What is a Verb Phrase?

A VERB PHRASE is a phrase headed by a verb. The distinction between a verb head and verb phrase is quite clearly made in traditional grammar, though in different terminology: simple predicate and complete predicate.

A simple predicate in traditional grammar is a verb head, and a complete predicate is a verb phrase.

Traditional GrammarModern Grammar
simple predicate = verb head
complete predicate = verb phrase

Survey the following examples; in which the verb head (simple predicate) is in bold and the verb phrase (complete predicate) is underlined:

  • The well-dressed young woman glanced in the mirror.
  • The sleek new car in the driveway belongs to my grandmother.
  • The chilly November rains never seemed to let up.

Structure of Verb Phrase

A verb phrase is interpreted as consisting all the verbal elements in a clauseOpens in new window including the complements and adjuncts following the lexical verb.

The verbal elements in the verb phraseOpens in new window is called verbal sequence, which typically consists the main verb (the lexical verb) and, optionally, one or more than one auxiliary preceding the main verb.

Verb phrases are usually used as predicate verbs in the same way that single verbs are used.

In this discussion, we will examine the structure of the verb phrase, in so doing, we study and analyse the following sentences:

  1. Gretchen reads in the morning.
    (in this sentence, reads is the verb)
  2. Gretchen is reading in the study.
    (in this sentence, is reading is the verb)
  3. Gretchen has been reading for two hours.
    (here also, has been reading is the verb)

In the sentences presented above, we notice that:

  • reads is the main verb (MV) (the lexical verb) in sentence 1;
  • in sentence 2, is is the helping verb (the auxiliary verb) and reading is the main verb; and
  • has and been are auxiliaries and reading is the main verb in sentence 3.

Thus, there seems to be some grammatical relationship between is and –ing of reading in sentence 2 and then again there seems to be some relationship between has and –en and be and –ing in sentence 3.

There are other grammatical relationships contained in the sentences 1, 2 and 3 above. They are broken down as follows:

  • In sentence 1, in the morning modifies reads;
  • in sentence 2, in the study modifies is reading, and;
  • in sentence 3, for two hours modifies has been reading.

These modifiers of the verb phrase constitute what is called adjunct in the definition we introduced in the beginning of this discourse.

With elements of the verb phrases analyzed above, we can establish for a fact, that verb phrases have two constituents: the auxiliary and the main verb (lexical verb).

Verb phrase = Auxiliary + Main verb (MV)

Now, we take a look at the following sentences:

  • Gretchen has been reading the novel since morning.
  • Naphtali has completed the project.
  • I will see you tomorrow.

Thus, the above sentences can be analyzed as follows:

Verb Phrase (VP)=Auxiliary Verb+Main Verb (MV)
has been reading=has been+reading
has completed=has+completed
will see=will+see

The most essential constituent of the verb phrase is the main verb. Main verbs also known as head verbs or lexical verbs carry the weight of lexical meaning in the verb phrase, whereas auxiliaries add grammatical nuances such as modalityOpens in new window, tenseOpens in new window, voiceOpens in new window, etc.

Sometimes, a verb phrase may encounter a brief interruption by an adverb which modifies the verb phrase.

Examples include:
  • The trains do not always run on time.
  • I have been seriously considering the job offer.
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