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Parts of a Sentence: Verb Phrases

A phrase is a group of words that forms a unit simpler than a sentence. Unlike a sentence, or clause, a phrase does not contain both a subject and a finite (conjugated) verb. When building sentences, we use many types of phrases. This article focuses on verb phrases.

What is a verb phrase?

In grammar, a verb phrase is a verb of more than one word. It includes one or more helping (or auxiliary) verbs and one main verb:

can see       [helping verb can + main verb see]
would have sent   [helping verbs would + have + main verb send]
may have been planning    [helping verbs may + have + be + main verb plan]

What does a main verb do?

The main verb expresses the chief idea in the verb phrase. The other verbs are there only to help it.

The main verb is always the last verb in the phrase. Often its form changes, as in the last two examples, in which send becomes sent and plan becomes planning.
(Tip: After the helping verbs have and be, the form of the main verb almost always changes.)

What does a helping verb do?

A helping (or auxiliary) verb, which is placed in front of a main verb, helps it to express different ideas. There are only a small number of helping verbs. They are divided into two types: primary and modal.

Primary

There are three primary helping verbs: be, do and have. Note that these verbs have different forms:

be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being
do, does, did
have, has, had

In addition to acting as helping verbs, be, do and have can occur alone as main verbs:

I was at the arcade. [was is a main verb]
I was working at the arcade. [was is a helping verb; working is the main verb]

Lars often did the cooking.    [did is a main verb]
Lars did not mind cooking. [did is a helping verb; mind is the main verb]

Alex and Cara have the keys. [have is a main verb]
Alex and Cara have gone.      [have is a helping verb; gone is the main verb]

Modal

There are 10 principal modal verbs:

can, could
shall, should
will, would
may, might
must
ought [+ to + main verb]

Unlike the primary helping verbs, modal verbs do not change their form to agree with different subjects. For example, can does not change no matter what subject it follows:

I can go
you can go
he can go
we can go
they can go

After most of the modal verbs, the main verb is in its base form (the form in which it is listed in the dictionary):

can go [can + base form go]

The one exception is ought, which is followed by to and the base form of the main verb:

ought to go [ought + to + base form go]

The modal verbs must be used together with a main verb. They occur alone only when the main verb is left understood, usually to avoid repetition:

"Who can tell me the answer?"
"I can!" [= I can tell you the answer]

Why do we need helping verbs?

We use helping verbs

  • to change the tense of a verb:

    am hoping [present progressive]
    have finished [present perfect]
    will go [simple future]
    will have been working [future perfect progressive]

  • to ask a question:

    Do I have the wrong number?
    Does Sven know Marta's password?
    Did you forget to walk the dog?

  • to create emphasis:

    Rivka does plan to attend, after all.
    We do need a new couch, no matter what you think!
    I did walk the dog.

  • to form a negative verb:

    The children did not (or didn't) see the end of the hockey game.
    We have not (or haven't) finished yet.
    Please do not (or don't) open this window.
    The mail will not (or won't) go out until tomorrow.

    Note: Adverbs (such as the adverb not or its contraction n't) often appear in the middle of a verb phrase—but they are not verbs. They modify the verb phrase but are not part of it.

  • to form the passive voice (with be as the only, or the last, helping verb):

    were introduced
    have been elected
    is being organized
    will be held
    would have been hired

  • to add an idea:

    must read [necessity]
    can read [ability]
    can read, may read [permission]
    could read, may read, might read [possibility]
    ought to read, should read [advisability]

Without verb phrases, there are many ideas that we would be unable to express.