Your Dictionary Grammar states that 'main verbs' are also known as finite verbs. However, I can easily find a few instances where a main verb isn't the finite verb of the sentence.

Example: We are learning math

'Learning' is the main verb but 'are' functions as a finite verb.

Am I misunderstanding something, or is the website unreliable?

  • There are even worse cases when a finite verb is not the main verb. "I'll give him the last payment when he's finished the job." "When he's finished the job" is a subclause, but it has a finite verb in it. Oct 24, 2020 at 1:02
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    I would say the term main verb is not very well defined. People use it in different ways. So perhaps the term is best avoided unless you know how the speaker defines it. Oct 24, 2020 at 1:09
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    No, they don't. A finite verb is a verb that's inflected for tense; is and went are finite verbs. Non-finite verbs (infinitives and participles) are not inflected for tense. Main verbs are the last verb in a verb chain, following all modals and auxiliaries for Perfect, Progressive, and Passive. They're what the clause is about; the auxiliaries are just window dressing. Every clause has a main verb, though that is sometimes only a tensed auxiliary be with predicat e adjectives and nouns; then the predicates are what the clause is about. But there's a verb. Oct 24, 2020 at 1:30
  • @Lee Zhiyuan Forget the term 'main verb'. The catenative-auxiliary analysis is the most sensible way to analyse auxiliaries. The term 'main verb' is misleading, indeed unnecessary. In your example, "are" is analysed as an auxiliary verb, and "learning" as a lexical verb. See my answer below.
    – BillJ
    Oct 25, 2020 at 10:00

1 Answer 1


We are learning math.

Whether "writing" is called a main verb or not depends on the kind of analysis adopted. There are two kinds: the dependent-auxiliary analysis where the core auxiliary verbs are dependents of the following lexical verb, and the catenative-auxiliary analysis, where the core auxiliaries are verbs taking non-finite complements.

Under the dependent-auxiliary analysis, your example is a simple clause. Core auxiliaries are contrasted with main verbs, so that "are learning" is a syntactic unit in which "learning" is called the main (i.e. head) verb head and the core auxiliary "are" is a dependent. The core auxiliaries are thus never heads in the dependent-auxiliary analysis.

By contrast, under the catenative-auxiliary analysis, "learning math" is a non-finite complement of "are". The tree structure therefore has "learning" as a lexical verb and "are" as an auxiliary. On this view, there is no contrast between auxiliary verbs and main verbs. "Are" is just as much a main verb as "learning": both are heads of their respective clauses.

Modern grammar tends to favour the catenative-auxiliary analysis.

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