Why ‘is’ is not really a verb

In grammar, we call ‘to be’ a verb, or use the term ‘linking verb’. ‘To be’ is certainly something very similar to a verb: it forms the same sorts of constructions with the same moods, tenses (past, present, future) and aspects (perfect, continuous, habitual); it often acts as an auxiliary verb in constructions with other main verbs; it can be an intransitive verb in its own right (as a synonym for ‘exist’); but in its typical usage it is distinctly different from other verbs in certain ways and deserves to be thought of as something slightly different from a verb. In Linguistics, the label given to ‘to be’ in its classic usage (“dinner is ready”) is the Copula.

Arguments and Complements

True verbs may or may not have nouns or clauses they interact with, which in Linguistics are called arguments. The most well-known argument of a verb is the Object. Other arguments can include the Indirect Object, the Result State (an adjective), a location phrase, or a dependent prepositional phrase (a prepositional phrase required by a particular verb). However, ‘to be’, the Copula, doesn’t have arguments, it has complements, the technical term applied to them is Predicative Complement (I’ll just use the term Complement, with a capital letter, as a proper noun).

‘To be’ can take four types of Complement:

  • A noun phrase:*
           “An apple is a fruit.”
  • An adjective phrase:
           “That apple is totally rotten.
  • A location phrase:
           “Your guests are here.”
  • A prepositional phrase:
           “The children are at the beach.”

[* In Linguistics and grammar, a phrase can consist of a single word. For example, a single pronoun is still a noun phrase.]


I’ve described elsewhere the syntactic movement that occurs to cause adverbs to adopt the positions they do in English grammar, which is somewhat linguistic and technical, so I won’t discuss it here. The important thing to note, however, is that ‘to be’ behaves differently from a true verb, especially when it is in a single-word construction (i.e. one without modal or auxiliary verbs).

In a verbal construction, the natural position for most adverbs* is after the modal or first auxiliary (if there is one), but before the main verb; and an adverb can only appear between the verb and its main arguments (e.g. the Object) in very exceptional circumstances.

[* Adverb position is quite irregular and some adverbs strongly prefer some positions more than others.]

For example, with single-word verb constructions:
        “She always      ate        healthy food.
                         adverb     main verb          Object
is grammatical, but:
       She ate             always   healthy food.
                     main verb      adverb                 Object
is definitely not.

With single-word ‘to be’ verb:
       She was    always     healthy.
                    ‘to be’       adverb         Complement
       She    always     was          healthy.
                         adverb       main verb      Complement
are both equally grammatical. However, with a single-word ‘to be’ construction, the most common natural adverb position is after ‘to be’:
       She was     always    healthy.
                    ‘to be’       adverb        Complement.

For a multi-word verbal construction, the natural position of the adverb is after the Modal or first Auxiliary:
       She     would     always     have       eaten          healthy food.
                          modal            adverb          auxiliary      main verb         Object
This is the same for ‘to be’ constructions with modals or auxiliaries:
       She has         always    been     healthy.
                      auxiliary    adverb         ‘to be’         Complement

Adverb placement with ‘to be’ is much more subtle than with verbs. ‘To be’ constructions with Modals or auxiliaries, as noted above, are essentially the same as those with verbs, but single-word to be constructions are quite different, with a different natural position for the adverb and more flexibility in where it can be placed. Some usages sound better than others (which suggests much more complex and varied syntactic movement).

One interesting thing to note (for very advanced speakers or readers interested in Linguistics) is that the natural position varies in single-word constructions depending on whether one is using the present tense or past tense:
       She always   was     healthy.
                    adverb        ‘to be’      Complement
sounds better than:
       She   always   is       healthy.
                       adverb       ‘to be’     Complement
In the present tense, it sounds much better to say:
       She   is        always    healthy.
                       ‘to be’    adverb         Complement

In this way, ‘to be’ in the simple present tense (am, are, is) acts like an auxiliary verb with no main verb, but ‘was’ can either adopt the auxiliary or main verb position.* In other words, in the past tense, the adverb can appear on either side of was, but in the present tense it sounds better if it follows was.

[* If you understood the article on the Verb Phrase, this is because the present tense of ‘to be’ is inflected for person and number (am, is, are), but ‘was’ is not, so there is a much stronger pull to the Head of Inflect Phrase for the present tense.]

Thus, in terms of sentence structure, ‘to be’ has Complements and not arguments, and adverb placement is more varied than with true verbs.


‘To be’ also acts differently to verbs in conditionals,* with respect to ‘unreality’.

[* if you are interested in the details of conditionals and unreality there is a long article here.]

In unreal conditionals, in standard less-formal English, unreality is expressed by a ‘step back in time’. For example:
       If I knew the answer, I would tell you,
uses the past tense to describe the unreal present; and:
       If I had known the answer, I would have told you,
uses the past perfect to express the past.

       If I was rich I would be happy,
is not grammatical in standard English (although it is widely used in casual English); the formal (or subjunctive) form should always be used with ‘to be’:
       If I were rich, I would be happy.

As well as this, it is typically enough in standard English just to use the ‘were’ form. We are far less concerned about ‘stepping back’ instances of ‘to be’ into the past-perfect. For example, with a verb in the unreal past in standard English, we should say:
       If I had seen it, I would have told you,
but, when talking about the unreal past:
       If I saw it, I would have told you,
sounds very casual.
However, with ‘to be’:
       If I had been there, I would have seen it,
       If I were there, I would have seen it,
are both equally acceptable. We only feel the need to use the past perfect if there might be confusion as to whether the ‘to be’ state still exists. In other words, if there were some confusion about whether I were still there in the above example, I might use “if I had been there,” but otherwise, “if I were there” is fine.

To summarise, in conditionals, unlike with true verbs, we see that ‘to be’ is expressed in the subjunctive mood and never in the simple past, at least in standard English, and the ‘step back in time’ is often not applied.


Full Subject-Object inversions with verbs are very rare in English. They sound extremely stylistic and very old fashioned. For example:
       The dragon      slew      he,
           Object                       verb          Subject
where ‘he’ (obviously) is the Subject, sounds so old-fashioned it is positively Mediaeval. However, when ‘to be’ is used, inversions are a lot more common. For example:
       Happy            is         the man who loves his work,
          Complement        ‘to be’       Subject
sounds a little old-fashioned and stylistic, but is still quite acceptable in modern English.

When ‘to be’ has a prepositional phrase or a location as a Complement, such Subject-Complement inversions are actually very common, as in:
       On the bench          are       some apples.
          prepositional phrase      ‘to be’       Subject
       Here                     are         your notes.
          location phrase           ‘to be’         Subject
In fact, these types of Subject-Complement inversions, with location phrases or prepositional phrases, are probably as common as the non-inverted forms.


So we all call ‘to be’ a verb because it is very similar to a verb, but it is useful to be aware that, when you are learning English, ‘to be’ – in its role linking nouns and their Predicative Complements – has many rules all of its own. Sentences with a single-word form of ‘to be’ have different sentence ordering, with adverbs preferring different positions; unreal conditionals with ‘to be’ are different to those with true verbs – with were always replacing was in standard English, and with less need to apply a ‘step back in time; and Subject-Complement inversions, especially those involving prepositional phrases or location phrases, are very common, while Subject-Object inversions are extremely rare with true verbs.

You can think of it as the Copula, a verb, a linking verb, or just ‘to be’, but just be aware that it is not like any other verb.

The Verb Phrase: a lengthy introduction.

[ Category: Advanced Grammar, Linguistics, Speculation ]

A note on capitalisation:
I have capitalised words where they are technical terms, as proper nouns describing a particular element of Syntax. Where an element is discussed in more general terms, I have left the word uncapitalised, as a common nouns. Occasionally it was difficult to determine whether a noun in a given context was acting as a proper noun or a common noun, so I apologise for any inconsistencies.

A note on terminology:
Linguists will note I misuse the term Noun Phrase below to describe what in Syntax is more properly termed a Determiner Phrase; the term ‘element’ for what is more properly called a Constituent; and that I use common-English terms like ‘word’, not generally used in Linguistics due to their imprecision. The reason for this is both an attempt to make an already fairly complex, jargon-rich subject comprehensible for non-Linguists; and to discuss Syntax and movement in relation to traditional English grammar.

I’ve written this on the assumption that some readers will choose to read only one section. For this reason, certain key ideas are repeated in many places.


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1. Introduction: Syntax as a format for the communication of thought.

The Verb Phrase: Interesting and complicated.

OK, buckle in.

The following is my attempt at an overview of the Verb Phrase.

Verbs are the active heart of language; and the Verb Phrase in English is where the most Syntactic activity takes place. The following is a combination of: various Syntactic theories, particularly the theories (or groups of theories) called Minimalism and Government and Binding Theory (an older group of theories); observations of English grammar and contemporary usage that can be readily made; and some of my own speculation.

Syntax and Thought

In Linguistics, the relationship between pre-linguistic thought and structured language can be imagined as shown in Figure 1.

verb - thought and syntax

Figure 1.

Thoughts first appear without linguistic structure. Our own experience with our own cognition is that thoughts are relational – they connect in a non-linear fashion with many other thoughts –  and they are instantaneous. People and things; their characteristics; possible actions or events; places; times; and all the many elements we use in speech exist alongside other thoughts such as our emotions and intuitions, all as a shifting mass of complex connections. Such an unstructured mass is obviously less than ideal as a format of communication.

Thus, thoughts must be codified – put into a structured form – for communication to and interpretation by others. This codified structure, a blueprint for which exists within every healthy human mind, is known by linguists as Syntax. The translation of thoughts into language and back into thoughts is almost constant, since, even we we aren’t communicating with others, we speak to ourselves inside our minds, in both sentence fragments and complete sentences, all the time.

The structure of language is logical and systematic; Syntax (which corresponds to the grammar of a language) is made up trees of mental data, made up of many small, flexible pieces, called XPs (Where P means a Phrase and X is the generic variable, so the term XP means a ‘Phrase of any sort’. there is more a detailed description of XPs here). XPs and Syntactic movement, especially in the Verb Phrase, are discussed below.

Syntax and grammar

Grammar is the name given to the rules describing the subset of Syntax that is considered most appropriate in formal communication in society; Syntax, however, is a scientific description of language as it is structured in the mind. These two things are very similar, but they are not the same. Numerous constructions that are ungrammatical, for cultural reasons, are Syntactically quite valid.

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2. The relationship between the Subject, Verb, Object and other nouns related to the Verb (Arguments).

Before discussing the Verb Phrase, it is necessary to quickly examine how it fits into the sentence or clause as a whole.

Subject, Verb and the Arguments of the Verb

As with all speech, the Subject, the Verb and the Verb’s Arguments (for example, the Object) are assumed to model some part of our unspoken thoughts (our pre-linguistic thought).

Subject and Predicate

The simplest logical division of a sentence or clause is into Subject and Predicate – the Subject is the thing the sentence is about, the Predicate is whatever information follows and relates to the Subject.

(1) Mummy          is very tired.
(2) Daddy             will make your breakfast.
Subject                 :          Predicate

There are essentially two kinds of Predicates in English:

  • a Noun attribute, known as a Complement (which could be another Noun Phrase, an Adjective Phrase, or Prepositional Phrase or a Location Phrase), connected to the Subject Noun by to “be” Linking Verb*, as in example (1), above;
  • or a Verbal Predicate with a Verb Phrase often including Arguments of some sort (such as the Object). Both types of Predicates can include Adverbs, as in example (2), above.

The Subject is not one of the Arguments of the Verb. We can observe this ourselves this in our own speech: we can utter the subject of a sentence, (“my colleagues and I…“), without needing to have made any decision as to what we are going to say about the Subject; at this point the remainder of the sentence could consist of anything. This is not generally true for the Object and other Arguments. Thus, although it is a noun that relates to the Verb, the Subject is an independent entity.

(* N.B. we call the “be” Linking Verb, a ‘verb, but really isn’t – it is very similar to a Verb, but it is a slightly different thing, with its own properties, more properly known as a Copula.)

The Verb and its Arguments

Verbs are at the heart of language. Verb sentences in English come in great variety, comprising:

  • not merely Transitive and Intransitive sentences,
    • which include those with most Phrasal Verbs as well as with regular Verbs,
  • but also those Verbs that have Arguments that require Prepositional Phrases
  • as well as irregular and idiomatic Verb-like constructions, such as those involving Adjectives; and
  • for each Verb, the many uses of the Gerund, the Present Participle and the Past Participle.

The detailed relationship of Arguments to their Verb is discussed below.

Theta Roles

The form of the Verb Phrase – in particular with reference to the Object and other Arguments – is said to be defined by the Verb’s Theta Role, see Figure 2.

verb - subject and arguments 2

Figure 2.

The Theta Role is a property mentally applied to the Verb, that defines how the mind perceives the Arguments of the Verb. Most Verbs in English have a simple Theta role: they are either intransitive (having no arguments: “I arose”); or transitive or ditransitive (having an Object, “I picked a rose”, or both an Object and Indirect Object, “I gave my love a rose”). Some Verbs have a more subtle relationship with their Arguments – the mind seems not satisfied linking the Argument via the direct relationship offered by an Object, and, in English (other languages have different strategies), the Argument is connected to the Verb with a Preposition (e.g. “the contract allows for an extension”).

The basic parts of the Sentence: the CP, IP and VP

The Sentence in English has a very specific and quite rigid structure (discussed in detail elsewhere). At the start of the sentence are two XPs: the Complementiser Phrase (or CP), which is involved in the construction of questions and certain clauses; and the Inflect Phrase (or IP). As well as these, there is of course, the Verb Phrase, or VP. Surrounding these there may be various Adverb and Prepositional Phrases.

The Subject; and the Verbs, and its Arguments enter the Syntax at particular places: in English, the Subject, being separate from the Predicate (in a Verb sentence, the Verb Phrase), enters independently and in English is always located in the same place – the Specifier (or Spec) of the Inflect Phrase. The Verb and its Arguments enter the Syntax at the Verb Phrase. This is shown in Figure 3.

verb - arguments into syntax 3Figure 3.

In Syntax, Chomsky observed, elements acquire features by leftwards movement (i.e. Syntax is drawn left-to-right, so leftwards movement means they are spoken sooner); The elements in the Verb Phrase have a number of features, such as Tense, Voice, Mood and Aspect for Verbs and Agreement for Nouns. The precise movements that occur within the Verb Phrase are speculative, but Chomsky assures us that movement must have occurred for any such features to be present. Certain elements also leave the Verb Phrase, so their movements can be more precisely observed. These are discussed below.

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3. The basic movements of sentence elements that occur in Syntax.
This is the most difficult and Linguistically-based section of this post.
Skip past if you are not interested in the mechanics of Syntax. 

Before describing the movements that take place in English Syntax, let’s look in general terms at the Syntactic movements that can take place. As will be seen below, there are two kinds of movements that occur in Syntax: Head to Head Movement; and Movement to Specifier.

Syntax and movement

The great complexity of language is constructed on a simple modular framework of small units of language (described as ‘XPs’ -there is more about XPs here), that can combine together in huge trees of structured language. We use these mental structures both to communicate language and to interpret the language we receive through our senses.

As mentioned, ‘XP’ means ‘a phrase of any sort’ (X stands for the ‘any’ variable, x, and P for Phrase). The phrase (or XP) could be a Noun Phrase, an Adjective Phrase, a Verb Phrase; or one of the structural Phrase types only recognised in Linguistics, such as the Inflect Phrase or Complementiser Phrase. Each Phrase (or XP) is a small binary tree with two levels and three main positions: the Specifier (or Spec), a position where another Phrase can appear, or to which other Phrases can move; the Head, where the active content of the Phrase is located; and a point where another Phrase, known as a Complement, may be attached: see Figure 4.

verb - diagram - XP

Figure 4.

Figure 4 just shows two Phrase, but long trees of Syntactic data are connected in this fashion, each Complement having a Complement of its own.

As noted, Chomsky hypothesised that languages acquire their various orderings by leftwards movement. Elements of the sentence move to the left, and in doing so they acquire particular features. This movement takes place by one of a series of processes.

Head-to-Head Movement

One form of movement discovered by Chomsky – and the one most associated with the features of Verbs (such as Tense) – is Head-to-Head movement, shown in Figure 5; he observed that a Head, typically in English Syntax some form of Verb, can move to the next Head position to its left (and onwards, as long as there is no content blocking the way) and acquire a feature, such as Tense or Subject-Verb Agreement (e.g. Third Person Singular) from the Head it moves to. A head with such an attribute, but no content, is called a Functional Head – it contains a thought, but not a word. Words can move leftwards and pick up features, but only if the Head does not already have content. The content will usually be ‘marked’ on the word (i.e., it will change the form of the word, as with the Past Tense), but it doesn’t have to be (as we can see with some irregular Past Tense forms, where the word-form is unchanged).

verb - diagram - headtohead

Figure 5.

All the features of the Verb – the most feature-rich part-of-speech – come from this leftwards movement. The one we use all the time is when we ask questions. This explained in more detail here, but basically, the Verb moves from the Head of the Inflect Phrase (IP) to the Head of the Complementiser Phrase (CP), leapfrogging over the Subject, which remains at the Specifier of the Inflect Phrase (where it virtually always occurs). For example:

                                      You          do       love me !
              Spec          Head            Spec           Head             
          [  CP                               [  IP                                [ Verb Phrase             ]  ]  ]

                        Do         you          (*)       love me ?
                                      < – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
             Spec          Head            Spec           Head             

          [  CP                               [  IP                                [ Verb Phrase             ]  ]  ]

Here, the Head-to-head Movement gives the Auxiliary Verb “do” the ‘question’ feature, and makes a statement into a question. In fact, whenever Subject-Verb inversion occurs in English, this is what is happening. The Subject in English does not move, the Verb often does.

Movement to Spec

The other type of movement that occurs in Syntax is Movement to Specifier. This is where an entire Phrase (an XP), in Complement position, moves leftwards to a Specifier position in a higher Phrase, not necessarily to its neighbour. This is a very common type of movement for Noun Phrases, and explains much of the variation in sentence ordering in the world’s languages.

Some features are passed on by Movement to Specifier. It is possible that Nouns gain Case (e.g. Nominative or Accusative Case) this way. Noun Phrases and other Phrases can also be ‘Topicalised’ (to move to the start of the sentence and gain emphasis) via Movement to Spec.

verb - diagram - tospec

Figure 6.

Some examples of both these kinds of movement, and how they bring about different Clause types can be found here.

Dianne Massam, the Australasian Linguist, noted that in Movement to Spec, an XP can leave behind some of its dependent Complements (phrases attached to it). The implications of this will be discussed below in the section on Adverbs and Prepositional Phrases.

verb - diagram - spec remnant

Figure 7.


Another form of movement I haven’t discussed before is the projection of a Light Head. This type of movement is less well understood, but it seems that a Light Head, or simply another XP, can be projected leftwards, gaining positions to which XPs can move-to-Spec.

verb - diagram - projection

 Figure 8.


As first observed by the linguist Guglielmo Cinque, in his work on Adverbs and Adjectives, it is now known that a successive series of Movements to Specifier can occur, which ‘roll up’ a sequence of phrases, so that they appear in reversed order. This is known as Pied-Piping.

verb - diagram - piedpiping 2

Figure 9.

In Figure 9, the Phrase ZP moves to the Spec of YP, then YP with ZP attached moves to the Spec of XP. In this way, the ordering X,Y,Z becomes Z,Y,X. This process is understood to occur within Noun Phrases in French, which is why French Adjectives follow the Noun and occur in reverse order to English. It is also a process that often occurs between the Verb Phrase and its Adverbs in English.

Projection of an XP, with Movement to Spec

Many Phrases, Adverbs are a notable example, do not have their content in the Head, but at the Specifier. Movement to Specifier, and thus Pied Piping, can still occur with Phrases of this type; and it is believed that this may involve the Projection of another XP above the Phrase to which the moving element moves. When Pied Piping occurs between Adverbs and the Verb Phrase in English, it is believed this may involve the Projection of a Phrase from above the Adverb Phrase, as shown in Figure 10.

verb - diagram - adverbFigure 10.

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4. How the movements described above affect the order of elements, such as Nouns, Verb and Adverbs, in English sentences.
In this post, Syntax meets grammar in a detailed way for the first time.

Movement in the English Verb Phrase 

To repeat again what has been said above, the syntax of the English Verb Phrase has two XPs in a fixed position at the start – the Complementiser Phrase (or CP), which is only used in questions and clauses; and the Inflect Phrase (or IP), which is the heart of a typical sentence. After the CP and IP, sentence order is subject to a lot of movement, and the precise ordering of elements varies, but before Secondary Movement it follows the basic order:

CP     –     IP     –     Adverbs     –     Verb Phrase     –     Prepositional Phrases

verb - arguments into syntax 3(Figure 3.)

As we saw in Figure 3 (repeated above), the Subject enters the Syntax at the Specifier (Spec) of the IP Phrase. This is virtually always the case – nearly every well-formed English sentence requires a Subject, and it is always in this position.

The Verb and its Arguments (Object etc) enter the Syntax at the Verb Phrase. Within the Verb Phrase it is believed that there is a certain amount of  movement that always occurs. This ‘Obligatory Movement’, as it is known, is different for different languages (though it may be similar); and (as Chomsky observed, and as mentioned above) from it the various elements of the Verb Phrase acquire their features: the Main, Auxiliary and Modal Verbs – are marked for Tense; Person and Number (i.e. third person singular on the present tense); Mood; and the Participle forms that convey Aspect.

Once Obligatory Movement has taken place, Secondary movement occurs. The Verb Phrase and elements inside it undergo both kinds of movement – Head to Head and Movement to Specifier. Head to Head Movement of Auxiliary and Modal Verbs – which undergo leftwards movement, either all the way to the Head of the IP, or stopping before the IP and interacting with any Adverbs preceding the Verb Phrase, is discussed below.

The entire Verb Phrase itself can also move. There are various places the Verb Phrase can move to, but the most common  is for the it to interact with its Adverbs (the natural position for which which is after the Inflect Phrase, but before the Verb Phrase) via Movement to Specifier, or even Pied Piping (both described above), with the result that one or more of the Adverbs may end up after the Verb Phrase. This is shown in Figure 11.

verb - piedpiping sentenceFigure 11.

In Figure 11 (above), the Verb Phrase and one of its arguments (a Prepositional Phrase) has moved to the left of an Adverb, then that Adverb Phrase along with the Verb Phrase has moved to the left of another Adverb. When Adverbs in English appear after the Verb Phrase, this is the process by which they get there; and this process results in Adverbs at the end of a Sentence preferring a reverse order to those at the beginning. When the Verb Phrase moves, it must include its Objects and Result Phrase (if it has them); it prefers to include its Dependent Prepositional Arguments (required or preferred Arguments connect by a Prepositional Phrase); and it may or may not include any subsequent, non-dependent Prepositional Phrases.

For example:
       She has           usually    carefully     guided the project to completion.
          Inflect Phrase       Adverb 1          Adverb  2           Verb Phrase with Object and Argument
      She has            guided the project to completion     carefully      usually.
         Inflect Phrase        Verb Phrase with Object and Argument              Adverb 2              Adverb 1

Since the Verbs Phrase can include non-dependent Propositional Phrases when it moves, or leave them behind, these can mix with Adverbs after the Verb Phrase fairly freely.
For example:
       She                finally    finished the project    with her team       on Friday.
          Inflect Phrase    Adverb        Verb  Phrase                             Prepositional Phrase      Prepositional Phrase
[ VP and Prepositional Phrase prior to moving       ]

      She                 finished the project    with her team      finally   on Friday.
         Inflect Phrase      Verb Phrase with Object        Prepositional Phrase     Adverb      Prepositional Phrase
[ VP and Prepositional Phrase having moved        ]

Semi-formal and casual English prefer a moderate to high degree of tension, and movement induces tension. Furthermore, this tension can produce emphasis (and does when applied Adverbs). Emphasis is often required with Adverbs, and thus the position after the Verb Phrase is the most common position for typical Adverbs in spoken English. Compare the the following:

  • “I expect you to quickly do your work.”
    (adverb in natural pre-VP position, low tension, not emphatic.)
  • “I expect you to do your work quickly!”
    (adverb in post-VP position, some tension, emphatic.)

Basic Sentence Structure

Thus, these basic movements, that the Verb Phrase and its elements undergo, produce the basic sentence structure of English, shown in Figure 12.

verb - resulting sentence2

Figure 12.

Thus, after these types of movements, the basic sentence structure of English has the Complementiser Phrase (CP) and Inflect Phrase (IP) at the start, followed optionally by Adverbs, then the Verb Phrase, followed optionally by Adverbs and Prepositional Phrases. There are obviously many variations to this structure, all a consequence of various Syntactic movements and insertions, but this is the basic sentence structure.

From this basic structure, other sentence orderings can be produced, as shown in Figure 13.

verb - sentence auxiliaries3

 Figure 13.

Some of the movements that occur from the Verb Phrase are discussed below. The movement of the Modal Verb or first Auxiliary Verb to the Head of the Inflect Phrase (the heavy arrow in Figure 13) occurs with almost every Modal or Auxiliary construction. Movement of elements into the Complementiser Phrase (CP), very often involve some sort of clausal change; these movements are discussed elsewhere.

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5. Verbal constructions – how the individual elements within the Verb Phrase move, in more detail.

Now that we’ve looked at the Syntactic movements that affect the Verb Phrase; and had a first look at the Subject, Verb and the Arguments of the Verb, their movements and how this affects English sentence structure, let’s have a look at these movements in more detail.

Obligatory and Secondary movement

The following discussion deals with two types of movements – Obligatory and Secondary. Obligatory Movement, as the name suggests, is required for a sentence to be Syntactically ‘correct’ and capable of being processed without difficulty by and English-hearer. Secondary Movement may follow very regular patterns, but is not essential for a sentence to be capable of interpretation and therefore Syntactically correct.

Formal grammar is natural Syntax; casual grammar is still Syntactic

Before beginning this discussion, an important point needs to be made. In English, by and large  our formal grammar reflects the most Syntactically natural position for elements of the sentence. This is cultural. The ‘natural’ position of an element is the position that produces the lowest tension in language processing. This ordering includes some secondary movement – in particular of the Modal or first Auxiliary to the Head of the Inflect Phrase; and certain formal expressions may involve Secondary Movement, for example for emphasis or structuring of ideas.

However, the natural position for an element is not the only possible position. Anything that can be processed by the language centre of an English-speaker’s mind (without needing to be logically reinterpreted*) is Syntactically ‘correct’. Formal English grammar strongly prefers the natural, lowest-tension sentence orderings; and in formal grammar these are considered ‘correct’; but casual and slang varieties of spoken English are readily processed by English listeners. Certain secondary movements produce more mental tension than formal English; and many casual and slang varieties of English seem to prefer these higher-tension constructions.

(*For example, you may be able to understand, “go him home to morning in,” but only after logically reinterpreting it; whereas, “he went home this morning,” can be interpreted automatically by the brain’s language centre.)

Thus the analysis of sentences which may not be ‘correct’ in formal English, but are readily comprehensible by an English hearer,* can yield many clues as to what is happening in the English Verb Phrase. Several such ‘ungrammatical’ examples are used below.

(*For example, “I done it already,” which is grammatically incorrect according to standard English grammar, but Syntactically perfectly acceptable, as it can be processed by the English-hearer without reinterpretation. Syntax may be similar, but it is not the same as grammar)

 Verb Movement and Projections

As repeatedly noted, Chomsky – the great discoverer of the essential mechanics Syntax – notes that words* gain features by leftwards movement. Any word that possesses or is ‘marked’ for tense, inflection, case or some other feature must have gained it (for example a verb form) by moving to a point in the Syntax where this feature was applied. This is not an abstract thing – it is a cognitive process; these are places in the mind or brain where the mental connection for that feature occurs. All such movement (as Chomsky says) is leftwards movement, which in real terms (since Syntax is transcribed from left to right) means the element is brought forward in time – when we think of the word and feature, we say it sooner than we would have if the feature had not been applied.

(*although you will seldom hear a linguist use the common-English term ‘word’.)

In English, our verbal constructions take three basic forms:

  • A single tensed and/or inflected Main Verb (in English teaching these are called the Simple Present Tense and Simple Past Tense, though these terms are misleading).
  • A Verb with Aspect (Perfect or Continuous) and/or Passive Voice, consisting of a tensed or inflected Aspect or Voice marker (a “be” or “have” verb), and positions for two Participles, one of which can be another Aspect marker, and the last of which must be the Main Verb.
  • A Verb with Mood, consisting of a Modal Verb and a Bare Verb (Bare Infinitive), which may be the Main Verb.
    Mood can also co-occur with Aspect and/or Voice; the two Participle positions are still available and, as above, can be filled by a “be” or “have” Verb or the Main Verb.

In all these cases, the last, or rightmost Verb component must be a form of the Main Verb.

verb - movement main 3

 Figure 14.

As shown in Figure 14, the Verb enters the Syntax from ‘thought’, the pre-linguistic state (represented by the blue cloud!), at a position somewhere in the Verb Phrase. It may be that the Verb and the various Auxiliaries and Modals move straight from the pre-linguistic state into the positions where they gain features, or they may move into an unmarked base position, where they have no features, before moving leftwards and gaining features. The precise movements are still a matter of speculation.

As shown in Figure 14, the natural position for Adverbs is between the Inflect Phrase and the Verb Phrase (although, via the mechanism described in Sections 3 & 4 above, above, they can also follow the Verb Phrase). It is by observing the position of the Main and Auxiliary Verbs relative to their Adverbs that movement can be deduced. This is discussed in more detail below.

A very important point to note is that in English, the Main Verb, whatever its form (tensed and inflected, Bare or Participle) never leaves the Verb Phrase. Only Modal and Auxiliaries can leave the Verb Phrase. English is interesting in this respect. English is a highly Aspectual language: Modals and Auxiliaries (the Aspect markers) experience a strong pull to the Head of the Inflect Phrase (adjacent to the Subject position, as shown in Figure 14). In no variety or register of contemporary English, no matter how casual, is it grammatical for the Main Verb to leave the Verb Phrase and move to the Head of the Inflect Phrase. This makes English unlike all other European languages.

In fact, this is extremely interesting. Inflected forms can occur within the Verb Phrase, which suggests inflection is not applied at the Head of the Inflect Phrase (which many linguists assume to be where it occurs in other European languages); and only Aspect markers and Modals are pulled to the Head of IP. This may be because “be”, one of the two Auxiliary Verbs, is the only verb in English that still inflects on more than just third-person simgular; or it may relate somehow to the highly Aspectual character of English – that there is a Mood and Aspect matching feature at this position, which is unmarked (i.e. it doesn’t change the form of the word).

Take, for example, the  following three sentences:
–  (i)       She normally would have informed me.
–  (ii)      I never have seen him clean the car.
–  (iii)     He usually is asked to clean up. [ungrammatical in formal English]

In each case the adverb (in italics) precedes the Modal or Auxiliary (in bold), suggesting the Modal or Auxiliary probably hasn’t undergone Secondary Movement, and is still within the Verb Phrase. Of these three sentences, (i) is the lowest-tension, the closest to the natural Syntax. (ii) is slightly higher tension, noticeably more than the natural ordering, “I have never seen him clean the car,” and (iii), “he usually is asked to clean up,” with the “be” verb, really quite quite high tension, too far from the natural ordering to be allowable in formal grammar.

The fact that “be” is by far the most inflected Verb in English, and that it experiences the greatest pull to the Head of the IP, suggests that inflection genuinely is an important factor in pulling the “be” Auxiliary to the Head of the Inflect Phrase. This pull is noticeably less in the Modal Verb (which is uninflected) and the “have” Auxiliary (only lightly inflected). It doesn’t completely explain the movement (to my mind), but it is clearly a significant factor.

Furthermore, in Shakespearean and Middle English, inflected formal verbs (say, saith, sayest etc.) do appear move to the Head of the Inflect Phrase (and from there to the Head of the Complementiser Phrase, as in the classic Shakespearean question, “what sayest thou?”), which is further evidence that a certain degree of inflection is the main factor pulls Auxiliary Verbs out of the Verb Phrase – though perhaps not the only one.

It seems to me that inflection cannot be the only pulling factor, as Modal Verbs do not inflect, and yet they are pulled into the IP. It is my suspicion that there are other aspects of Subject-agreement in relation to Mood and Aspect, although not outwardly realised in word-form, also causing the movement of Modals and Auxiliaries to the Head of the Inflect Phrase.

Let’s look now at each of these three verbal structures.

Simple tensed or inflected Verb 

English has two Verb forms, misleadingly* called the Present Simple and the Past Simple. They consist of a single Verb, either unmarked (the Present form, apart from third person singular), or the Past form.

(*these are misleading because the Present Simple does not relate to equivalent Present Tense forms in other languages, but is actually used to express the Habitual Aspect).

verb - movement tensed

Figure 15.

We know the Main Verb never leaves the Verb Phrase, because (barring certain very specific constructions) and Adverb can never appear between the Verb and its Object. Since Adverbs can appear both immediately before and immediately after the Verb Phrase (via the mechanism described earlier in Section 3), the Main Verb must be within the Verb Phrase.

In formal English, the Verb can take the following forms: the Present Tense is unmarked (the same as the Bare form) with the exception of the third person singular; the Past Tense is marked for tense, but not for Person or Number. It is due to this relatively minimal marking that English is referred to as a ‘minimally inflecting’ language; and this is given as one reason the Verb is not pulled out of the Verb Phrase by the Inflect feature at the Head of IP.

In casual English, the Verb can also take the form of a Participle, as in:
       “I done it this morning.”
It’s interesting to speculate whether this is just a morphological (word form) change, or whether the Verb is actually moving to the position in Syntax that applies the Participle feature (which, as can be seen below, is further right than the position for tense and inflection), without projecting an Auxiliary Verb to the left.

This slang variation is interesting, because it can be used as both a classic Present Perfect (describing an event in time from the past until the past), as well functioning as a Past form. For example:

(a)        “I been doing it since I was a kid” (Perfect Aspect)
(b)        “I done it this morning” (Past Tense)

Only the Past Participle can be used this way in casual English, never the Present Participle. For example, “I doing it now,” is never grammatical even in very casual standard English.

What this shows I have no idea, but I find it interesting.

Aspect and Voice

English has more than two Aspects, but only three are expressed using regular Verb forms. The Habitual Aspect is expressed with the Simple Present form (above). The Perfect and Continuous Aspects are expressed with Auxiliary Verbs and Participles. The Passive Voice is also expressed with an Auxiliary Verb and a Participle. English has other Aspects, but they are expressed in different ways, either with irregular constructions or via Adverbs. The three constructions using Auxiliary Verbs are as follows:

  • Perfect Aspect: “have” Auxiliary + Past Participle
  • Continuous Aspect: “be” Auxiliary + Present Participle
  • Passive Voice: “be” Auxiliary + Past Participle.

These three constructions can be combined, in the order above, as long as the Participle positions are available. It is possible that English Syntax allows for three Participle positions, although most constructions with three Participles sound Syntactically wrong (in my experience as an English speaker). For example:

     The car    has                    been        washed.
                                   Inflected Verb        Participle     Participle
     The car    is                       being       washed.
                                   Inflected Verb        Participle     Participle
     The car    would be         being       washed.
                                   Modal + Bare         Participle     Participle
     The car    has                    been        being             washed.
                                   Inflected Verb         Participle     Participle              Participle 

It may simply be that the the “been being” combination is ugly, and there is space for another Participle, as the following, although quite casual, sounds Syntactically acceptable:

       The kid    has                    been        getting          picked on.
                                   Inflected Verb          Participle       Participle             Participle 

Although if “been being” were merely unaesthetic, and not Syntactically wrong, one would expect would “be being” to be equally unaesthetic, which it isn’t (note the third example above). The Participles are also Adjectives; so it may be that a triple-Participle construction like the one above is, in Syntax, a Linking-Verb with two Participles with a further Participle in an Adjective position in the Complement of the Linking Verb; or there may actually be three Participle positions (or even a flexible number of Participle positions). The mind is capable of great flexibility; and language is rich with exceptions. However, for most Verb constructions, it can be assumed that English only allows two Participle positions.

verb - movement aspect 2

Figure 16.

Figure 16 shows the movement of the first Auxiliary Verb to the Head of the Inflect Phrase, which as noted is evident by the usual position of Adverbs relative to this element. Other Auxiliary Verbs are also capable of leaving the Verb Phrase. This is unusual when there is only one Adverb located before the Verb Phrase, but when a sentence has more than one Adverb, particularly in casual English, it is not unusual. For example:

       “We      have                always     been       carefully    using      it.
                               Inflected Verb        Adverb           Participle     Adverb              Participle
[ Verb Phrase       ] 
       “It         has                  always      been       carefully    used.
                               Inflected Verb        Adverb           Participle     Adverb              Participle
[ Verb Phrase      ]

We know that these Auxiliary Verbs have left the Verb Phrase because Adverbs do not appear within the Verb Phrase. When Adverbs are intermingled with verbal elements it is because those other things have left the Verb Phrase. It’s a little complicated, but as Section 3 showed, there is simply no Syntactic mechanism by which an Adverb can enter the Verb Phrase.


verb - movement modal

Figure 17.

Mood, as shown in Figure 17, can be expressed on its own (via a Modal Verb and a Bare Infinitive), or can be combined with Aspect or Voice, with the two Participle positions allowing a combination of any two Aspect/Voice constructions. Just as with Aspect and Voice, the Bare Infinite may leave the Verb Phrase. In fact, with the “have” Auxiliary, it is more common for the Bare Infinitive (“have”) to leave the Verb the Verb Phrase and encliticise (join onto another word) – in the form ” ‘ve “, than to remain a separate word. For example:
       I would‘ve done that.
is a far more common construction than:
       I would have done that.

The other Auxiliaries, although not the Main Verb, can also leave the Verb Phrase, as can be seen in the following examples:

       I   would        have            usually     done        that.
                  Modal Verb     Bare Infinitive   Adverb           Participle
                                                                                                [ Verb Phrase             ]
       I   would        usually    have            been      quickly     doing      that.
                   Modal Verb     Adverb         Bare Infinitive   Participle    Adverb            Participle
                                                                                                                                              [ Verb Phrase             ]
       I   would        have             usually     been      quickly     doing      that.
                   Modal Verb     Bare Infinitive   Adverb           Participle    Adverb            Participle
                                                                                                                                              [ Verb Phrase             ]

It should be noted that these generally sound rather casual,since formal English typically prefers only the tensed and inflected first Auxiliary to leave the Verb Phrase, but they are not Syntactically wrong: an English hearer may note the low register, but will have no trouble interpreting the sentence.

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6. The Arguments of the Verb (such as the famous Object and Indirect Object), and introducing the incredibly exciting Result State (an Argument of the Verb) !

Objects and Arguments

The Verb Phrase doesn’t only contain Verbs (and various sub-Verbs), it contains the Arguments of Verbs (the most well-known of these is the Object, but there are others). The Arguments of the Verb are one area where linguistics gives a much more complete picture than traditional grammar. In traditional grammar, we speak of the Object, the Indirect Object and Dependent Prepositions (Prepositions required by a particular Verb), but these are best understood as all being different forms of Arguments of the Verb; and there are Arguments of the Verb understood by linguistics that are miscategorised in traditional grammar.

verb - subject and arguments 2(Figure 2)

As we remember from Figure 2 (repeated above), in linguistics we use the term ‘Theta Role’ to describe the way Arguments (Noun Phrases etc) are connected to the Verb. These relate to the various semantic relationships between Verbs and their Arguments, known as roles*. There is not an exact match between these semantic categories and their treatment in English Syntax; there would appear to be subtle psychological and cultural reasons why certain Arguments are treated in particular ways (particularly in terms of the apparent irregularity of Preposition usage).

(*These roles are: Patient, Theme, Agent, Recipient, Beneficiary, Recipient, Experiencer and so on. Patient and Theme are usually expressed as the Object, Recipient and Beneficiary may be an Indirect Object or expressed via a Dependent Preposition, Agent and Experiencer are typically the Subject, other roles are usually expressed via Prepositional Phrases.)

verb phrase objects arguments 2Figure 18.

Figure 18 shows the various Arguments as they appear in Syntax. At (a) we see the Object and Indirect Object, which are well understood by traditional grammar. At (b) we can see Dependent Prepositional Phrases; these are Arguments of the Verb connected by Prepositions – in other languages such required Arguments might be expressed in a different Case (such as Ablative or Dative in Latin, for example). These are not ordinary Prepositional Phrases, because (although there is some flexibility) they strongly prefer to remain within the Verb Phrase and hence to appear before Adverbs and Prepositional Phrases outside the Verb Phrase. For example:

(i)    I provided      options      for the client              politely         at the office.
                                           Object               Prepositional Argument       Adverb                   Prepositional Phrase
[  Verb Phrase                                                                               ] 
(ii)  I provided      options      politely          at the office              for the client.
                                           Object              Adverb                   Prepositional Phrase          Prepositional Argument
[ Verb Phrase                         ]

Example (i) above, sounds smoothly Syntactic and is easily interpreted. Example (ii), while not recognised as grammatically incorrect, has a great deal of Syntactic tension, and clearly requires a moment’s thought to interpret – I would regard it as Syntactically wrong, or at best borderline (in fact, at this example, “for the client” wants to attach to “the office”.

The Result State – a part of speech unknown in traditional grammar

It is Figure 18 (c) which has the most interesting examples for traditional grammarians. In conventional grammar, certain Location Particles (such as there and out) are classified as Adverbs*, but this is dissatisfying because they act so differently from all other Adverbs. Recent linguistic study (my introduction to this was in the writings of Sigrid Beck) has identified a position in the Verb Phrase referred to as the Result State.

(*In fact, it is one of those ‘true jokes’ that in grammar, anything that cannot be otherwise classified is called an Adverb.)

The analysis I have read has focused on Adjectives in this position that express the result of the verbal action. Beck’s oft-quoted example is:

       Thorin      hammered        the metal          flat.
                                     Verb                             Object                         Result State
                                    [ Verb Phrase                                                                         ]

I would suggest that, judging by their position in the Verb Phrase, Location Particles must be either adjacent to this position, or that they occur in the same position; and they clearly also typically express a goal or outcome. For example

       Thorin      threw        the cat          out.
                                     Verb                 Object                  Location (Result State?)
[ Verb Phrase                                                                         ]

Furthermore, it is possible for both a Location Particle and a Result Adjective to occur at the same time, which suggests there are two positions within the Result State (although it is possible that these represent a phrase occupying a single location). For example, in (i) below, the Location particle and Adjective have independent meaning, whereas in (ii) they could be interpreted as a single two-word element:

(i)     Thorin      spread        the paper          out           flat.
                                     Verb                 Object                           Location        Adjective
[ Verb Phrase                                      [ Result State                    ]   ]

(ii)    Thorin      knocked        Gloin          out cold.
                                     Verb                      Object                Result State
[ Verb Phrase                                 [ Result State ]  ]

Location Particles are particularly interesting as they seem to take their own Adverb-like Modifiers. Traditional grammar regards these modifiers as Adverbs, but I believe they are another different, as-yet-unclassified part-of-speech since they cannot function as regular Adverbs. For example, one can say:
       “I put it straight back,” but
       “I straight put it back,” sounds extremely archaic;
and one can say:
       “I put it right up high,” but
       “I right put it up high,” is completely ungrammatical.
Since neither of these supposed Adverbs can function in the natural position for Adverbs (before the Verb Phrase), this suggests they are Result State modifiers unrecognised by traditional grammar:

        I     put     the cookie jar        right         up             high.
                     Verb       Object                                Modifier          Location        Adjective
[ Verb Phrase                 [ Result State Phrase                             ]  ]

Another interesting fact about the Result State is that the entire Result State Phrase is extremely prone to Topicalisation (movement to the Specifier of the Complementiser Phrase (CP), the first position of the sentence). For example:

                The little boy      ran                       straight back   home.
                       Subject                           Verb                               Modifiers (x2)              Location
            [ CP    [ IP                                [ Verb Phrase               [ Result State Phrase                             ]  ]  ]  ]

               Straight back    home           the little boy     ran.
                     Modifiers (x2) Verb      Location              Subject                         Verb
           [ CP   [* Result State Phrase (topicalised) ]     [ IP                                [ Verb Phrase       (trace*)    ]  ]  ]

I have one final point regarding Result State; although I have not read on this subject, it is my intuition that Phrasal Verbs* also make use of the Result State. This simply seems logical as Phrasal Verbs make use of many of the same particles (out, up etc) and change the meaning of Verbs in somewhat similar ways.

(*or ‘Verb and Particle Constructions’ as they termed in linguistics, somewhat needlessly, since the earlier term Phrasal Verb is both unique and descriptive.)

Phrasal Verbs (Verb and Particle Constructions)

There is a great deal of variation in Phrasal Verbs, they are a very natural verb type, long in use in English, widespread as far back as the early Middle English period (nearly 1000 years ago). Phrasal Verbs are a very natural verb form in English, and feature prominently in spoken English. Unlike the Latinate Verbs, which were consciously adopted, Phrasal Verbs seem to occur almost spontaneously – generally in casual English, occasionally making their way up into the higher registers of Business English and formal English.

phrasal verbs arguments alone

Figure 19

Figure 19 shows just the Phrasal Verb section of Figure 18.

One of the most interesting and striking things about Phrasal Verbs (which I will probably cover in more detail in another article) is the way they interact with Noun and Pronoun Objects. There are two positions in which the Noun or Pronoun can appear, either between the Verb and Particle or after the Verb and Particle. There are two common ways that Phrasal Verbs interact with Nouns and Pronouns. In the first type, the Particle is a Preposition and it relates directly (to some degree) with the Noun.

(i)            Please     put            the picture          up.
                                           Verb                Object                            Result State
(ii)            Please    put up     the picture            (*).
                                            Verb               Object                            Result State
(iii)           Please    put           it                            up.
                                            Verb               Object                            Result State
(iv)          Please     put up       it.
                                            Verb                Object 

The example above shows a classic Phrasal Verb, with a Location Particle as its Particle. The behaviour of Phrasal Verbs of this type is quite regular (though of course not perfectly regular – that would be un-English!) A Noun Object can appear either between the Verb and Particle, or after the Particle, but a Pronoun Object can only appear between the Verb and Particle. What seems to be happening here is that, when the Object is a full Noun Phrase, the Location Particle in the Result State position is able to append itself to the Verb, to form a two-word Verb in the Main Verb position. The exact mechanism for this, and why there is no such movement (if it is Syntactic movement, it may be a morphological, or word-form change), is an interesting question for which I do not know the answer.

(v)     Please       hand          your timesheet      in.
                                      Verb                 Object                                   Particle (Preposition)
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase    ]  ]  
(vi)    Please       hand         it                                in.
                                       Verb                Particle (Preposition)       Particle (Preposition
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase     ]  ]  
(vii)   Please       hand in   your timesheet        (*).
                                       Verb                Object
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase      ]  ]  
(viii)  Please       hand in     it                               (*).
                                       Verb                  Object
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase      ]  ]

Examples (v)-(viii) are structured exactly the same as (i)-(iv), although they have a Preposition in the Result State position. In fact certain Prepositions (in, over, for example) readily act as Location Particles, so these could more accurately be called Location Particles and not Prepositions.

The second type of Phrasal Verb is more interesting, however:

(ix)   Please       look        over                           this email.
                                     Verb              Particle (Preposition)          Noun Phrase
                                                           [ Prepositional Phrase “over this email”    ]

(x)   Please         look        over                         it.
                                       Verb              Particle (Preposition)       Pronoun
                                                             [ Prepositional Phrase “over it”                    ]
(xi)   Please         look        this email               over.

                                       Verb              Noun Phrase                     Particle (Preposition)
                                                                                                          [ Result State                  ]
(xii)  Please         look        it                              over.

                                       Verb              Pronoun                             [ Result State                  ]

In examples (ix)-(xii) above, there are possibly two entirely different things going on. The Verb “look” can take Prepositional Phrases as Arguments, for example: “Please look at this email.” In the case of “look over,” the semantic change in the Verb is relatively slight: “look over” has a sense of ‘scrutinise’, but it may also involve literally ‘looking over’ (in the sense of looking at every part). For this reason, the Preposition “over” is able to combine into a Prepositional Phrase with both the Noun and the Pronoun (examples (i) & (ii)).

However, as shown in Figure 19 (ii), it seems possible that the Particle “over” is also able to occupy the Result State position, with the Noun or Pronoun in the Object position.

Finally, there is another type of Phrasal Verb, that has a Verb and two Particles. For example:

(xiii)   He         looks       up                     to his sister
                                  Verb               Location                  Prepositional Phrase
                                                         [ Result State   ]       [  Other Argument       ]
(xiv)  He          looks       up                     to her.

                                  Verb              Location                    Prepositional Phrase
[ Result State   ]        [  Other Argument     ]

In the example above, what is happening is that an intransitive (i.e. Object-less) Verb and Particle construction is taking an Argument as a Prepositional Phrase. These constructions are very regular, and, as with other Prepositional Phrase Arguments, it’s not impossible for an adverb to appear between the Main Phrasal Verb and the Prepositional Phrase Argument. For example:

He           looks up           adoringly        to his sister
                      Verb and Particle    Adverb                     Dependent Prepositional Phrase
                      [ Verb Phrase   ]                                        [  Other Argument       ]
Please     hold on             tightly             to the guardrail
                      Verb and Particle     Adverb                    Dependent Prepositional Phrase
                     [ Verb Phrase   ]                                         [  Other Argument     ]

I can’t     keep up             easily               with the changes
                      Verb and Particle      Adverb                    Dependent Prepositional Phrase
                    [ Verb Phrase   ]                                         [  Other Argument     ]

There is some tension when a Prepositional Phrase Argument leaves the Verb Phrase, but each is Syntactically correct. Conversational English (unlike formal English) prefers a little Syntactic tension and Phrasal Verbs are generally casual constructions, so the examples above are acceptable in spoken English.

In fact, as we saw earlier in Section 3, what is actually happening here is that the Verb Phrase in each case is moving leftwards, from its natural position to the right of the Adverb to a position to the left of the Adverb, but leaving one of its Arguments behind.   

Right Dislocation: Heavy Noun Phrases and Complement Clauses

Finally, referring back to Figure 18 (above), it should be noted that there is one more quite interesting thing that happens with the Arguments of Verbs, relative to the Adverbs that surround them.

As has been explained numerous times above, an Adverb may not appear between the Main Verb and its Object. This whole long article on the Verb Phrase has explained the mechanics as to why this is so. However, there is an interesting phenomenon, known as ‘Right Dislocation’, the exact mechanics of which are not agreed upon, which can see a Noun Phrase appear to the right of the rest of the sentence, if it is ‘heavy’ (in linguistics jargon); in other words, if it is longer than usual.

In real terms, what it means is that an Adverb or Prepositional Phrase can appear between the Verb and an Object or a Complement Clause, if the Object or Complement Clause is fairly long. This is especially true for Complement Clauses; and it is particularly common when it involves Prepositional Phrases rather than Adverbs. Here are some examples to make it clear.

For example:
       “I scribbled hurriedly a note
is ungrammatical and Syntactically wrong, but:

“I scribbled hurriedly a confusing explanation of the reasons for my hasty departure,”

…is Syntactically acceptable.

For example:
       “She told me, in a hushed whisper, her news,”
is ungrammatical, but:

“She told me, in a hushed whisper, the terrible and blood-chilling news of the disaster,”

…is Syntactically acceptable.

For example:
       “She blurted out, suddenly, her problem,”
is ungrammatical, but:

“She blurted out, suddenly, that it had all been a huge mistake and no one would listen to her,”

…being an example of Right Dislocation of a Complement Clause, is Syntactically acceptable.

Complement Clauses, in fact (e.g. the Statement Clause in Reported Speech) are quite susceptible to Right Dislocation. For example:
       “She told me, angrily, what she knew,”

…is completely grammatical and Syntactic, despite being a very ‘light’ Complement Clause.

One of the theories I have heard discussed is that there is possibly a Zero Pronoun of some sort in the actual object position, and thus the Right Dislocated element is appearing, in effect as, an Adjective Clause (a ‘that’ Complement Clause, such as, “that it had all been a terrible mistake,” can act as an Adjective Clause). For example, it would be grammatical in English it say:

“She told me it, in a hushed whisper, the terrible and blood-chilling news of the disaster,”

… in which the Heavy Noun Phrase is simply an ordinary Adjective Clause; or

“She told me it, in a hushed whisper, that it had all been a terrible mistake.”

…in which the Adjective Clause is a Complement Clause.

Syntax is not grammar, so simply because the rules of grammar do not ‘permit’ something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in the Syntax.  If the Pronoun, it, is Syntactically ‘unrealised’ (i.e. unspoken) in either sentence above, it would produce Right Dislocation quite neatly.

Order of movements

I have described above the various movements that take place to produce the complex verbal structures of English. As we have seen, there are essentially two types of movements – leftwards Head-to-Head Movements of Auxiliary and Modal Verbs; and Movements to Specifier causing the entire Verb Phrase to interact with Adverbs. The interesting question arises: which type of movement occurs first?

One might think that if Head-to-Head movement occurred first, with one of the Auxiliary Verbs moving to a position between Adverbs (which we have seen is possible) and then Movement to Specifier occurred, it ought to be possible for the Auxiliary Verb to end up after the Verb Phrase with the post-VP Adverbs. However, this is completely Syntactically wrong:

He will            usually    be         quickly      walking to work
[ Inflect Phrase ]   Adverb 1      Aux V        Adverb 2         [ Verb Phrase               ]
He will            usually    walking to work              be         quickly
[ Inflect Phrase ]   Adverb 1      [ VP after Movement to Spec ]     Aux V        Adverb 2

This suggests that Head-to-Head Movement may occur after Movement to Specifier, but this is also impossible. The rules of Syntax forbid it; and there is no known case of a Head leaving a Phrase that has undergone Movement to Specifier. So apparently Head to Head Movement occurs first, but some other process prevents the above from being possible.

I will discuss the subtleties of Adverb placement in a future post.


This has been a general discussion of the Verb Phrase. We have looked briefly at the Subject; the Verb; and the Arguments of the Verb; where they enter English Syntax; the basic movements that affect the Verb Phrase and its individual elements (Auxiliaries and Modals); the formation of Tense, Mood and Aspect and what XPs might be involved in the the acquisition of these features; the Arguments of the Verb, including the Result State and Dependent Prepositions.

There are many details to this that weren’t covered – it would literally be impossible to describe all the linguistic subtleties and variations of the English Verb Phrase in anything short of a large book – but I hope it was a useful and interesting overview.

(c) Copyright: Christopher John Watson 2015