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The Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/29/2013

Verbs and verb phrases perform six main and six nominal grammatical functions in the English language. The following article lists the twelve functions of verbs and verb phrases and provides examples to illustrate usage. Also included is a printable study sheet of the twelve grammatical functions.

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    English Verbs and Verb Phrases

    Verbs in English are traditionally defined as "words that indicate action or state of being." Verb phrases are formed by one or more English verbs and any number of objects, modifiers, complements, particles, infinitive markers, and auxiliaries. Verbs and verb phrases perform twelve grammatical functions in the English language. The twelve functions are:

    1. Verb phrase head
    2. Predicate
    3. Noun phrase modifier
    4. Adjective phrase complement
    5. Verb phrase complement
    6. Adverbial
    7. Subject
    8. Subject complement
    9. Direct object
    10. Object complement
    11. Indirect object
    12. Prepositional complement

    The following sections discuss the twelve functions and include examples to illustrate use.

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    Major Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases

    Of the twelve possible functions, verbs and verb phrases perform six major functions: four verbal, one adjectival, and one adverbial. The six major functions are:

    1. Verb phrase head
    2. Predicate
    3. Noun phrase modifier
    4. Adjective phrase complement
    5. Verb phrase complement
    6. Adverbial

    The six major functions are prototypical functions of verbs and verb phrases.

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    Verb Phrase Head

    Verbs first function as the heads of verb phrases. The following italicized verbs are examples of heads of verb phrases:

    • read
    • eat the cookies
    • to study
    • listen to the music
    • wake up

    Verbs always function as the heads of verb phrases.

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    Predicate

    Verbs and verb phrases secondly function as predicates. A predicate contains at least one verb and any objects, modifiers, and complements. All clauses contain both a subject and a predicate. The following italicized verb phrases are examples of predicates:

    • Carnivores eat meat.
    • The librarian is writing an article.
    • The door was slammed shut by the child.
    • All the guests have woken up.
    • Your husband will install my new fence.
    • He must have stolen at least three cars.

    Only verbs and verb phrases can function as predicates.

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    Noun Phrase Modifier

    Verbs and verb phrases thirdly function as noun phrase modifiers. A noun phrase modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes a noun or noun phrase. The following italicized verbs are examples of noun phrase modifiers:

    • The books shelved on the sixth floor cover education, art, languages, and literature.
    • My daughter is the little girl wearing the pink hat.
    • Did you hear that child screaming at her mother?
    • I placed the cupcakes to eat on the counter.

    Other grammatical forms that can function as noun phrase modifiers include adjective phrases, noun phrases, and prepositional phrases.

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    Adjective Phrase Complement

    Verbs and verb phrases fourthly function as adjective phrase complements. An adjective phrase complement is a word, phrase, or clause that completes the meaning of an adjective. The following italicized verbs are examples of adjective phrase complements:

    • His wife is afraid to fly.
    • My puppy is eager to learn new tricks.
    • The students are curious to know more about verbs.
    • She is happy to write another article.

    Other grammatical forms that can function as adjective phrase complements include prepositional phrases and noun clauses.

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    Verb Phrase Complement

    Verbs and verb phrases fifthly function as verb phrase complements. A verb phrase complement is a word or phrase that completes the meaning of the verb phrase. The following italicized verbs are examples of verb phrase complements:

    • We can afford to buy a new car.
    • He offered to carry my suitcase.
    • She always strives to succeed.
    • The man has threatened to call the police.

    The verbs following catenative verbs most often function as verb phrase complements.

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    Adverbial

    Verbs and verb phrases sixthly function as adverbials. An adverbial is a word, phrase, or clauses that modifies an entire clause by providing additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession. The following italicized verb phrases are examples of adverbials:

    • Running on the ice, the man slipped and fell.
    • The puppy, panting from the heat, wants some water.
    • Please open the window to let in some cool air.
    • To make icing, mix powdered sugar with water.
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    Nominal Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases

    Verbs and verb phrases also perform six nominal functions. Nominal functions are functions prototypically performed by nouns and noun phrases. The six nominal functions of verbs and verb phrases are:

    1. Subject
    2. Subject complement
    3. Direct object
    4. Object complement
    5. Indirect object
    6. Prepositional complement

    For more information on the grammatical analyses of verb phrases performing nominal functions, please see the book Introduction to the Grammar of English by Rodney Huddleston from the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series.

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    Subject

    Verbs and verb phrases seventhly function as subjects. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. The following italicized verbs are examples of subjects:

    • Reading stimulates the mind.
    • Drinking milk is healthy.
    • Your throwing a tantrum disappoints me.
    • To err is human.
    • To forgive is divine.
    • To lie about cheating is unforgivable.

    Only verbs in the form of present participles and infinitives can perform the nominal function of subject. Traditional grammars generally refer to present participles performing nominal functions as gerunds.

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    Subject Complement

    Verbs and verb phrases eighthly function as subject complements. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular or linking verb and describes the subject. The following italicized verbs are examples of subject complements:

    • Her special talent is singing opera well.
    • His weekend chores will be washing and folding the laundry.
    • My favorite hobby is learning about grammar.
    • Your job duties are to shelve books and to dust shelves.

    Only verbs in the form of present participles and infinitives can perform the nominal function of subject complement.

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    Direct Object

    Verbs and verb phrases ninthly function as direct objects. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a transitive verb and answers the question "who or what" receives the action of the verb. The following italicized verbs are examples of direct objects:

    • The brothers prefer watching football.
    • Their sisters prefer to watch dramas.
    • My coworkers enjoy gossiping about other coworkers.
    • Squirrels like to climb trees.

    Only verbs in the form of present participles and infinitives can perform the nominal function of direct object.

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    Object Complement

    Verbs and verb phrases tenthly function as object complements. An object complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows and describes the direct object. The following italicized verbs are examples of object complements:

    • The teacher has pronounced the extra credit writing an additional report.
    • My grandmother considered her favorite pastime observing nature.
    • The child declares his least favorite chore mowing the lawn.

    Only verbs in the form of present participles can perform the nominal function of object complement.

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    Indirect Object

    Verbs and verb phrases eleventhly function as indirect objects. An indirect object is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a ditransitive verb and answers the question "to or for whom or what" the action of the verb is performed. The following italicized verbs are examples of indirect objects:

    • The young couple is giving having another baby serious consideration.
    • Her roommate will give listening to jazz a try.
    • He had given painting the living room some thought.

    Only verbs in the form of present participles can perform the nominal function of indirect object. Verbs rarely function as indirect objects.

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    Prepositional Complement

    Verbs and verb phrases twelfthly function as prepositional complements. Also called a complement of a preposition or an object of a preposition, a prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows the preposition in a prepositional phrase. The following italicized verbs are examples of prepositional complements:

    • We have been thinking about ordering a pizza for dinner.
    • My grandmother believed in saying grace before eating.
    • The students are having issues with finding the time for reading the assigned articles.

    Only verbs in the form of present participles can perform the nominal function of prepositional complement.

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    Printable Download

    For a printable study sheet of the eleven grammatical functions of verbs and verb phrases in English grammar, please download The Grammatical Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases Reference Sheet.

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