What Are They?
Catenative verbs are verbs followed directly by another verb in the infinitive, present participle, or base form. The adjective catenative
from the verb catenate means “to connect, to link, to string together” and refers to the connecting of one verb to another. For example, the following English verbs are catenative verbs:
- The angels begin to sing.
- This book helped shed light on the problem.
- We had hoped to start the project early next week.
- She likes reading books.
- The children will need to bathe.
Catenative Verbs Versus Modal and Quasi-modal Verbs
Catenative verbs resemble modal and quasi-modal verbs in both form (what the verb looks like) and function (what the verb does). Like modals and quasi-modals, catenatives precede another verb. For example:
- He might bake some bread. (modal)
- She would rather see a different movie. (quasi-modal)
- You ought to comb your hair. (quasi-modal)
- Her husband wants to adopt another puppy. (catenative)
However, unlike modals and quasi-modals, catenative verbs function as the head of the verb phrase. The verb that follows a catenative functions as either a verb phrase complement or a direct object. Modal and quasi-modal verbs, however, function as modals within verb phrases. For example:
Verb Phrase Head | Verb Phrase Complement
decide | to dye her hair
have | to finish his essay
Verb Phrase Head | Direct Object
like | reading books
prefer | to eat fruits and vegetables
Modal | Verb Phrase Head
should | exercise
used to | repair freezers
Catenative verbs further differ from quasi-modal verbs in that the preposition to functions as a particle in quasi-modals but as an infinitive marker following catenative verbs. For example:
Modal | Particle | Verb Phrase Head
ought | to | jog
used | to | teach
Catenative | Infinitive Marker | Verb
hesitate | to | jump
intend | to | sing
Some catenative verbs also resemble modal and quasi-modal verbs in meaning. For example, both the catenative have (to) and the modal must express obligation as in I have to finish my homework first and I must finish my homework first.
Conjugations of Catenative Verbs
Catenative verbs, unlike modal and quasi-modal verbs, have at least four but up to six conjugations depending on the regularity or irregularity of the verb. For example:
- Base – Infinitive – Present Tense – Past Tense – Present Participle – Past Participle
- agree – to agree – agree, agrees – agreed – agreeing – agreed
- decide – to decide – decide, decides – decided – deciding – decided
- have – to have – have, has – had – having – had
- plan – to plan – plan, plans – planned – planning – planned
- want – to want – want, wants – wanted – wanting – wanted
Catenatives, also unlike modals and quasi-modals, express both verb tenses and all four verb aspects. For example:
- Simple present: She strives to succeed.
- Simple past: They neglected to water the plants.
- Present progressive: The child is pretending to paint.
- Past progressive: The bridesmaids were refusing to dance.
- Present perfect: I have forgotten to bring the cake.
- Past perfect: He had intended to send a card.
- Present perfect-progressive: We have been enjoying reading this book.
- Past perfect-progressive: He had been proposing traveling to Malaysia.
Some catenative verbs also appear in passive constructions. For example:
- She was permitted to stay out past midnight.
- The children are forbidden to eat sweets.
- My supervisor had been asked to come up with a report.
For more information related to English catenative verbs, please refer to:
- English Modal Verbs
- English Quasi-modal Verbs
- The Functions of Verbs and Verb Phrases in English
- The English Verb System for ESL Students
- Common English Verbs
For a printable list of the most frequent catenative verbs in English, please download English Catenative Verbs Reference List. The list also includes information about the form of the verb following the catenative verb.
- Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.