According to Oxford Dictionaries Online,

finite ... 2 Grammar (of a verb form) having a specific tense, number, and person.

non-finite ... Grammar (of a verb form) not limited by tense, person, or number.

Modal verbs (can, may, should etc) are always followed by bare infinitives. For example:

We could practice our dialogue.

Here, practice is a bare infinitive and is a non-finite verb and can, by its own nature, does not express tense, person or number.

Does that imply that in sentences like the one above, where a bare infinitive follows a modal verb, neither is a finite verb? If so, am I correct in understanding that we can have grammatically legitimate clauses and sentences even without a finite verb?

  • I just realized that the original question is paraphrasing Oxford Dictionaries Online, not quoting it. As written, it sounds like a definitive passage from a style guide, but the actual entries merely describe some distinguishing traits of finite and non-finite verbs without explaining actual usage. Commented May 21, 2013 at 22:30
  • 2
    Linguists are the ones who write the dictionaries. Commented May 25, 2013 at 15:33
  • 1
    You're a level down in the merarchy. Lexicographer is a job title. People with that job must be trained in linguistics. People who are trained in linguistics are called linguists. Commented May 26, 2013 at 13:46
  • 1
    @JohnLawler. Please define "merarchy". I couldn't find that word in my dictionaries. Then again, I shouldn't assume dictionaries know all the words that a linguist does. But your definition of a 'linguist' is certainly enlightening. Thanks again.
    – Elzee
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 14:43
  • 2
    Sorry, I probably shoulds said "Hyponymy". The point is that all lexicographers are linguists, but not all linguists are lexicographers. It's a job every linguist has to do some of, occasionally, at least in glossing data, but there is an extremely small number of jobs available for full-time lexicographers. It's kinda like any specialty field in a larger one; somebody with a full-time job in X-ray crystallography is certainly a physicist, but not every physicist is an X-ray crystallographer. Commented May 26, 2013 at 16:23

5 Answers 5


I think you are misunderstanding the meaning of finite. Finite is not a category of verb but a category of verb forms and uses.

Finite forms are those which must take either past or non-past tense (must is anomalous in having the same form for both tenses) and may change to agree with the person and number of their subjects. Non-finite forms, infinitives and participles, do not change with tense of the utterance or person or number of the subject.

In your example, the modal verb could is finite: it is the "past" form of the verb can. (It may not express past tense, but that is another matter.) As you say, it doesn't take a particular inflection which expresses person and number; but no English verb has a complete repertory of such inflections. You will find a little more information at this question.

In fact, the full modals can, may, must, shall, will differ from other verbs in being defective: they have only finite forms, no infinitive or participles.

Every complete clause has exactly one finite verb; if there are more verbs strung together, then the first is finite and the rest are non-finite. Consequently, if there is a full modal verb it must be the first in the string.

Except in cases where two or more finite verbs are conjoined: I can and will do it. But these cases really express two or more clauses.

  • 1
    Must has no past tense. Instead we write had to. Still, good answer: +1. Commented May 16, 2013 at 10:32
  • 1
    @BraddSzonye Must has no distinct past form; but the only form it does have may be deployed in either a past or a non-past sense. Granted, use in a past sense is declining; but that is true of all the modals. Commented May 16, 2013 at 10:42
  • 1
    @BraddSzonye And it's arguable that in sentences like "Well, if we must we must; but I don't think we will", the first must is a "past" form in a present irrealis sense! Commented May 16, 2013 at 10:59
  • 2
    @JohnLawler Seems to me the full modals have as much "tense" as lexicals; just the "non-past" form has a wider range of applications. But I'd be happier ascribing tense to clauses anyway. Commented May 21, 2013 at 22:02
  • 2
    @Elzee, just curious, what rules do you see being bent by calling "could" finite? I think you're misunderstanding the definition of "finite". The fact that it doesn't explicitly mark the number and person doesn't mean it doesn't have them. Modals in German have different finite forms in the present: "Ich kann gehen"(I can go), "Du kannst gehen"(you can go), "Wir können gehen"(we can go). The fact that these are all "can" in English does not change the fact that "can" is finite in these sentences.
    – dainichi
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 5:51

The definitions in Oxford Dictionaries Online describe some common traits of finite and non-finite verbs in English, but they overlook the key differences that you'd use to analyze an actual sentence. Wikipedia offers a more thorough explanation:

A finite verb is a form of a verb that has a subject (expressed or implied) and can function as the root of an independent clause.... In many languages, finite verbs are the locus of grammatical information of gender, person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and/or voice. Finite verbs are distinguished from non-finite verbs, such as infinitives, participles, etc., which generally mark these grammatical categories to a lesser degree or not at all....

English is one of the many languages that only inflects finite verbs. However, inflection is not a defining trait, because some verb classes lack inflection for other reasons. The preterite-present verbs are one such class that inflects only for tense.

That class includes the English modal verbs, which have two relevant properties:

  • They do not inflect, except insofar as some of them come in present–past (present–preterite) pairs. They do not add the ending -(e)s in the third-person singular....
  • They are defective: they are not used as infinitives or participles..., nor as imperatives, nor ... as subjunctives.


  • Some modals do inflect for tense.
  • Those that don't inflect do so for linguistic reasons, not grammatical reasons.
  • Modal verbs are only used as finite verbs, as the root of the sentence.

Therefore, in the sentence “We could practice our dialogue,” could is a finite verb, functioning as the root of the sentence, that modifies the non-finite verb practice.


Modal verbs are usually classed as finite, even though they mostly don't meet a definition of "finite" (nor a definition of "verb", for that matter). They occur where finite verbs occur, so they are granted status as (so to speak) "honorary" finite verbs, for convenience.


To further my previous post, modal verbs inflect a speaker's or writer's belief, attitude, or obligation. Therefore, I consider them finite by virtue of their capacity to inflect.

To answer my own question, the modal in the following sentence can be changed to either can, could, may, will, would, must, shall, should, or ought to.

I might go to the movies.

I might / should / could / will / would / shall / ought to go to the movies.




The idea of the term "finite" verb forms is that the use of such verb forms is limited to the use with a subject. Or shorter: Verb forms connected with a subject are "finite" or of limited use.

Verb forms that can be used without referring to a subject are called infinite verb forms. These are infinitive, gerund and participle.


Verb forms with reference to subject: finite

Verb forms with no reference to subject: infinite

Actually the ancient grammariens saw that there are verb forms that contain person endings (first, second and third person) and others that don't contain any person endings.

In Latin this is easy to see. As to English verb forms this clear optical distinction is no longer there. But all the same it is possible to say whether an English verb form is finite or not.

Added: Modal verbs can be infinite because they have no infinitive.

  • This doesn't make much sense. Imperative and interrogative verbs are still finite even though they might not be connected to a subject. What about languages which drop the subject more frequently? Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 6:57
  • In Latin imperatives have person endings. Even without a person ending an imperative is clearly addresses to a person. So you might say the person is implied in the imperative. - I don't understand what problem you see in verb forms in questions. - I think "finite/infinite" verb forms are frequently used grammar terms and it is useful to understand what the terms originally meant. If you think my explanation makes no sense read a Latin grammar as to the meaning of the terms.
    – rogermue
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 7:11

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.