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Chapter 8: Non-finite Clauses

Non-finite clauses

The three kinds of non-finites


3  The Functions

4  Coordinating Non-finites

5 Conclusion



Keys to the Exercises


Special Topic: Dangling Modifiers, or `improper' adverbials

Further Reading


Chapter 7 deals with finite embedded sentences, i.e. those sentences that contain finite verbs. The present chapter deals with non-finite sentences (or clauses), i.e. those that contain only con-finite verbs. Non-finite sentences can only function as parts of another sentence; they are not considered well-formed sentences on their own in formal writing but as sentence fragments.

            First, I list the three kinds of non-finite clauses and a review of the characteristics of non-finites. Then, as in the case of finite embedded sentences, I will illustrate the functions that non-finite clauses have. Tree structures are provided in section 3, and instances of coordinated non-finites in section 4.


1.         Non-finite Clauses

There are three kinds of non-finite clauses: their verb groups contain infinitives, present participles, or past participles. We'll first consider infinitives.

            There are two types of infinitives: one with to, as in (1), and a bare one, without to, as in (2). The bare one occurs only after verbs such as make, see, hear and feel, but the to-infinitive occurs very frequently:

1.         I expected him to go.

2.         I made him leave.

            Apart from infinitives, there are two other kinds of non-finite Verb Groups, usually referred to as participles: a present participle ending in -ing, as in (3), and a past participle ending in -ed or -en, as in (4):

3.            Walking down Rural Road, he was bothered by the traffic lights.

4.            Arrested last night, he is in jail this morning.

The form of arrested is a regular past participle because it ends in -ed. Remember, however, that past participles, like simple past tenses, can have irregular endings.

            As mentioned in chapter 6, non-finites fail to express tense. Thus in (5), the non-finite to walk in the subordinate clause is neither past nor present, but the finite verb is/was in the main clause determines the tense:

5.         [To walk in the Superstitions] is/was nice.

In addition, the verb in non-finite clauses displays no person or number marking, as is shown by the ungrammaticality of walks in (6):

6.         *[For him to walks in the Superstitions] is nice.

A third characteristic of non-finites is that the subject is not nominative. Thus, (7), (8), and (9) are grammatical with accusative him, but (10) with nominative he is not:

7.         I want [him to go].

8.         I heard [him/Edward playing a song].

9.         She couldn't bear to see [him/Edward suffering].

10.       *I want he to go.

            The non-finite clause can also be replaced by a verbal noun, as in (11), and then the subject bears genitive case, namely his/Edward's, rather than accusative or objective, as in (7), (8), and (9). This construction is often called a gerund in traditional grammars, and suffering is a noun rather than a verb:

11.       She couldn't bear to see [his/Edward's suffering].

            As (12) shows, a non-finite clause by itself is not a complete sentence:

12.       *Him to go.

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2.         The Functions of non-finites

The functions of non-finite clauses are similar to those of finite ones. They function at sentence level as subject in (13), and (5) above; direct object in (14), and (7) above; adverbial in (15), and (3) and (4) above; and subject predicate in (16):

13.       [Eating pancakes] is a pleasant thing.

14.       I love [eating pancakes].

15.       He went there [to see them].

16.       The problem is [to decide on what to eat].

            In chapter 10, non-finite clauses will be shown to function inside phrases as well. Here too, their function is similar to that of finite clauses.

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3.         The Structure: S'?

The structure for non-finites is debatable. I represent it by means of an S', as in (17), the structure for (7):


This means that I assume an empty complementizer which can be filled by for in a number of cases such as (18):

18.       I want for you to do your homework.

Non-finite clauses need not include a subject. The subject may be understood, as in (19). However, rather than represent the infinitive by just a VP, I will use an S', with an empty C and an empty subject NP, as in (20):

19.       To hike around Weaver's Needle is pleasant.


The reason I prefer (20) is that it is pleasant for someone to walk around Weaver's Needle; the tree expresses that there is a subject even if this subject is left unidentified.

            Sentences such as (3) and (4) above can also be represented as S', as in (21) and (22). However, as in the case of infinitives, there are grammarians who prefer a structure with fewer empty positions, i.e. a VP rather than an S':






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4.            Coordinating Non-finites

As is the case with finite clauses, non-finite clauses can be coordinated, as in (23), where the coordinated present participles function as subject:


23.            Gossiping about Zelda and chewing gum is hard to do at the same time.

Other examples are given in (24) to (26). The coordinated non-finites in (24) are the object to think; in (25) the complement to inclination (this will get clearer in chapter 10); and in (26), there are three coordinate clauses functioning as subject predicate. We can go over these in class, but the basic structure is like other coordinates, namely as in (27), a simplified (24):


24.       She could not think of Emma losing a single pleasure, or suffering an hour's ennui (adapted from Emma)

25.       Emma, Vol 2, chap 6

            But Emma, in her own mind, determined that he did not know what he was talking about, and that he shewed a very amiable inclination to settle early in life, and to marry.

26.            Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie

            Where ye see this word requite serue a double sence: that is to say, to reuenge, and to satisfie.

27.                   S

            NP                   VP

            She            VGp                             PP

            could not think P                    S

                                    of            S                      C                     S

                                    NP                   VP            or            NP                   VP

                                    Emma            V                     NP            Ĝ            V                                 NP

                                                losing            a single pleasure            suffering          an hour's ennui

Note that, for practical reasons (the tree not fitting on the page), I am using a coathanger in (27).

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5.            Conclusion

In this chapter, non-finite clauses are discussed. Their structure and function is quite similar to that of finite clauses. The difference in terms of structure is that often the complementizer does not appear and the subject can be absent. Non-finites function at sentence level as subjects, direct objects, adverbials, and subject predicates. Key terms are: non-finite Verb Groups: infinitives, bare infinitives, present participle, past participle; empty subjects.


A.        Draw a tree for the following sentences:

28.            Drawing trees is a good way for students to relax.

29.       I wanted to do that.

30.       For him to be doing that was stupid.

31.       Anselm made her read the paper.

32.       I saw him crossing the street.

33.       He set the alarm to be on time.

B.         Draw a tree for a sentence with two embedded sentences, one of which must be a non-finite clause functioning as direct object.

C.            Construct a sentence with three non-finite clauses.

D.        The following sentences are ambiguous. Why?

34.       Flying planes can be dangerous.

35.       Visiting aliens should be amusing on a Monday morning.

E.         Read Keats' poem "To Autumn" (also available at www.bartleby.com/101/627.html) and list the finite verbs in the first two stanzas. Discuss this in class.

            To Autumn

            Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

            Close bosom friend of the maturing sun,

            Conspiring with him how to load and bless

            With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

            To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,

            And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

            With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

            And still more, later flowers for the bees,

            Until they think warm days will never cease,

            For summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

            Who hath not seen thee oft amid they store?

            Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

            Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

            Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

            Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,

            Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

            And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

            Steady thy laden head across a brook;

            Or by a cider-press, with patient look,

            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

            Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?

            Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, --

            While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

            And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

            Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

            Among the river sallows, borne aloft

            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

            And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

            Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

            The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

            And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Beginning of chapter

Keys to the Exercises


Special Topic: Dangling or Misplaced Modifiers, or Improper Adverbials

The prescriptive rule is as follows: "The subject of a clause with a participle in it (i.e. without a subject of its own) must be the same as the subject of the main clause".

Swan (!!1980: 455) provides the following rule: "It is usually considered [note the qualifiers, EvG] a mistake to make sentences like these in which the subjects are different: Looking out of the window of our hotel, there were lots of mountains . . . However, there are some very common expressions which break this rule. Generally speaking, . . . Judging from his expression, . . . Considering, . . .". Fowler (!!1926 [1950]: 675) says that "it is to be remembered that there is a continual change going on by which certain participles or adjectives acquire the character of prepositions or adverbs, no longer needing the prop of a noun to cling to". Hence, neither Swan nor Fowler are very critical of the use.

            `Incorrect' uses are given in (36) to (39). Some of these are funny because we automatically think of the modifiers as having the same subject as the main clause:

36.       Running down the street, the house was on fire.

37.            Referring to your letter of 5 September, you do not state ...

38.            Reading your essays last night, there were many good examples of dangling modifiers.

39.            Although spoken in Shakespeare's First Folio, we do not speak that way today.

40.       Lying in a heap on the floor, she found the clothes.

Sometimes, they seem to be able to refer to either the subject or the closest NP, as in (41), but I think the first meaning we come up with is the one where the waiter is drenched in syrup:

41.       The waiter brought the waffles to the table drenched in maple syrup.

            The subtitle of the book, adapted from Hamlet and repeated as (42), is also an instance of a possibly misplaced modifier. It depends on who is sleeping:

42.            Sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me.


Further Reading

For more on non-finite clause, see Quirk et al (1985: chapter 14); on dangling modifiers, see Quinn (1980: 112-4); Strunk at www.bartleby/141/strunk.html#7 [checked May 2000].


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