verbals

What are Verbals?

Verbals are words (e.g., going, gone, to go) that look suspiciously verbs but they do not function as verbs. Instead they function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. In this study, we will focus on the three verbal types: Gerund, Participle, and Infinitive.

A VERBAL by definition is a verb form Opens in new window (but not a verb) that functions in a sentence as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb.

Basically, a verbal is no word other than a form of a verb, but itself is not a verb; all the same, it has three functional roles to play:

  • 1.  it can function as a noun;
  • 2.  it can function as an adjective; and
  • 3.  it can function as an adverb.

Types of Verbals

Generally, we have three kinds of verbals. We’ll spend the remainder of this entry delving deeper into each, but for now, here they are in order.

  1. Gerund
  2. Participle
  3. Infinitive

Note that each of these types can be expanded into phrases.

1.  Gerunds

A GERUND Opens in new window is a verb form that ends in –ing (e.g., “learning,” “walking,” “talking,” etc.) is used in the same way a noun is used. A gerund functions only as a noun; therefore, the term “gerund noun” is redundant—we don’t need the “noun” part of it. Whenever a verb form ending in –ing is used, it is a gerund functioning as a noun, not a verb. Catch sight of this example:

  • √  Reading is my leisure.

Here, we see that the word, reading, is a noun used this way. The rationale behind this fact is that it is only a noun that can replace it. For example, we can replace the noun Music so that we can achieve:

  • √  Music is my leisure.

This word swapping does not change the structure and the function of the sentence. This exposes that both reading and Music are acting as subjects. That is why reading is considered a noun rather than a verb.

Let’s survey another example: Make out the sentence below.

  • √  His interest is dancing.

The dancing we see here is functioning as a noun since it can be replaced with only nouns. For example, we can replace the noun football, which will still not change the structure and the function of the sentence. Thus we can write:

  • √  His interest is football.

Here, both dancing and football are predicate nominatives. Hence, dancing must be a verbal that is a noun used this way.

Once more, survey the example below.

  • √  He enjoys fishing.

Fishing, used in this sentence, is a noun since only a noun can replace it. The verbals in the following sentences are gerunds because they are functioning as nouns since only nouns can replace them.

  • Marketing is a process.
  • Surviving is a challenge for the organization.
  • Mining and ranching have begun to intrude on the lands of Offinso.
  • Sleeping and snoring are eroding his respect for his family.
  • He cannot escape going, coming, and stealing.

The first sentence has one gerund—marketing; the second sentence has one gerund—surviving; the third one has two gerunds, namely mining and ranching; the fourth one has two gerunds—sleeping and snoring—and the last sentence has three gerunds—going, coming, and stealing.

Gerunds can play different roles depending on how they are used in sentences. (See Gerund Opens in new window to learn the six different functional roles a gerund can play.)

2.  Participles

A PARTICIPLE Opens in new window is a verb form Opens in new window that can function as an adjective. Remember that adjectives modify nouns Opens in new window and pronouns Opens in new window only. Therefore when a verb is observed to modifying a noun or pronoun, then we know convincingly that the verb, this time, is an adjective Opens in new window.

Now we can say for a fact that participles are adjective forms of verbs. You will be familiar with these from lower level English lessons in which you learned the difference between for example, interesting and interested.

As we can see from the examples, there are two adjective (participle) forms of verbs:

  1. the present participle, which is used for active adjectives, and
  2. the past participle which is used for passive voice adjectives.

2.1  PRESENT PARTICIPLE

The present participle is the –ing form a verb used to make an adjective. Survey the following example.

  • The screaming child had worrying psychological problems.

Using the present participle, we can make sentences like

  • The exciting teacher talked to the interesting and fascinating student.

The present participle and the gerund (we learnt earlier) look exactly the same. However, it is important to remember that the present participle is an adjective.

You can tell the difference between the gerund Opens in new window and the present participle Opens in new window because the gerund will take the role of a noun Opens in new window, functioning either as the subject Opens in new window or the object Opens in new window of a verb and the present participle Opens in new window will usually be followed by a noun.

Important Hint!  

Note that the present participle cannot be the finite verb Opens in new window of the clause Opens in new window. Thus, if you have a sentence like “The exciting teacher” you have no finite verb in the sentence, and it does not make sense (The teacher is exciting does, however, make sense because is exciting is a finite verb).

2.2  PAST PARTICIPLE

The past participle, like the present participle Opens in new window acts like an adjective, but it is a passive voice adjective. The past participle is the PP ‘tense’ of the verb. For example, you will have learned go → went → gone, see → saw → seen, and have → had → had. In these cases, the past participles are gone, seen, and had.

For a regular verb, the past participle is the same as the past tense of the verb, for example: played, killed, loved.

Compare the example sentences:

    Irregular passive participle
  • The excited student was happy.
  • Regular passive participle
  • The bored student was unhappy.

Important Hint!  

Note that the past participle Opens in new window of an irregular verb Opens in new window cannot be the finite verb Opens in new window. The past participle of a regular verb, however, is identical to the past tense Opens in new window of a regular verb. This means that the ‘–ed’ form of a verb can sometimes be the verb in the sentence depending on the word order and also depending on whether or not there is already a verb in the clause.

Example: –ed form as past tense of verb
  • He liked school.
    ↑ In this case, the subject and object either side of the verb clearly indicate that the liked is a verb.
Example: –ed form not past tense of verb due to word order and due to there being another verb in the clause.
  • The liked boy was unhappy.
    ↑ In this case, it is clear that liked is not a verb. liked has no subject, it is followed by a noun (which is the subject of the clause) and there is another verb (was) in the clause.

Choosing between the present (active) and past (passive) forms of the participle can be difficult for non-native speakers or learners of English language. Thus, it is important to remember the following rule.

The person or thing ‘giving’ the adjective will have an –ing adjective, and the person or thing ‘receiving’ the adjective will have an –ed adjective. This means that –ed adjectives generally apply to humans and other living things. –ing adjectives, on the other hand, are used for either living or not living things. Consider the following example:

  • The excited man told the interesting news to the entertained children.

↑Here the man is receiving the excitement from something; the news is making other people receive interest, and the children are receiving entertainment from the man and the news.

Important Hint!  

Note also that intransitive verbs Opens in new window cannot have past participles. For example, “to happen” can’t have an object; it is intransitive. Although we can make the participle “happening” (it is a happening place), we cannot make the participle happened. Other similar verbs that can't take object include: disappear, occur, last, fluctuate, and emerge.

3.  Infinitives

An INFINITIVE is a verb form that is usually preceded by the word to, and is used as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. This definition reveals that infinitives can be used as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Infinitives as Nouns

An infinitive is considered a noun only if it is taking the functional role of a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, or a predicate nominative. In the following sentences, the words in bold are infinitives serving as subjects.

  • To sleep is relaxing.
  • To cook is fun.
  • To fast has not been easy for him.
  • To write needs concentration.

The Grammatical Functions of Infinitives are explored at length in the study of Infinitive Phrases (See Infinitive Phrases Opens in new window).