Many people who speak and write with admirable grammar would not know how to answer the question, “What is a verb phrase?” This is not due to a lack of intelligence, but most likely to the fact the our educational system does not stress grammatical knowledge as strongly as perhaps it should.
But that is an opinion, and we need facts when it comes to grammar. Verb phrases are used in everyday speech and writing all the time, often without us being aware of it. Even if you just happen to be using them correctly, why not learn something factual about how we communicate?
You can do more comprehensive review of the rules of our language with this introduction to English grammar course.
What Is A Verb Phrase?
This is our original question, and this is a simplified answer: a verb phrase consists of a main verb and its dependents, or auxiliaries. These include complements, direct and indirect objects, and other modifiers. These do not include the subject.
What Do Verb Phrases Do?
We should already know that verbs communicate action, such as run or swim. They form the meat of the predicate of a sentence (predicates and verb phrases are similar and, under the correct circumstances, can be used interchangeably).
In fact, people often speak of there being “main verbs” in verb phrases. The main verbs are simply verbs: run, swim, eat, throw, dance, etc. These express the main idea of the verb phrase while the dependents provide detail for this idea, whether it be changing the tense of the verb, emphasizing the verb, asking a questions or forming a negative or passive verb.
Confused? Students learning English as s second language can grasp a better understanding with this free article on grammar exercises for ESL students.
It should be noted, however, that while adverbs may appear in the middle of verb phrases, they are neither verbs nor are they part of verb phrases. This is not the most important part of verb phrases, but if you really want to know the finer details of English, check out this advanced English grammar course.
Helping verbs often arise in the discussion of verb phrases. These usually precede the main verb and further aid it in expressing a wider range of ideas. There are three primary helping verbs (be, do, have) and ten modal helping verbs (can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, would). And, of course, all of the different forms must be considered, as well.
Simple Verb Phrases
These simple verb phrases stand alone and use only two piece: helping verbs and main verbs. This is the easiest way to see basic verb phrases:
Could + Swim = could swim
[could is the helping verb and swim is the main verb, forming the verb phrase could swim]
May + Cry = may cry
[may is the helping verb; cry is the main verb]
Should + Run = should run
Could Have + Listened = could have listened
Here are two examples of helping verbs used in complete sentences:
The dog has fetched the ball.
[has is the primary helping verb; has fetched the ball is the verb phrase, which includes the dependents fetched (the main verb) and the ball (the object)]
I do not like grammar.
[do is the primary helping verb; do not like grammar is the verb phrase]
Please note that helping verbs are happy to stand alone as the main verb, as in the sentence: The dog has the ball. In this case, has is now the main verb because fetched, out previous main verb, has been removed.
Let’s look at a few examples in which the verb phrase is split into two parts by a subject.
Have you eaten?
[have eaten is the verb phrase; you is not a part of it because it is the subject]
Throwing knives is dangerous.
[throwing is dangerous is the verb phrase; again, knives is omitted because it is the subject]
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As Adverbs Or Adjectives
Interestingly, while adverbs cannot be a part of verb phrases, verb phrases can function as adverbs or as adjectives. You would commonly see these at the beginning or end of a sentence, as seen below:
Swerving to the left, the man missed the deer.
[Swerving to the left is our verb phrase, providing necessary information about how and why the man missed the deer]
After she leaves, we can begin to discuss plans.
[After she leaves is our verb phrase, and again, this demonstrates when the people can begin to discuss plans]
Knowing grammar is essential to proper communication, but putting it together to make cohesive arguments is another skill entirely. If you want to improve your writing while you learn grammar, take a look at this grammar essentials class designed to boost writing skills.