"Tell", "continue" and "stop" are not listed as auxiliary verbs, but they seem to be similar. Consider the following sentences, where [these are objects of tell]:

He told [his cat] to leave.

We told [them] to find another way.

[They] have been told to stop calling.

I cannot reconcile "told" as simply a transitive verb in these cases.

Consider these phrases where tell is used as a verb taking a single accusative object:

He told [his cat].

We told [them].

[They] have been told.

I don't think [to leave] or [to find another way] or [to stop calling] can be considered noun phrases.

Also, we can chain together these words, often by adding the word "to" (like we do with the word ought which is listed as an auxiliary verb). Though sometimes this isn't necessary. A few examples of increasing complexity:

We continue telling [him] to stop calling.

We continue to tell [him] to stop calling.

We continue pleading [her] to tell [him] to stop calling.

We continue pleading [them] to beg [her] to tell [him] to stop calling.

We continue to plead [them] to continue to beg [her] to stop telling [him] to stop calling.

It seems that these words can take an additional verb phrase as if it were a kind of object:

Continue to _____.

Stop _____.

Plead [object] to _____.

Tell [object] to _____.

Beg [object] to _____.

Can anyone explain to me what these words are grammatically, and what those 'verb phrases' are?

  • The entities you're calling an "accusative object" are indirect objects of "tell". Compare "He told them a story." "Them" is the indirect object, "story" the direct object. Apr 7, 2018 at 2:06
  • @GreenGrassoHolm - you're saying that "tell" is being used here with just a single dative object?
    – Myridium
    Apr 7, 2018 at 2:14
  • Yes. See notes 9 and 10 at whitesmoke.com/basic-clause-structure. An indirect object doesn't always follow "to"; and an indirect object can appear without a direct object, as in "I wrote to him." Apr 7, 2018 at 2:26
  • @GreenGrassoHolm - my previous responses were long-winded. My point is that I think you're making a moot point by insisting that "the cat" in "he told the cat" is a dative object. What grammatical basis is there to call it a dative object? The link does not provide one.
    – Myridium
    Apr 7, 2018 at 2:46
  • 1
    @Myridium There is no need for an indirect object to use any preposition. The term ‘dative object’ does not apply to English any more than ‘accusative object’ because English has neither of these cases. There are simply direct and indirect objects. One way to test the difference is through passivisation: a DO can be passivised as subject whether there’s an indirect object or not; an indirect object only if there is also a DO. Thus: “He told (her) a story” → “She was told a story by him/A story was told by him”; but “He told her” → “*She was told by him” does not work. Her = IO, story = DO. Apr 7, 2018 at 9:09

1 Answer 1


Verbs such as continue, stop, beg, tell that can combine with other verbs are called catenative verbs. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (p59) has this entry on catenative verbs:

A verb that can form a chain with one or more subsequent verbs, e.g.

  • want to go
  • hate to tell you
  • begin walking
  • go shopping.

The construction may involve a direct object, e.g.

  • She wanted them to go
  • He made us laugh
  • I watched him paint/painting the door.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p1177) points out the recursive nature of catenative verbs:

The term 'catenative' applies to a large class of constructions where a verb has a non-finite internal complement. The name reflects the fact that the construction can be repeated recursively, yielding a concatenation ('chain') of verbs.

i. I wanted to arrange for Kim to do it.

ii. She intends to try to persuade him to help her redecorate her flat.

Later in the CGEL (p1206-1220) there is a lengthy section that proposes the re-analysis of auxiliaries as catenatives:

... the position taken here is that there are nevertheless compelling grounds for preferring an analysis of the modal, tense, aspectual and voice auxiliaries as catenative verbs taking non-finite complementation.

The CGEL approach is called the "catenative-auxiliary analysis" in contrast to the traditional "dependent-auxiliary analysis.

  • Yes: nice answer. I'd just add that the intervening NPs "his cat" and "them" are 'raised' objects.
    – BillJ
    Apr 7, 2018 at 7:49
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    @Myridium It's really not too difficult. Syntactically, "his cat" is the direct object of "told", but it's only the understood subject of "to leave". "His cat" is called a raised object because the verb it relates to syntactically is higher in the constituent structure than the one it relates to semantically.
    – BillJ
    Apr 7, 2018 at 8:32
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    @BillJ - Okay, I understand. Sort of. Thank you. The top two diagrams here seem to be an example of what we're talking about. Here the group of words [to happen], comparable to blank spaces ____ in my question, are labelled with the symbol "toP". Knowing that "toP" means would answer my question on what these "verb phrases" are called.
    – Myridium
    Apr 7, 2018 at 8:44
  • 1
    @Myridium “toP” here just means “to-phrase” (like a noun phrase, just a phrase distinguished by being an infinitive marked with to). Apr 7, 2018 at 9:12
  • 1
    @Myridium They label it "toP" meaning "to-phrase". But it's actually a non-finite to-infinitival clause, not a phrase, functioning as catenative complement of the matrix verbs "expect" and "prove".
    – BillJ
    Apr 7, 2018 at 11:09

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