6 Chapter 6. Verb Phrases

Adapted from Hagen, Karl. Navigating English Grammar. 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

In the previous chapter, we examined some of the basics of sentence structure. Over the next few chapters, we will deepen our understanding by studying how the most important phrase types are structured. Because every sentence has a predicate, and every predicate is a verb phrase, every sentence is ultimately structured around a verb. We will therefore begin with verb phrases.

In Chapter 3, we saw that some words shared enough structural principles that they deserved to be grouped into a category: verb. Although the members of this category have certain things in common, they do not all behave identically. In particular, verbs differ with respect to what attributes can appear within their phrase. Different verbs require different attributes. Consider, for example, what attributes can appear after a verb like neglect:

(1a) Reginald neglected his hygiene.
(1b) *Reginald neglected.
(1c) *Reginald neglected hygienic
(1d) Reginald neglected his chores.
(1e) *Reginald neglected his hygiene his chores.
(1f) *Reginald neglected his chores unpleasant.

As these examples show, neglected requires exactly one noun phrase to follow it (1a and 1d). It does not permit us to drop the NP (1b) or to replace it with an AdjP (1c). It also doesn’t allow two NP’s (1e) or one NP and one AdjP (1f). All of these permutations, however, are possible with other verbs:

(2a) Reginald primped. [verb only]
(2b) Reginald seems hygienic. [verb + AdjP]
(2c) Reginald gave his barber a tip. [verb + NP + NP]
(2d) Reginald found his chores unpleasant. [verb + NP + AdjP]

Because the verb determines the rest of the structure, we will say that the verb licenses (i.e., permits) these constituents, which are known as complements. Thus neglected licenses a single noun phrase after it, and no other pattern. In this instance, we could say that the verb requires a noun phrase, rather than simply permitting one. One complement that is required by every verb is the subject.[1] But in many cases, verbs license multiple patterns:

(3a) Susan ate dinner.
(3b) Susan ate.

As the examples above show, eat can be followed by a noun phrase or by nothing at all. To call the complement required, therefore, can be misleading if you assume that “required” means only one pattern is permitted.

Although verbs differ in what complements they license, there are a relatively small number of patterns that occur very frequently. We can, therefore, group verbs into subtypes based on what complements they license. The following patterns are essential to recognize.

Transitive Verbs (VT)

As the examples in (1) above show, verbs like neglected must be followed immediately by a noun phrase called the direct object.

(4) Bob kicked John.

In (4), John is the direct object. In this case, which is the prototypical situation, the direct object is used to indicate the thing affected by the verb.[1]

Verbs that have direct objects are known as transitive verbs. Note that the direct object is a grammatical function rather than a form. That function is usually filled by a noun phrase.

One useful test for transitive verbs is to see if you can change the sentences in which they appear into passive equivalents. The direct object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive version:

(5a) The fans applauded Jennifer’s performance. [active]
(5b) Jennifer’s performance was applauded by the fans. [passive]

If a sentence can be made passive, it is transitive. Be aware, however, that a small subgroup of transitive verbs (e.g., cost, resemble), do not have a passive equivalent. So if you cannot make a sentence passive, the verb may not be a transitive verb, but you need to check more closely.

We will label transitive verbs VT, which stands for “verb-transitive.”


[1] When we talk of the usual range of meaning for the direct object, we are indicating its semantic function, or thematic role as it is often called. The usual name given to this particular role is the patient. We won’t have much to say about these semantic roles, but they should not be confused with grammatical roles like direct object. Note also that the direct object actually plays a much wider range of roles than the patient, but in these cases, it still has the same grammatical properties as the central cases in which the NP is a patient.

Intransitive Verbs (VI)

Some verb are distinguished by what doesn’t appear after them. These verbs are not followed by either a noun phrase or adjective phrase:

(6a) A howl rose.
(6b) *The audience rose a howl
(7a) Margaret slept.
(7b) *Margaret slept her bed.

We call these verbs intransitive and will label them “VI.”

Unlike other types of verbs, intransitives can end sentences. Note, however, that intransitive verbs are not required to end the sentence. They can be followed by adverbs, prepositional phrases, and other optional elements:

(8) A howl rose from the audience.
(9) Margaret slept peacefully.

Such optional elements are called adjuncts of the verb phrase. Adjuncts can be added to any of the subtypes of verbs and don’t serve to distinguish one subtype from another. We will return to adjuncts, and how to tell them apart from complements, after we have finished our survey of verb patterns.

Linking Verbs (VL)

Some other verbs can be followed by a noun phrase, but this NP bears a different relationship to the subject.

(8a) Lewis remained an obstinate man.

In this case, the NP to the right of the verb does not identify an object that is separate from the subject, as was the case with transitive verbs. Effectively, this NP renames the subject. If we think about what’s going on here in terms of predication, the second NP predicates something (that is, it makes an assertion) about the subject. Contrast that with transitive sentences like (4) above, repeated here for convenience:

(4) Bob kicked John.

Here, the second NP (Bob) doesn’t predicate anything about the subject (John) directly. Only the entire verb phrase does the predication. For this reason, these phrases are not called objects but subject complements, because they complete (complement) the meaning of the subject.

Because the NP after the verb is not a distinct object, linking verbs are not transitive. They are a special kind of intransitive verb, one with complex predication.[1] One consequence of being intransitive verbs is that linking verbs cannot be made passive:

(8a) *An obstinate man was remained by Lewis.

Linking verbs can also be followed by an adjective phrase, in which case the AdjP describes some characteristic of the subject:

(9) The president looked haggard.

Whether this phrase is an AdjP or an NP, it fills the same grammatical role: subject complement.[2]

Linking verbs are a small class. Some examples: seem, become, remain, taste, smell, feel. We will label such verbs VL.


The most common verb in English, and also the most irregular, is to be. This verb is generally considered a linking verb. Like other linking verbs, BE[3] can take a subject complement, either an NP or an AdjP:

(10) That toddler is a hyperactive child. [NP: subject complement]
(11) Dorothy Parker was witty. [AP: subject complement]

Unlike other linking verbs, you can also follow BE with a modifier that indicates a place, either literally or metaphorically:

(12a) My mother was in the next room. [PP: place]

Ordinary linking verbs do not permit this construction:

(12b) *My mother became in the next room.

We will label BE as another linking verb, but you should be aware of its differences from other members of this category. Later we will find still more ways in which BE is an exceptional verb.



[1] Many grammar books treat linking verbs as a separate category, neither transitive nor intransitive, but we are considering transitivity to be a binary quality. Any verb can be categorized as transitive or intransitive, but there is more to verb-phrase structure than just transitivity.

[2] Some grammar books call subject complements either predicate noun or predicate adjective depending on whether they are noun phrases or adjective phrases, but we will not use those terms, because they blur the distinction between form (NP or AdjP) and function (subject complement).

[3] By writing the verb in capital letters, we mean any of the forms of the verb. In this instance, BE includes am, are, is, was, were, be, been, and being.

Ditransitive Verbs (VD)

The transitive verbs we examined above had only one mandatory phrase following them. Some verbs, however, are followed by two noun-phrase objects: one is the object acted upon (the direct object), the other is the recipient of the direct object. The NP that receives the direct object is called the indirect object. It gets this name because it is presumed to be less directly affected by the verb than the direct object. Notice that the indirect object comes before the direct object:

I.O. D.O.
(13a) The school board gave the teachers a raise.
I.O. D.O.
(14a) The exchange student bought her hosts a thank-you gift.

Because such verbs have two objects they are called ditransitive verbs, in contrast with the monotransitive VT verbs. There is no generally accepted label to distinguish this verb type from ordinary monotransitive verbs, so we will label them VD.

Verbs that allow this two-noun-phrase pattern often have an alternate form where a prepositional phrase serves the same function as the indirect object:

(13b) The school board gave a raise to the teachers.
(14b) The exchange student bought a thank-you gift for her hosts.

Many grammar books label these prepositional phrases indirect objects, but technically they are not. The prepositional phrases here play the same semantic role as the equivalent indirect objects, a role known as the recipient, but remember that semantic roles differ from grammatical roles. Recipient is a semantic role, indirect object is a grammatical role.[1] A verb can only be VD if it is followed by two noun phrases. If it is followed by only one NP, it is an ordinary monotransitive (VT) verb.

Ditransitive verbs can be made passive just like monotransitive ones. The passive forms of ditransitive verbs move one object into the subject position and leave the other in the original place. Usually, however, it is the indirect rather than the direct object that is moved. Moving the direct object typically sounds slightly strange:

(15a) Teachers were given a raise by the school board.
(15b) ?A raise was given the teachers by the school board.


[1] Notice that our logic here in distinguishing indirect objects from PPs with the same semantic role is exactly parallel to the uncontroversial treatment of by-phrases in passive sentences (e.g., “John was kicked by Bob”). There, the by-phrase expresses the role of the actor, the same role played by the subject in the active equivalent (“Bob kicked John”). But no one would call by Bob the grammatical subject of the passive sentence. That role is filled by John.

Complex Transitive Verbs (VC)

Some verbs are followed by two phrases, but they have a different order and function from VD verbs: (16) My grandpa calls [teenagers] [blithering idiots]. In (16), we have two NPs after the verb, but notice that the relationship between the two is not what we saw with ditransitive verbs. The first NP, teenagers is not receiving idiots. It’s not an indirect object at all. In fact, it’s the direct object of calls (the thing that’s being named). The second NP isn’t receiving anything either. It’s renaming the direct object. If that sounds similar to what an NP after a linking verb does that’s no accident. This too is a complement, but since it refers to the object, we will, sensibly enough, call it an object complement. An object complement renames or defines a quality of the direct object. Like subject complements, object complements can also be adjective phrases: (17) Some linguists consider [Noam Chomsky] [mistaken]. Just as linking verbs are a type of intransitive verb with complex predication, these verbs are a form of complex predication for transitive verbs. We will label such verbs VC.

Summary of Patterns

The following diagram above is not a sentence diagram. It shows how the different subtypes of verb relate to one another.

verb-type hierarchy

Here is a summary list of the five patterns we have learned, with the elements presented in linear order. This list is deliberately abstract. To see examples of sentences of these types, see the preceding sections:

1.Intransitive: subject + VI
2.Linking: subject + VL + subject complement
3.Transitive: subject + VT + direct object
4.Ditransitive: subject + VD + indirect object + direct object
5.Complex Transitive: subject + VC + direct object + object complement

And here are diagrams of the same patterns, showing how they typically appear in a clause:

Intransitive: instransitive structure

Linking: linking structure
Note: to be can have subject complements of other phrase types, e.g., PP, etc.

Transitive: transitive structure

Ditransitive: distransitive structure

Complex Transitive: complex transitive structure

Looking at the list above, it becomes evident that the subject is the only complement that is found in every pattern. Subjects are also unusual in that they are not part of the verb phrase; they are known as external complements. All the other complements are internal complements; that is, they are part of the verb phrase and hence part of the predicate.

To analyze sentences fluidly, you need to learn these verb patterns thoroughly. You should be able to look at the constituents after a verb and say to yourself, “This pattern means that this verb is of type __”. Note that if you consult a major reference grammar such as A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language or The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, you will find more subtypes of verbs. These other patterns, however, are minor variations on the basic ones we have presented. If you understand these five, the subtler variations will be relatively easy to understand.

Just as words can fall into several different parts of speech, verb can employ several different patterns. For this reason, you can’t just assume that a particular verb will always fall into one subtype. You must look at the sentence in which that verb appears.


When we discussed intransitive verbs, we introduced the concept of an adjunct. Since these optional elements of the verb phrase play no role in deciding which verb pattern is used in a particular sentence, you don’t need to worry about them while you’re figuring out what pattern is used. In practical terms, this means you can disregard adverb phrases and prepositional phrases when determining the verb subtype.[1] (Note that we’re not ignoring them entirely; we’re just putting them aside temporarily while we figure out the basic pattern of the verb phrase.)[2]

Simply ignoring adverb phrases and prepositional phrases, however, will not be enough to allow us to distinguish all complements from all adjuncts. Under some conditions NPs and AdjPs can also be adjuncts. If we don’t distinguish those adjuncts, we can misanalyze our sentences.

(18) My wife fed the dog freshly-cooked chicken.
(19) My wife fed the dog Tuesday morning.

In both (18) and (19), two NPs follow the verb fed. (18) is straightforward. The dog receives the chicken; we have a pattern of indirect object + direct object. On the other hand, if we try to fit (19) to the same pattern, things seem strange. Is Tuesday morning being fed to the dog? Clearly not. The other pattern with two NPs, VC, doesn’t make much sense either. For that to work, Tuesday morning would be the object complement. But clearly that phrase isn’t renaming the dog. Tuesday morning actually tells us when the action occurred. In other words, it is an adjunct, and fed in (19) is of type VT, with only a direct object as a complement.

If all this seems very intricate, don’t despair. First, the better you know the basic patterns, the easier it will be to spot the unusual cases. Second, there is a relatively simple test to distinguish complements from adjuncts: do so substitution. The phrase do so, changed as necessary for the appropriate tense and number, can be used to replace a verb phrase and all its complements. It does not replace the adjuncts, however:

(18a) My wife fed the dog freshly-cooked chicken yesterday, and I did so today.
(19a) My wife fed the dog Tuesday morning, and I did so Wednesday evening.
(19b) *My wife fed the dog Tuesday morning, and I did so the cat.

In (18a), did so replaces the verb and both noun phrases (fed the dog freshly-cooked chicken). In (19a), it replaces fed the dog, but as (19b) shows it cannot replace fed in the morning, or even fed alone.


[1] Some verbs (e.g., put) do require certain prepositional phrases; strictly speaking, such prepositional phrases are actually complements rather than adjuncts. But since none of our verb subtypes involve prepositional phrases, you do not need to distinguish between PP complements and adjuncts for this course.

[2] In some grammar books, you will find verb-phrase adjuncts called adverbials. This label is meant to express the traditional notion that such prepositional phrases and other constituents function in the same roles that adverbs do, while keeping distinct the form (AdvP, PP, etc.) from the function (adverbial). Although the desire to distinguish form and function is sound, I don’t use the term because in practice I have found that the similarity in form between adverb and adverbial produces continuing confusion.


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Collaborative Textbook on English Syntax Copyright © 2022 by Matt Garley; Karl Hagen; and The Students of ENG 270 at York College / CUNY is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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