Modifiers of the Verb Part 3: Verb Phrases

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So far we’ve covered adverbs and prepositional phrases as modifiers of the verb. Both are very common—so common that we hardly think about using them in our writing (see?).

Today, I’m going to talk a bit about another kind of modifier: the verb phrase. (Remember, a phrase is a word or group of words that function as a unit in the sentence!)

A verb phrase is a verb form together with its modifiers and complements.[1] This includes the predicate of the sentence: the portion of the sentence containing the main verb. In the previous sentence, the predicate is includes the predicate of the sentence; it’s everything but This, which is the subject.

Infinitive Phrases

The first and most common verb phrase used as an adverb is the infinitive phrase. This is the base form of the verb plus “to.” So to go, to think, to run, etc. They often tell us why something occurs. Some examples:

  • Sue bought flowers to give to her mother.
  • James is studying to get good grades for med school.
  • The monster stomped the city to be a jerk.
  • She sharpened the stakes to kill vampires.

As you can see, infinitive phrases are often found at the end of the sentence. That is, they follow the main verb and are a part of the predicate. Note, also, that none of these infinitive phrases contain only the infinitive verb form. They have modifiers and compliments: the adverbial “to her mother;” the direct objects “good grades” and “vampires,” and the subject compliment “a jerk.”

They all tell us why the action occurred. In fact, many times, these adverbials appear in the prepositional phrase “in order to [blank].”

  • She bought flowers in order to give them to her mother.
  • James is studying in order to get good grades for med school.
  • The monster stomped the city in order to be a jerk.
  • She sharpened the stakes in order to kill vampires.

To be fair, that third one sounds weird, and we wouldn’t phrase it that way, but you get the point. (We’d probably say “the monster stomped the city because he was a jerk.” That “because…” phrase is a modifier, too. A dependent clause, which I’ll talk about next time in Part 4).

Participles

Rather than using infinitives, sometime we choose participles (usually present participles—“ing” words) to modify our verbs.

  • Very few authors make a fortune selling books.
  • The wolf came bolting out of its den.

These function the same way as the infinitives do, though in a slightly different form.

 

Before I end this, a side note on Split Infinitives. Oh the woe that these cause! The turmoil! The bickering! They are almost as contentious as the oxford comma, that Melissa discussed last week.

What is a split infinitive, you ask?

A split infinitive occurs when the “to” is separated from the base form of the verb by one or more other words, usually adverbs.

The admonition NOT to split infinitives comes from the fact that the “to [verb]” functions as a single unit, with the “to” signaling the grammatical form of the verb. That said, I’ve got nothing against split infinitives. In fact, sometimes they are the most correct form, especially in terms of meaning.

Consider the following example:

  • I am NOT going to go to the party.

Okay, pretty straight forward there, right? I am not attending. Now let’s split the infinitive and see what happens:

  • I am going to NOT go to the party.

Did the meaning change? I’m still not going. But now, by shifting the negative into the infinitive–splitting it–the phrase highlights, ever so slightly, the intention to NOT go. It carries a connotation of deliberation, of significant and purposed choice.

Another example, a favorite borrowed from Sarah Adams:

  • Mother to child: When you whine, it makes me want to NOT give you things.

Again, the desire is to withhold, to deliberately keep things from the whiner. (Hey, I agree.)

Finally, the most famous split infinitive of all time: to boldly go.

It just wouldn’t be the same to go boldly.

 

 

[1] Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar 9th edition. New York: Pearson, 2012, 117.

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