In non-finite clauses

the verb must be in a non-finite form (such as an infinitive, participle, gerund or gerundive), and it is consequently much more likely that there will be no subject expressed, i.e. that the clause will consist of a (non-finite) verb phrase on its own.

What rules govern the omission of the subject?

What about in the following, can the phrase ever be a clause?

  • could be important

I think so because "be" is the bare infinitive, so the verb is non-finite.

  • 2
    You are mistaken in saying the verb is non-finite in "could be important". The "could" is finite, as are all the modal auxiliaries, and that makes this verb phrase finite. – Greg Lee Sep 29 '15 at 12:55
  • @GregLeen if that were the case only then only auxiliary verbs can be non-finite. see here phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/tta/wc/verbs.htm – concerned Sep 29 '15 at 20:12
  • I said that the modal auxiliaries are all finite. It certain doesn't follow from that that only auxiliary verbs can be non-finite, and the reference you give does not say anything like that. Non-auxiliary verbs can be either finite or non-finite. – Greg Lee Sep 29 '15 at 21:53
  • yeah sorry i wasn't concentrating enough, i've not slept in 30 hours – concerned Sep 29 '15 at 23:48

When the Subject of a non-finite subordinate clause is the same as the Subject of a main clause, we can usually omit the Subject from the subordinate clause.

In English, clauses with a tensed verb must have a Subject, and for this reason, whenever the Subject is missing we will see a non-tensed (non-finite) version of the verb. In addition, any tensed forms of BE will therefore be omitted if the Subject is missing:

  • Although she was late, she still attended the meeting.
  • Although late she still attended the meeting. (Subject and tensed BE omitted)

  • After I studied for one year, I got 6.5 in my IELTS exam.

  • After studying for one year, I got 6.5 in my IELTS exam. (No Subject, verb in non-finite -ing form)

We can of course also omit the Subjects of subordinate clauses which use to-infinitives when they are the same as the Subject in the main clause (because these, like -ing forms, are not tensed):

  • For her to pass the exam, Paula will need to get over 60%.
  • To pass the exam, Paula will need to get over 60%.

Although it is frowned upon by some style guides, and prescribed against in some exams (for example in SAT exams), in real life people often omit the Subjects of subordinate -ing clauses when they are clearly discernible from the context:

  • Without going into details, the party was a complete disaster.

In the sentence above the understood Subject of going is me in other words, the speaker. The Subject of the main clause is, of course, the party. Nonetheless, there is nothing strange or odd about this sentence. In real life, writers should avoid omitting Subjects in subordinate clauses when it will jar the reader or cause confusion. The following is bad writing:

  • Lying on the floor bleeding like that, I now wished I hadn't shot him.

The sentence above is bad, because we cannot be entirely confident whether the speaker or the person who was shot is lying on the floor. It doesn't matter that some grammars would allow this if the speaker was on the floor. In real life readers will be confused, because real language users might be referring to either person!

The Original Posters example

could be important.

Although speakers talking casually may omit the Subject of this sentence, it is not a non-finite clause. The omission of Subjects in such sentences is an example of diary drop, which is an unrelated phenomenon.

Modal verbs such as can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would or must are considered to have tense by most grammarians. In any case they are always considered to head finite clauses. Because of this we cannot freely drop the Subjects of clauses headed by modal verbs.

  • 1
    hi i just then edited the question - roll back if you like !! – concerned Sep 29 '15 at 10:49
  • are you sure that in "could be" the modal verb "could" is the head? – concerned Sep 29 '15 at 19:48
  • 1
    @user3293056 Yes, definitely ... :) – Araucaria Sep 29 '15 at 22:41
  • i am sure that some people say this but i don't think there is a conensus. see e.g. p219 of linguistics for everyone – concerned Sep 29 '15 at 23:55
  • 1
    @user3293056 Yes, I've checked out that book on Googlebooks, and from what I can see that is indeed the analysis they give (that the lexicical verb is the Head). I thought that idea was so old-fashioned that no one subscribed to it any more. I was wrong! Thanks, learn something new every day ;) – Araucaria Oct 2 '15 at 10:41

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