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Ministry of Education.

Bringing It Together: Phrases

So far we have looked at five function categories: Subject Verb Object Complement Adverbial.

There are seven basic sentence structures using these categories. In summary, they are as follows:

  1. SV (subject + verb): Her face shone.
  2. SVO (subject + verb + object): Kath caught a trout.
  3. SVC (subject + verb + complement): Jim looked awful.
  4. SVA (subject + verb + adverbial): He is living in Timaru.
  5. SVOiOd (subject + verb + indirect object + direct object): Flora gave Kim the magic stone.
  6. SVOA (subject + verb + object + adverbial): Graham put the kitten in a basket.
  7. SVOC (subject + verb + object + complement): They painted the castle silver.

These function categories can take different forms.

My grandmother was baking a carrot cake in the afternoon.
She baked it today.
The old lady next door has been baking the most wonderfully moist carrot cakes during the school holidays.

The Noun Phrase

The subject function can be conveyed by a variety of forms:

Determiner + noun: The frog

Pronoun: It

Determiner + noun + prepositional phrase: The frog on the log

All of these are included under one umbrella called the noun phrase. A noun phrase nearly always contains either a noun or a pronoun. Most noun phrases can be seen as expansions of a central essential element, which is called the head of the noun phrase (unless the head is a pronoun, which usually stands alone).

  • dogs
  • the dogs
  • the young dogs
  • all the young dogs
  • all the boisterous young dogs in the street

Parts of the Noun Phrase

The noun phrase has three parts.

  1. Look for the headword: "dogs".
  2. Look for what is in front of the headword: "all the young". This is called the premodification of the head.
  3. Look for what comes after the headword: "in the street". This is called the postmodification of the head.
Premodification Head Postmodification
the dogs there
all the young dogs in the street
both the boisterous young dogs that were in the stree

Pronouns do not usually have postmodifiers apart from a few exceptions, such as: she who must be obeyed; he who dares all.

Complex premodification can often be found in advertisements: A new delicious healthy chocolate-coated muesli snack.

The Verb Phrase: Tense

A verb phrase is a main verb plus any auxiliaries.

  • They have been talking all day.

So far, we have seen that the verb function can be represented by different forms.

  • She smokes. (finite verb)
  • She was smoking. (aux. + present participle)
  • She has smoked. (aux. + past participle)

The verb carries information about the time of the event, which is called the tense.

  • Chris rode his bike yesterday. (past tense)
  • Chris is riding his bike now. (present tense)
  • Chris will ride his bike tomorrow. (future tense)

More on Tense

Tense is marked only on the first verb in the verb phrase.

  • Sam has (finite present tense) been (non-finite) painting (non-finite).

If we change this sentence to the past tense, "has" changes to "had", but the other verbs (the non-finite verbs) do not change.

  • Sam had (past tense) been (non-finite) painting (non-finite).

If we leave out the auxiliary HAVE in this sentence, the auxiliary BE moves up to first position and is in the present or past tense.

  • Sam is painting.
  • Sam was painting.

If we remove the auxiliary BE, the main verb is the first verb in the verb phrase and has the tense marking.

  • Sam paints.
  • Sam painted.

There is also a tense called the timeless present or habitual present.

  • She writes about penguins.
  • The frog has a moist skin.
  • Polar bears live in the Arctic.
  • He works for the government.
  • She reads the Woman's Weekly.


She reads the Woman's Weekly (regularly). This sentence is in the habitual present tense.

She is reading the Woman's Weekly (right now). This sentence is in the present tense, progressive aspect, to be explained below.

The habitual present is common when the language is conveying information, such as in reports, descriptions, and expositions. It is a verb form often encountered in school reading and writing.

In everyday speech, the habitual or timeless present is often used to refer to an action planned for the future.

  • I am cooking dinner tomorrow.
  • We go overseas next June.

In spoken narrative, it can also refer to past events, increasing the immediacy of the telling.

And there they are, standing at the airport, and their luggage is in Sydney, and they haven't a clean shirt between them.

People learning English as a new language can find these usages very confusing.

The Verb Phrase: Aspect

As well as the time element, the verb can also convey more information about the action of the verb. Is it continuous, complete or incomplete, in progress, habitual?

This information is termed aspect.

In traditional grammar, the terms imperfect and perfect were used.

Imperfect referred to an action that is or was still in progress or incomplete.

  • He was eating his dinner.

Perfect referred to an action that is or was complete or "perfected".

  • He ate his dinner.

The terms progressive and perfective are probably the most useful for teachers.

The progressive aspect refers to the verb BE with the present participle (the -ing form).

  • I am resting on the verandah.
  • She was reading in the library.
  • They were holidaying in the Coromandel.

The progressive aspect describes an event in progress. You can see this by comparing progressive and non-progressive verb phrases.

  • When the alarm sounded, Alan was walking downstairs.
  • When the alarm sounded, Alan walked downstairs.

In sentence (a), the verb "walk" is in the progressive. The sentence means that the event of Alan's walking downstairs was already in progress when the alarm sounded.

In sentence (b), the verb "walk" is not in the progressive. It tells you that Alan walked downstairs after the alarm sounded.

When verbs are describing a state rather than an event, they cannot be used with the progressive aspect.

In the following examples, the first shows an event, but the second has a stative meaning.

  • The Sea Scouts have their breakfast. (This is an event.)
  • The curtains have a bad stain. (This is a state.)

You can say:

  • The Sea Scouts are having their breakfast. (progressive aspect)

You can't say:

  • The curtains are having a bad stain. (This is the stative meaning of HAVE, so the progressive aspect cannot be used.)

It is a common feature of Indian English to use these stative verbs with the progressive aspect.

  • I am knowing very much about birds.
  • Pradesh is owning a new bicycle.

The progressive aspect is not the same thing as a tense.

The basic meaning of tense is past time, present time, or future time, but the progressive can combine with all of these.

  • We were playing pool when you rang last night. (past time)
  • We are playing pool - do you want to come over? (present time)
  • We will be playing pool when you get here tonight. (future time)

The perfective aspect refers to an action that is or was completed.

  • Jo has seen that film five times.
  • You still haven't done the dishes.
  • He had written the letter on Christmas Day.
  • I have cleaned the kitchen floor so wipe your shoes.

The perfective aspect applies to the verb HAVE (have/has/had) used with the past participle. (See page 34.)

The Verb Phrase: Active and Passive

These sentences use an active verb:

  • Vince painted the bedroom.
  • Sally rode the white pony.

These sentences use a passive verb:

  • The bedroom was painted by Vince.
  • The white pony was ridden by Sally.

Passive verbs "demote" the subject.

a) Vince painted the bedroom.
b) The bedroom was painted by Vince.

We can say that Vince is the agent in sentences (a) and (b) - in other words, in both sentences, he is the one who did the painting. However, in (b), Vince is no longer the subject. In fact, the agent can be left out altogether in passive sentences and they will still make sense:

c) The bedroom was painted.

In a passive sentence, the subject has the action done to it.

  • The Bunsen burner was lit. (by Jim)
  • The sheep were stolen. (by the man next door)
  • The tap was turned off. (by the teacher)
Subject Verb Object
Vince painted the bedroom.
Subject Verb Agent
The bedroom was painted by Vince.
  • In traditional grammar, the distinction between active and passive is referred to as voice - "active voice" and "passive voice". This term is still frequently used today; a verb phrase can also be described as having a "passive verb", or we can say the verb is "in the passive".
  • Passive verbs are commonly used in academic writing and scientific writing, where we need to know what happened but not necessarily who made it happen.

A bubble potometer must be set up very carefully. A bubble is introduced into the end of the tube. The rate of transpiration is shown by the speed of movement of the bubble. The bubble should not be allowed to reach the end of the stem.

Haydon, G. et al: Investigating Plants

The Verb Phrase: Modal Auxiliaries

So far we have discussed the auxiliary verbs HAVE and BE.

  • Christine is coming today.
  • Wynne has stayed at home.

HAVE and BE are the primary auxiliaries.

There is another set of auxiliaries known as modal auxiliaries or modal verbs: do, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must, ought.

do I do like your hat.
will I will take out the rubbish.
shall We shall overcome.
can They can all play the guitar.
may You may have another cake.
must You must clean your teeth.
ought We ought to apologise.

The following are also classified as modal verbs:

use I used to live in Dunedin.
need He need not come.
dare She dare not risk it.
BE I am to look after you.

Modal verbs indicate such things as intention, possibility, ability, obligation.

The modal auxiliaries will and shall are also used to indicate future time, forming what is sometimes called the future tense.

Modal verbs are unusual because there is no -s ending on the third person singular.

I can/dare/need I ride
you can/dare/need you ride
she can/dare/need she rides

Modal verbs have no non-finite forms. This also makes them different from other verbs and from HAVE and BE (the primary auxiliaries).

You can use HAVE, having, had, to have.

You cannot use MUST, * musting, * musted, * to must.

There can only ever be one modal in a verb phrase, and it always appears in front of any other auxiliaries.

I might + have + recognised him without the beard.
  modal aux. + aux. + verb

The verb that follows the modal is always in the base form

. (See page 34.)

  • We could be sitting in the sun.
  • I must take the cake out of the oven.

Some common modal verbs convey degrees of probability.

  • It might happen.
  • It may happen.
  • It could happen.
  • It must happen.
  • It should happen.
  • It will happen.

Probability can also be expressed through adverbs.

  • It is possibly true.
  • It is sometimes true.
  • It is usually true.
  • It is probably true.
  • It is always true.
  • It is certainly true.
  • Sometimes both methods might be used.
  • It could possibly happen.
  • It certainly must happen.

The vernacular usage: I could of, they would of, we must of, and so on occurs after the modal auxiliary. We don't find "have" shortened to "of" in sentences like:

  • They of been to the zoo.

Exploring Language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009