Verb Phrase

by Craig Shrives

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What Is a Verb Phrase? (with Examples)

A verb phrase consists of a main verb and any auxiliary verbs.
verb phrase
More examples of verb phrases (highlighted):
  • I painted the fence.
  • (The verb phrase is a single main verb.)
  • I was painting the fence.
  • (The verb phrase is the auxiliary verb "was" and a main verb in the form of a present participle.)
  • I had painted the fence.
  • (The verb phrase is the auxiliary verb "had" and a main verb in the form of a past participle.)
  • I might have painted the fence.
  • (The verb phrase is the modal auxiliary verb "might," the auxiliary verb "have," and a main verb in the form of a past participle.)
  • I should have been painting the fence when the lightning struck.
  • (The verb phrase is the modal auxiliary verb "should," the auxiliary verbs "have" and "been," and a main verb in the form of a present participle.)

Simple and Complex Verb Phrases

A verb phrase consisting of just a main verb is called a "simple verb phrase." A verb phrase with more than one word (i.e., a main verb and at least one auxiliary verb) is called a "complex verb phrase."
  • Lee ate the pie.
  • (This is a simple verb phrase.)
  • Lee was eating the pie.
  • (This is a complex verb phrase.)
Verb phrases are necessary to express the main verb's tense, mood, or voice.

Verb phrases expressing tense:

Verb phrases tell us whether the action was in the past, present, or future. They also tell us the aspect of the verb, i.e., whether the action is completed or ongoing.
  • Mark was singing for hours.
  • (This is a complex verb phrase. It tells us the activity (singing) was in the past and that it was an ongoing activity.)
  • Mark will have sung his song before dinner.
  • (This is another complex verb phrase. It tells us the activity (singing) will be in the future and that it will be completed.)

Verb phrases expressing mood:

Verb phrases tell us the verb's mood, i.e., whether it is to be regard as a statement, a question, or an order.
  • Mark sings at parties.
  • (This simple verb phrase tells us the verb is a statement, i.e., a verb in the declarative mood.)
  • Sing your song.
  • (This simple verb phrase tells us the verb is an order, i.e., a verb in the imperative mood.)
  • Will Mark sing at the party.
  • (This complex verb phrase (specifically the word order) tells us the verb is a question, i.e., a verb in the interrogative mood.)

Verb phrases expressing voice:

Verb phrases tell us the verb's voice, i.e., whether it is active or passive.
  • Mark sang at the party.
  • (This simple verb phrase tells us the verb is active, i.e., the subject of the verb (Mark) is performing the action.)
  • The song was sung by Mark at the party.
  • (This complex verb phrase tells us the verb is passive, i.e., the action of the verb is being done to the subject of the verb (the song).)

The Order of Verbs in a Verb Phrase

The main verb in a verb phrase is always last. The order of verbs in a complex verb phrase is as follows:
  • modal auxiliary verb
  • auxiliary verb "to have"
  • auxiliary verb "to be" (for tense)
  • auxiliary verb "to be" (for the passive voice)
  • main verb
Here are some examples:
verb phrase
subjectmodal
verb
to haveto be
(tense)
to be
(passive voice)
main
verb
Timwalks.
Timwaswalking.
Timhadwalked.
Timhasbeenwalking.
Timmighthavebeenwalking.
The doghasbeenwalked.
The dogcouldhavebeenwalked.
The dogmighthavebeenbeingwalked.

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See Also

Verb conjugation Verbs for kids What is verb tense? Glossary of grammatical terms

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