What Are Finite Verbs? (with Examples)

Finite Verbs

A finite verb is a verb that has a subject and shows tense. Here's an example:
  • John cooks carrots.
  • (The finite verb is "cooks." The subject is "John." The tense of the verb is the present tense.)
definition of finite verb with examples

Every sentence needs a finite verb. The main verb in every sentence will be a finite verb. In all the examples on this page, the finite verbs are shaded.

Easy Examples of Finite Verbs

  • Rachel is happy.
  • (In this example, "is" is a finite verb. The subject is "Rachel." The tense of the verb is the present tense.)
  • He painted the fence.
  • (In this example, "painted" is a finite verb. The subject is "He." The tense of the verb is the past tense.)
  • She was varnishing the painted fence.
  • (In this example, "was" is a finite verb. The subject is "She." The tense of the verb is the past tense.)
In the last example, "varnishing" and "painted" are non-finite verbs. That's next.

Finite Verbs versus Non-Finite Verbs

Finite verbs contrast with non-finite verbs. There are three types of non-finite verb:
  • Gerunds. All gerunds end "-ing." They are nouns formed from verbs.
    • John loves dancing.
    • ("Loves" is the finite verb. "Dancing" is a gerund. Note that, unlike "loves," it doesn't have a subject or show tense.)
  • Infinitives. Most infinitives have "to" before. An infinitive is the basic form of a verb.
    • John hates to sing.
    • ("Hates" is the finite verb. "To sing" is an infinitive. Note that, unlike "hates," it doesn't have a subject or show tense.)
  • Participles. This is the tricky one. There are two types of participle: present participles (ending "-ing") and past participle (usually end "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n").

    Participles can either function as adjectives (e.g., cooking oil) or follow a finite verb to help with tense (e.g., John was cooking dinner.).
    • John fixed the broken fence.
    • ("Fixed" is the finite verb. "Broken" is a past participle functioning as an adjective. Note that, unlike "fixed," it doesn't have a subject or show tense.)
    • John was fixing it.
    • ("Was" is the finite verb. "Fixing" is a present participle helping to create the past progressive tense. Note that, unlike "was," it doesn't have a subject of its own or give us any clue whether we're talking about the past tense, present tense, or future tense.)

Finding a Finite Verb

The best way to find a finite verb is to identify its subject and determine its tense. If you can do that, you're looking at a finite verb. Just to be extra sure, you can also eliminate everything else that looks like a verb by checking:
  • Is the word functioning as a noun and does it end "-ing"? If yes, it's a gerund.
  • Is it preceded by "to"? If yes, it's probably an infinitive.
  • Is it being used as an adjective? If yes, it's probably a participle.
  • Does it follow an obvious finite verb (e.g., "am," "is," "was," "has," "have") to create a tense? If yes, it's a participle.
Let's walk through this example:
  • Johnny likes cleaning and was trying to tidy the fallen leaves.
In the sentence above, the following derive from verbs: "likes," "cleaning," "was," "trying," "to tidy," and "fallen."

Let's run a check over them:
  • "Likes" has a subject ("Johnny") and shows tense (the present tense), so it's a finite verb.
  • "Cleaning" does not have a subject or show tense. It ends "-ing," and it's functioning as a noun. It's a gerund, i.e., a non-finite verb.
  • "Was" has a subject ("Johnny") and shows tense (the past tense), so it's also a finite verb.
  • "Trying" follows "was." It is helping to form the past progressive tense, but it does not have its own subject or show tense as a standalone word. It's a participle, i.e., a non-finite verb.
  • "To tidy" does not have a subject or show tense. It has "to" before. It's an infinitive, i.e., a non-finite verb.
  • "Fallen" does not have a subject or show tense. It's functioning as an adjective. It's a participle, i.e., a non-finite verb.
NB: Non-finite verbs are also called verbals.

Read more about the subjects of verbs.
Read more about tense.

More Examples of Finite Verbs

Here are some more examples with the finite verbs shaded. (Any non-finite verbs are in bold.)
  • You promised to save me a baked potato.
  • I am thinking about visiting the amusement park.
  • Everyone wanted to go to the amusement park, but we only had four tickets.
  • The spirits were rising from their graves to feast upon the living souls.

Modal Auxiliary Verbs Are Also Finite Verbs

A finite verb is always one word. Usually, it will be a standard verb in the past tense (e.g., played, ate), a verb in the present tense (e.g., plays, eats), or an auxiliary verb in the present or past tense (namely, am, is, are, was, were, has, have, had, does, do, or did).

But, here's a quirk. When a sentence includes a modal auxiliary verb (e.g., can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, would), it is the finite verb in the sentence, even though modal auxiliary verb don't change their forms depending on the subject or the tense. The modal auxiliary verbs are considered finite verbs because they are the first verbs in their verb chains and are immediately followed by bare infinitives.
  • You will pay for that.
  • ("Will" is the modal auxiliary verb and the finite verb. "Pay" is the bare infinitive.)
  • Alfie should have said no.
  • ("Should" is the modal auxiliary verb and the finite verb. "Have" is the bare infinitive. "Said" is a past participle.)
  • I can think whatever I like.
  • ("Can" is the modal auxiliary verb and the finite verb. "Think" is the bare infinitive. "Like" is a finite verb in the present tense with the subject "I." It is common to have more than one finite verb in a sentence. Remember that the main verb in any sentence will always be a finite verb, so there will always be at least one.)
Read about auxiliary verbs.

Why Should I Care about Finite Verbs?

If you're a native English speaker, then it is highly likely that you are brilliant at using finite verbs. Finite verbs cause few mistake for native speakers. However, if you're learning or teaching English, then it's essential to learn about finite verbs because a finite verb is at the heart of every sentence, and that finite verb will need to align with the subject and show the right tense. After learning some basic vocabulary, that's about as important as speaking a language gets!

Here's a good tip:

If you're learning a foreign language, spend time getting really good at using "to be" and "to have."

The most obvious finite verbs are those that come from "to be" ("am," "is," "are," "was," "were") and "to have" ("has," "have," "had"). As well as English, lots of other languages use these to form their perfect tenses (for completed actions) and their progressive tenses (for ongoing actions).

This means that just by learning how "to be" and "to have" go (or conjugate to give it it's real name), you will be able to dive straight into some natural-sounding talking in your new language, once you've learned a few common participles.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited and printed to create exercise worksheets.

See Also

What are non-finite verbs? What are verbs? What are adjectives? What is the subject of a sentence? What is verb tense? What are verbals? What are gerunds? What are infinitive verbs? What are participles?