Verb phrase

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Verb phrase (symbol VP ) denotes a phrase in linguistics , i.e. a closed syntactic unit whose so-called head or core is a verb .


In addition to the verb, a complete verb phrase also includes the additions (=  arguments ) of the verb, optionally further free information such as adverbial terms can be added. Different syntactic models differ in whether the subject is part of the verb phrase or is outside of it, apparently there is also a difference between the grammars of different languages, or between different constructions within a language.

Direction parameters

When connecting a verb and its object , there are two basic types of language, depending on whether the verb stands as a phrase head in front of the object, as in the VO languages such as the Romance languages or English , or afterwards, i.e. in the OV -Languages ​​such as the Turkish language or German . With reference to the Latin script, one also speaks of a left- headed VP, as is typical for the Romance languages, or a right-headed VP, as for German. These directional relationships in the verb phrase often show correlations with the arrangement of the head and the addition in other phrases in a language, so they are used to name entire types of language.

Finiteness and infinity

Grammar theories differ in whether finite verbs can be the head of a verb phrase. Dependency grammars only recognize infinite verb phrases as constituents. In generative grammar (e.g. government binding theory ) the finiteness is outsourced as a separate syntactic head (aux or inflection ), the verb phrase is therefore neither finite nor infinite, but only becomes this in the syntactic composition. For German, it is mostly suggested in recent works that the finite verb can represent the head of a then finite verb phrase, which in the field model of the German sentence includes the middle field with the right sentence bracket.

Evidence of infinite verb phrases

An infinite verb is a verb without any markings for person, number, mode, or tense, which instead has one of the three infinitive variants of German. Candidates for an infinite verb phrase are then combinations of such an infinite verb and the corresponding additions. Since there can be several infinite verbs in a sentence, there are also several ways of dividing infinite verb phrases. In each of the following sentences, the infinite verb is underlined and the relevant word sequence is in bold:

I want to see your hands .
You will have tried everything have . - auxiliary verb with associated main verb; simple infinitive as an infinite verb form
You will have tried everything . –In the previous example included: Combination with past participle as an infinite verb form, with a direct object
This is said several times been . - Special form of the past participle as a head
That has been said several times . - Included in the previous example
They refuse to read any more . - To-infinitive as an infinite verb form

Although infinite verb phrases are not recognized as parts of a sentence in traditional grammar , they behave just like classic parts of a sentence in that they can be moved as a whole to the beginning of the sentence. This characteristic is important in that it distinguishes infinite verb phrases from finite verb phrases. Examples of infinite verb phrases from the application of the shift sample:

I want to see your hands . - Infinite verb phrase can be moved.
You will have tried everything . - Infinite verb phrase can be moved.
They will probably not have tried everything . - Infinite verb phrase can be moved.
More to read they refuse. - Infinite verb phrase can be moved.

So these examples show infinite verb phrases leading up to the sentence . A special feature of the German sentence structure, however, is that the infinitives in the middle field of the sentence can (do not have to) have a different structure, namely into the traditionally so-called multi - part predicate and the so-called coherence field, in which all additions to all verbs are found together. See the article on coherent construction .

Finite verb phrase as a constituent?

The assumption of the finite verb phrase as a syntactic unit comes from American structuralism. This tradition of grammar is based on the division of the sentence in two. The sentence consists of a noun phrase (NP) as the subject and a verb phrase (VP) as the predicate. The dichotomy is most clearly expressed in the first phrase structure rule of the phrase structure grammar by Noam Chomsky (1957): S → NP VP. This dichotomy, which originally comes from work on English, is still sometimes used in more recent textbooks for representations of German; However, this analysis is not correct for German, see in detail in Article V2 position . The following trees are hypothetical and serve only to illustrate the analysis mentioned for English:

Verb phrase (constituency)

These sentences are divided into two parts. Sentence a consists of the NP the people and the finite VP don't understand a word and sentence b consists of the NP or the pronoun I (representing a noun) and the finite VP wants to see your hands . According to this dichotomy, the finite verb phrase is a constituent. This view of the sentence structure has become a fixed aspect of the constituent grammars (although later theory variants led to a split between the TP in the narrower sense and an "inflectional phrase" ).

Lucien Tesnière , author of the modern dependency grammar, criticized the original division of the sentence into two parts. Instead of a division into subject and predicate, he put the finite verb at the root position of the sentence and let the other parts of the sentence depend on this root. Modern dependency grammars analyze the above two sentences as follows:

Verb phrases (dependency)

Since the finite parts do not understand a word and your hands do not see complete subtrees in these trees, they are not considered constituents, which in turn means that they are not phrases. If you want to recognize a verb phrase in such cases, you have to recognize the entire sentence as a phrase. In practice, however, the term “sentence” is preferred to the “verb phrase” for such units. As a result, dependency grammars simply reject finite verb phrases.

Infinite verb phrases, however, are constituents in both constituent grammars and dependency grammars. This fact can be seen in the b-trees, where your hands see each as a complete subtree and therefore counts as a constituent.


  • Leonard Bloomfield : Language. Henry Holt, New York 1933.
  • Noam Chomsky : Syntactic Structures. Mouton, The Hague / Paris 1957.
  • Timothy Osborne, Michael Putnam, Thomas Groß: Bare phrase structure, label-less trees, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar? The Linguistic Review 28, 2011, pp. 315-364.
  • Lucien Tesnière : Éleménts de syntaxe structurale. Klincksieck, Paris 1959.
  • Rulon S. Wells: Immediate Constituents. In: Language 23, 1947, pp. 81-117.
  • Theo Vennemann . Gen Nierfeld: Analogy in generative grammar: The origin of word order. In: Luigi Heilmann (Ed.): Proceedings of the Eleventh International Congress of Linguists. Bologna / Florence, Aug. 28 - Sep. 2, 1972, vol. II, Bologna (Società editrice il Mulino), pp. 79-83.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Christoph Gabriel, Trudel Meisenburg: Romance Linguistics. UTB basics, W. Fink, Paderborn 2007, ISBN 978-3-7705-4325-0 , p. 37 f.
  2. See Tesnière, 1959, pp. 103-105.
  3. Hubert Haider: Midfield Phenomena . In: M. Everaert, H. van Riemsdijk (eds.): The Blackwell Companion to Syntax, Vol. 3. Blackwell, Oxford 2006, pp. 204-274; accordingly also the Duden grammar, 8th edition 2009, p. 866 (whereby the finite verb does not have to be in the left sentence bracket, depending on the sentence form, but also in the verb phrase drawn in).
  4. The division of the sentence goes back to ancient logic and was made the basis of the theory of syntax in the prominent works of Bloomfield (1933), Wells (1947) and Chomsky (1957).
  5. Examples: Karin Pittner & Judith Berman: Deutsche Syntax. A work book. 4th edition. Narr, Tübingen 2010. P. 26 - Wolfgang Imo: Grammar. An introduction. Springer, Berlin 2016. Chapter 9.1.