Pin Me

What Is a Verb Phrase: Words and Phrases That Complete and Describe Verbs

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

The following article identifies the five grammatical forms—auxiliary verbs, prepositions, prepositional phrases, adverb phrases, and determiners—that function within verb phrases in English and includes examples of English verb phrases.

  • slide 1 of 8

    English Verb Phrases

    A verb phrase is a phrase in which a verb functions as the phrase head. In English, five grammatical forms may appear along with a verb to form a verb phrase. The five grammatical forms are:

    1. Auxiliary verbs
    2. Prepositions
    3. Prepositional phrases
    4. Adverb phrases
    5. Determiners

    The following sections explain the internal structure of the English verb phrase in more detail with examples.

  • slide 2 of 8

    Auxiliary Verbs

    The first grammatical form that can appear in a verb phrase in English is the auxiliary verb. In English, the twelve auxiliary verbs are have, be, do, and the nine modal verbs (can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would). Auxiliary verbs perform the functions of progressive, perfect, passive, operator, and modal within verb phrases. For example:

    Progressive Auxiliary Verb | Verb

    • was | barking

    Perfect Auxiliary Verb | Verb

    • have | tickled

    Passive Auxiliary Verb | Verb

    • were | stolen

    Operator Auxiliary Verb | Verb

    • do | call

    Modal Auxiliary Verb | Verb

    • will | study

    Auxiliary verbs always precede the main verb within a verb phrase. Operator auxiliary verbs may only appear with the main verb. Progressive, perfect, passive, and modal auxiliary verb may appear with other progressive, perfect, passive, and modal auxiliary verbs. The order in which auxiliary verbs can appear together is Modal-Perfect-Passive-Progressive. For example:

    Perfect | Progressive | Verb

    • had | been | sleeping

    Perfect | Passive | Verb

    • has | been | broken

    Modal | Progressive | Verb

    • could | be | swimming

    Modal | Perfect | Passive | Verb

    • might | have | been | swindled

    Modal | Perfect | Passive | Progressive | Verb

    • should | have | been | being | watched
  • slide 3 of 8

    Prepositions

    The second grammatical form that can appear in a verb phrase in English is the preposition. Prepositions are traditionally defined as "words that indicate relationships between nouns, adjectives, and verbs and other words." Within the verb phrase, however, prepositions perform the grammatical functions of infinitive marker and particle. An infinitive marker is defined as a function word that distinguishes the base form from the infinitive form of an English verb. For example:

    Preposition | Verb

    • to | smile
    • to | boil
    • to | pickle
    • to | google

    A particle is defined as a function word that expresses a grammatical relationship with another word but that lacks a definite lexical meaning. For example:

    Verb | Preposition

    • drop | out
    • pass | away

    Verb | Preposition | Preposition

    • zero | in | on
    • carry | on | about

    Prepositions always function as particles in phrasal verbs.

  • slide 4 of 8

    Prepositional Phrases

    The third grammatical form that can appear in a verb phrase in English is the prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases are defined as phrases formed by a preposition followed by a prepositional complement. Within the verb phrase, prepositional phrases primarily perform the grammatical function of verb phrase complement within verb phrases but also can perform the grammatical function of verb phrase modifier. A verb phrase complement is defined as a word, phrase, or clause that that completes the meaning of verb or verb phrase. For example:

    Verb | Prepositional Phrase

    • experiment | on the potato
    • gawk | at the whipped cream catastrophe
    • operate | on her busted wrist
    • wish | for a pudding cup

    Prepositional phrases always follow the verb within a verb phrase and always function as verb phrase complements in prepositional verbs.

  • slide 5 of 8

    Adverb Phrases

    The fourth grammatical form that can appear in a verb phrase in English is the adverb phrase. Adverb phrases are defined as phrases with an adverb functioning as the head of the phrase plus any other adverbs functioning as adverb phrase modifiers. Adverb phrases primarily perform the grammatical function of verb phrase modifier within verb phrases but can also perform the grammatical function of verb phrase complement. A verb phrase modifier is defined as a word or phrase that describes a verb or verb phrase. For example:

    Verb | Adverb Phrase

    • write | illegibly
    • scream | loudly

    Adverb Phrase | Verb

    • quickly | ran
    • very quietly | sneak

    Adverb phrases may precede or follow the verb within a verb phrase.

  • slide 6 of 8

    Determiners

    The fifth grammatical form that can appear in a verb phrase in English is the determiner usually in the form of a possessive determiner. The eight possessive determiners in English are my, your, his, her, its, our, their, and whose. Other determiners include articles, demonstrative determiners, interrogative determiners, numerals, and quantifiers. Determiners perform the grammatical function of determinative within verb phrases. For example:

    Determiner | Verb

    • your | washing (the dishes)
    • my | throwing (a tantrum)
    • his | coughing (on the potato salad)
    • our | passing (the test)

    Determiners always precede the verb within a verb phrase. Only verbs in the form of present participles performing nominal functions can take determiners.

  • slide 7 of 8

    Combining Grammatical Forms

    The five grammatical forms that can appear within verb phrases can also appear in combination with other grammatical forms within a single verb phrase. For example, the following ten constructions are some of the possible combinations of grammatical forms within verb phrases in English:

    • Auxiliary Verb(s)-Verb
    • Verb-Preposition
    • Preposition-Verb-Preposition
    • Preposition-Verb-Prepositional Phrase
    • Auxiliary Verb(s)-Adverb-Verb
    • Auxiliary Verb(s)-Verb-Adverb Phrase
    • Auxiliary Verb(s)-Adverb Phrase-Verb-Preposition
    • Auxiliary Verb(s)-Adverb Phrase-Verb-Prepositional Phrase
    • Adverb Phrase-Verb-Preposition
    • Determiner-Verb-Preposition

    For example:

    Perfect | Adverb Phrase | Progressive | Verb | Preposition

    • had | not | been | throwing | up

    Modal | Perfect | Progressive | Verb | Prepositional Phrase | Adverb Phrase

    • will | have | been | looking | for the diamond | frantically

    Determiner | Adverb Phrase | Verb | Prepositional Phrase

    • my | obviously | eavesdropping | on her private conversation

    Note that more than just the ten constructions of the verb phrase listed above are possible in the English language.

  • slide 8 of 8

    For a printable reference study sheet of the grammatical forms that can appear in verb phrases in English, please download the supplement to this article The Internal Structure of Verb Phrases in English Reference Sheet.

References

  • Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.