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Verbal Modifiers: An Overview

Verbals iconLife sometimes may scare the living daylights out of me, but to die without meaning scares me to death.

The sentence above is crammed with a variety verbals.  However, which of them are things and which describe those things?  This is an indirect way of asking, "Which ones are nouns and which are modifiers?"  We'll come back to that answer in a moment.

As explained elsewhere in this handbook, verbals are not verbs--ever!  If verbs are actions, then the words and phrases formed from those actions are verbals.  Verbals are either nouns or modifiers:  they either describe how things are acting, or they capture a sense of a whole activity or behavior.  However, because they resemble verbs, they can be part of predicates just like the verbs from which they came, depending on whether they're transitive, intransitive, linking, factitive or causative.  Additionally, because they came from actual verbs, they can be modified by adverbs and adverb phrases in just the same way as verbs. 

How, then, can you tell a noun verbal apart from a modifier verbal?  Same way you tell nouns, adjectives, and adverbs from one another:  ask the right question.  Nouns always answer the questions, "What?" or "Who?" Nouns name: if an activity has been named using a verbal, it's a noun-type verbal.  Modifiers answer the questions, "Which?" and "What kind?" if they are adjectives, and "How?" and "When?" if they're adverbs.  It's wise to give some thought to possible variations on such questions—for example, "What's it like?" or "In what way?"

In the meantime, this section will help you give some thought to the different types of verbal modifiers and the confusion they can sometimes cause students.  Topics include the following:


Adjective Infinitives and Infinitive Phrases
Adverb Infinitives and Infinitive Phrases
Diagramming Infinitive Phrases
The Infinitive Particle "To" Versus the Preposition "To" 


Present Participles and Participial Phrases
Past Participles and Participial Phrases
Diagramming Participial Phrases
Present Participles Versus Gerunds
Present Participles Versus Progressive Verb Tense (a.k.a. Continuous Verb Tense)
Past Participles Versus Perfect Verb Tense

Last Updated: 02/08/2015


Karl J Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Phone: 619-644-7871

  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District