the predicate of traditional grammar.

Up to the mid/late 1980s, some work in phrase structure grammars thought that some languages lacked a verb phrase. These included languages with extremely free word order (so-called non-configurational languages, such as Japanese, Hungarian, or Australian aboriginal languages), and languages with a default VSO order (several Celtic and Oceanic languages). The current view in some varieties of generative grammar (such as Principles and Parameters) is that all languages have a verb phrase, while others (such as Lexical Functional Grammar) take the view that at least some of these languages do lack a verb phrase constituent.

Finally, phrase structure grammars do not draw the key distinction between finite verb phrases and non-finite verb phrases, since they view both as constituent phrases. Dependency grammars (as described in the following section) are much different in this regard.

VPs in dependency grammars[edit]

While phrase structure grammars (= constituency grammars) acknowledge both finite and non-finite VPs as constituents (= subtrees), dependency grammars reject the former. That is, dependency grammars acknowledge only non-finite VPs as constituents; finite VPs do not qualify as constituents in dependency grammars. For example:

John has finished the work. - Finite VP in bold
John has finished the work. - Non-finite VP in bold

Since has finished the work contains the finite verb has, it is a finite VP, and since finished the work contains the non-finite verb finished but lacks a finite verb, it is a non-finite VP. Similar examples:

They do not want to try that. - Finite VP in bold
They do not want to try that. - One non-finite VP in bold
They do not want to try that. - Another non-finite VP in bold

These examples illustrate well that many clauses can contain more than one non-finite VP, but they generally contain only one finite VP. Starting with Lucien Tesnière 1959,[1] dependency grammars challenge the validity of the initial binary division of the clause into subject (NP) and predicate (VP), which means they reject the notion that the second half of this binary division, i.e. the finite VP, is a constituent. They do, however, readily acknowledge the existence of non-finite VPs as constituents. The two competing views of verb phrases are visible in the following trees:

Trees illustrating VPs

The constituency tree on the left shows the finite VP has finished the work as a constituent, since it corresponds to a subtree. The dependency tree on the right, in contrast, does not acknowledge a finite VP constituent, since there is no subtree there that corresponds to has finished the work. Note that the analyses agree concerning the non-finite VP finished the work; both see it as a constituent (= subtree).

Dependency grammars point to the results of many standard constituency tests to back up their stance.[2] For instance, topicalization, pseudoclefting, and answer ellipsis suggest that non-finite VP does, but finite VP does not, exist as a constituent:

*...and has finished the work, John. - Topicalization
*What John has done is has finished the work. - Pseudoclefting
What has John done? - *Has finished the work. - Answer ellipsis

The * indicates that the sentence is bad. These data must be compared to the results for non-finite VP:

...and finished the work, John (certainly) has. - Topicalization
What John has done is finished the work. - Pseudoclefting
What has John done? - Finished the work. - Answer ellipsis

The strings in bold are the ones in focus. Attempts to in some sense isolate the finite VP fail, but the same attempts with the non-finite VP succeed.[3]

VPs narrowly defined[edit]

Verb phrases are sometimes defined more narrowly in scope to allow for only those sentence elements that are strictly considered verbal elements to form verb phrases. According to such a definition, verb phrases consist only of main verbs, auxiliary verbs, and other infinitive or participle constructions.[4] For example, in the following sentences only the words in bold would be considered to form the verb phrase for each sentence:

John has given Mary a book.
They were being eaten alive.
She kept screaming like a maniac.
Thou shalt not kill.

This more narrow definition is often applied in functionalist frameworks and traditional European reference grammars. It is incompatible with the phrase structure understanding of the verb phrase, since the strings in bold are not constituents under standard analyses. It is, however, compatible with those grammars, in particular dependency grammars, that view the catena as the fundamental unit of syntactic structure as opposed to the constituent. Furthermore, the verbal elements in bold are syntactic units consistent with the understanding of predicates in the tradition of predicate calculus.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Concerning Tesnière's rejection of a finite VP constituent, see Tesnière (1959:103-105).
  2. ^ For a discussion of the evidence for and against a finite VP constituent, see Matthews (2007:17ff.), Miller (2011:54ff.), and Osborne et al. (2011:323f.).
  3. ^ Attempts to motivate the existence of a finite VP constituent tend to confuse the distinction between finite and non-finite VPs. They mistakenly take evidence for a non-finite VP constituent as support for the existence a finite VP constituent. See for instance Akmajian and Heny (1980:29f., 257ff.), Finch (2000:112), van Valin (2001:111ff.), Kroeger (2004:32ff.), Sobin (2011:30ff.).
  4. ^ Klammer and Schulz (1996:157ff.), for instance, pursue this narrow understanding of verb phrases.


  • Akmajian, A. and F. Heny. 1980. An introduction to the principle of transformational syntax. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Finch, G. 2000. Linguistic terms and concepts. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Klammer, T. and M. Schulz. 1996. Analyzing English grammar. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Kroeger, P. 2004. Analyzing syntax: A lexical-functional approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Matthews, P. 2007. Syntactic relations: A critical survey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Miller, J. 2011. A critical introduction to syntax. London: continuum.
  • Osborne, T., M. Putnam, and T. Groß 2011. Bare phrase structure, label-less structures, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar? The Linguistic Review 28: 315-364.
  • Sobin, N. 2011. Syntactic analysis: The basics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Tesnière, Lucien 1959. Éleménts de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.
  • van Valin, R. 2001. An introduction to syntax. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.