What Are Verbals? (with Examples)

Verbals

A verbal is a verb form that does not function as a verb. Verbals function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. There are three types of verbals:
verbals

Verbals (Participles)

A participle is a verb form that functions as an adjective.

There are two types of participles: the present participle (ending "ing") and the past participle (usually ending "-ed,"" -d,"" -t,"" -en," or "-n").

Here are some participles being used as adjectives:
The VerbThe Present ParticipleThe Past Participle
To bakethe baking breadthe baked bread
To printthe printing documentthe printed document
To lowerthe lowering prices the lowered prices
Here are some real-life examples:
  • A stirring dwarf we do allowance give before a sleeping giant. (Playwright William Shakespeare)
  • (Two present participles)
  • Food is an important part of a balanced diet. (Author Fran Lebowitz)
  • (A past participle)
Often, a participle will head up a participle phrase that functions as an adjective. In the examples below, all participles are in bold and the participle phrases are shaded.
  • Drooling saliva over the day's mail, the barking boxer quickly singled out the parcel from the bills and junk mail.
  • (This example has two present participles. The first heads up a participle phrase that describes "the barking boxer." The second modifies "boxer" in the normal way.)
  • Baked in the oven for over six hours, the roast looked ruined.
  • (This example has two past participles. The first heads up a participle phrase that describes "the roast." The second describes the roast as a subject complement.)
Read more about participle phrases.

Verbals (Gerunds)

Even though gerunds look like present participles (i.e., they also end "-ing"), a gerund is a noun, not an adjective. Here are some examples of gerunds (shaded):
  • You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing. (Comedian Michael Pritchard)
  • Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. (Biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi)
  • I have never taken any exercise except sleeping and resting. (Author Mark Twain)
A gerund will often appear in a gerund phrase. A gerund phrase consists of a gerund, its object, and all modifiers. For example (gerunds in bold with the gerund phrases shaded):
  • Singing the words out loud helped him with his stammer.
  • I started by photographing birds in my garden.
Read more about gerund phrases.

Verbals (Infinitives)

An infinitive is a verb form (often preceded by "to," e.g., "to dance," "to sing") that can function as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. For example:

An infinitive as a noun:
  • To win was everything.
  • (The infinitive is the subject of "was.")
Compare it to this:
  • Winning was everything.
  • (This proves that the infinitive "to win" is being used a noun.)
An infinitive as an adjective:
  • It is an appropriate saving to propose.
  • (The infinitive modifies "saving." This means it is functioning as an adjective.)
Compare it to this:
  • It is an appropriate saving that he proposed.
  • (The clause "that he proposed" is an adjective clause. This proves that the infinitive "to propose" is being used an adjective.)
An infinitive as an adverb:
  • The man paid to watch.
  • (The infinitive modifies the verb "paid." This means it is functioning as an adverb.)
Compare it to this:
  • The man paid so he could watch.
  • (The clause "so he could watch" is an adverbial clause. This proves that the infinitive "to watch" is being used an adverb.)
Read more about infinitives.

An infinitive will often appear in a infinitive phrase. An infinitive phrase consists of the infinitive and any objects and modifiers. For example (infinitives in bold with the infinitive phrases shaded):
  • She needed to find a lot of money quickly.
  • (The infinitive phrase is being used as a noun.)
  • I showed her the best way to make a Yorkshire pudding.
  • (The infinitive phrase is being used as an adjective.)
  • He set the camera to film whatever was eating his chickens.
  • (The infinitive phrase is being used as an adverb.)
Read more about infinitive phrases.

More about Verbals

We said at the start that verbals don't function as verbs. This is not strictly true because participles are used to form verb tenses. More specifically, present participles are used to form the progressive (or continuous) tenses, and past participles are used to form the perfect (or completed) tenses. However, participles cannot function as verbs by themselves. They require the help of the finite verbs "to be" or "to have." For example: #
  • He is eating his dinner.
  • (The present participle "eating" is part of the verb phrase "is eating." The verb phrase is functioning as a verb, but the verbal (i.e., "eating") cannot do this alone. It needs the help of "is" (i.e., the verb "to be"). This is an example of the present progressive tense.)
  • He has eaten his dinner.
  • (The past participle "eaten" is part of the verb phrase "has eating." The verb phrase is functioning as a verb, but the verbal (i.e., "eaten") cannot do this alone. It needs the help of "has" (i.e., the verb "to have"). This is an example of the present perfect tense.)

Why Should I Care about Verbals?

Native English speakers can use verbals without hitting any snags. Nevertheless, here are three good reasons to give verbals a little more thought.

(Reason 1) Participle phrases let you say two things efficiently.

Participle phrases are useful for saying two or more things about the subject, not only efficiently but also in a way that adds that variety to your sentence structures. In these examples, the participle phrases are shaded, and the participles are in bold.
  • Always willing to entertain others' ideas, Simon has a proven ability to build trust through regular and honest communication.
  • Showing utmost diligence in everything she does, Jill is adept managing disagreements.
This sentence structure (i.e., with a fronted participle phrase) is particularly useful when writing personal appraisals.

Read more about using fronted participle phrases for appraisals (on the "non-finite verbs" page - see Reason 2).

(Reason 2) Gerunds can reduce your word count and improve reading flow.

Sentences with lots of nouns (i.e., normal nouns, not gerunds) need to include the prepositions (e.g., "of," "with") and the articles ("a," "an," "the") required to make those nouns work. As a result, such sentences usually sound jolty and are unnecessarily long. For example (normal nouns in bold):
  • The development of the U-bend assisted with the removal of smells.
  • (This 11-word sentence has way too many nouns, prepositions, and articles. It's long and stuffy, and it doesn't flow naturally.)
As a rule, a well-placed verb is the best way to fix a jolty, noun-filled sentence, but gerunds (being a bit verb-like themselves) are also good for reducing your word count and creating better-flowing sentences. For example (gerunds highlighted):
  • Developing the U-bend assisted with removing smells.
  • (This 7-word version features two gerunds. It flows far better than the 11-word version above.)
Overusing nouns is common in business writing because staff members believe that noun chains make their writing sound more corporate.

Read more about avoiding nouns in business writing (on the "verbal nouns" page).

(Reason 3) An infinitive can usually replace "in order to."

To reduce your word count, you can often replace "in order to" with "to" without any loss of meaning.
  • Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work. (Actress Bette Davis)
  • (Here, the infinitive "to improve" has replaced "in order to improve," saving two words.)
Be careful when replacing "in order to" with just "to." Using "in order to" makes it clear that the text that follows is the reason for performing the action. Also, sometimes, using the full "in order to" is useful for removing ambiguity. So, remove "in order" to save save two words, but then check your sentence still reads okay.

Read more about replacing "in order to" with just "to" (on the "non-finite verbs" page - see Reason 3).
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 participles? What are past participles? What are present participles? What are participle phrases? What are gerunds? What are gerund phrases? What are infinitives? What are infinitive phrases? Glossary of grammatical terms