Finite and Nonfinite Clauses

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As a working definition, let us say that clauses contain at least a verb phrase:

[MC [VP Stop]]
[MC David [VP composed an aria] when he was twelve]

[MC My solicitor [VP sent me a letter] yesterday]

As these examples show, clauses can also contain many other elements, but for now we will concentrate on the VP. We have already seen that verbs (and therefore the VPs that contain them) are either FINITE or NONFINITE, so we can use this distinction to classify clauses. Clauses are either finite or nonfinite.

Finite verb phrases carry tense, and the clauses containing them are FINITE CLAUSES:

[1] She writes home every day (finite clause -- present tense verb)
[2] She wrote home yesterday (finite clause -- past tense verb)

On the other hand, nonfinite verb phrases do not carry tense. Their main verb is either a to-infinitive [3], a bare infinitive [4], an -ed form [5], or an -ing form [6]:

[3] David loves [to play the piano]
[4] We made [David play the piano]
[5] [Written in 1864], it soon became a classic
[6] [Leaving home] can be very traumatic


Matrix clauses are always finite, as in [1] and [2]. However, they may contain nonfinite subordinate clauses within them. For example:

[MC David loves [SubC to play the piano]]

Here we have a finite matrix clause -- its main verb loves has the present tense form. Within it, there is a nonfinite subordinate clause to play the piano -- its main verb play has the to-infinitive form.

On the other hand, subordinate clauses can be either finite or nonfinite:

Finite: He said [SubC that they stayed at a lovely hotel] -- past tense

Nonfinite: I was advised [SubC to sell my old car] -- to-infinitive

In each of the following sentences, decide whether the bracketed clauses are finite or nonfinite.

1. [Everybody left just after the ceremony] Finite
2. [Inviting your sister] was not a great decision Finite
3. I'll be home around ten [if my train is on time] Finite
4. [They expect Susan to do all the work] Finite
5. [Deprived of oxygen], plants will quickly die Finite


More on Clauses and Sentences...


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