In English grammar, a finite verb is a form of a verb that (a) shows agreement with a subject and (b) is marked for tense. Nonfinite verbs are not marked for tense and do not show agreement with a subject.
If there is just one verb in a sentence, that verb is finite. (Put another way, a finite verb can stand by itself in a sentence.) Finite verbs are sometimes called main verbs or tensed verbs. A finite clause is a word group that contains a finite verb form as its central element.
In "An Introduction to Word Grammar," Richard Hudson writes:
"The reason finite verbs are so important is their unique ability to act as the sentence-root. They can be used as the only verb in the sentence, whereas all the others have to depend on some other word, so finite verbs really stand out."
Finite vs. Nonfinite Verbs
The main difference between finite verbs and nonfinite verbs is that the former can act as the root of an independent clause, or a full sentence, while the latter cannot.
For example, take the following sentence:
- The man runs to the store to get a gallon of milk.
"Runs" is a finite verb because it agrees with the subject (man) and because it marks the tense (present tense). "Get" is a nonfinite verb because it does not agree with the subject or mark the tense. Rather, it is an infinitive and depends on the main verb "runs." By simplifying this sentence, we can see that "runs" has the ability to act as the root of an independent clause:
- The man runs to the store.
Nonfinite verbs take three different forms-the infinitive, the participle, or the gerund. The infinitive form of a verb (such as "to get" in the example above) is also known as the base form, and is often introduced by a main verb and the word "to," as in this sentence:
- He wanted to find a solution.
The participle form appears when the perfect or progressive tense is used, as in this sentence:
- He is looking for a solution.
Finally, the gerund form appears when the verb is treated as an object or subject, as in this sentence:
- Looking for solutions is something he enjoys.
Examples of Finite Verbs
In the following sentences (all lines from well-known movies), the finite verbs are indicated in bold.
- "We rob banks." - Clyde Barrow in "Bonnie and Clyde," 1967
- "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti." - Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," 1991
- "A boy's best friend is his mother." - Norman Bates in "Psycho," 1960
- "We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!" - Withnail in "Withnail and I," 1986
- "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow." - Marie "Slim" Browning in "To Have and Have Not," 1944
- "Get busy living, or get busy dying." - Andy Dufresne in "The Shawshank Redemption," 1994
Identify Finite Verbs
In "Essentials of English," Ronald C. Foote, Cedric Gale, and Benjamin W. Griffith write that finite verbs "can be recognized by their form and their position in the sentence." The authors describe five simple ways to identify finite verbs:
- Most finite verbs can take an -ed or a -d at the end of the word to indicate time in the past: cough, coughed; celebrate, celebrated. A hundred or so finite verbs do not have these endings.
- Nearly all finite verbs take an -s at the end of the word to indicate the present when the subject of the verb is third-person singular: cough, he coughs; celebrate, she celebrates. The exceptions are auxiliary verbs like can and must. Remember that nouns can also end in -s. Thus "the dog races" can refer to a spectator sport or to a fast-moving third-person singular dog.
- Finite verbs are often groups of words that include such auxiliary verbs as can, must, have, and be: can be suffering, must eat, will have gone.
- Finite verbs usually follow their subjects: He coughs. The documents had compromised him. They will have gone.
- Finite verbs surround their subjects when some form of a question is asked: Is he coughing? Did they celebrate?
- Hudson, Richard. "An Introduction to Word Grammar." Cambridge University Press, 2010, Cambridge.
- Foote, Ronald C.; Gale, Cedric; and Griffith, Benjamin W. "Essentials of English. Barrons, 2000, Hauppauge, N.Y.