Phrases Containing Verbals

Gerunds, infinitives, and participles are phrases that contain verbals. Briefly, these verbals act as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs in sentences and provide additional information.

Participial phrases

A participial phrase begins with a past or present participle and is followed by its objects and modifiers. Like participles alone, participial phrases are used as adjectives.

  • Breathing the fresh mountain air, Jim realized he had found paradise.

In the preceding sentence, the present participle breathing introduces the participial phrase, which includes the participle's object ( air) and its modifiers ( the, fresh, mountain). This participial phrase acts as an adjective modifying the subject (noun) of the sentence ( Jim).

  • The soldiers, trapped by the enemy, threw down their weapons.

Here, the past participle trapped introduces the participial phrase trapped by the enemy. The entire phrase acts as an adjective modifying the subject of the sentence ( soldiers). Notice the phrase‐within‐a‐phrase here. By the enemy is a prepositional phrase modifying the participle trapped. Remember that phrases can act as modifiers in other phrases.

Gerund phrases

At first, a gerund phrase may look like a participial phrase because gerund phrases begin with the ‐ing form of a verb ( riding, seeing, talking, etc.) and can have objects and modifiers. But a gerund phrase always acts as a noun in a sentence, not as an adjective.

Like other nouns, a gerund phrase can serve as the subject of a sentence, the object of a verb or preposition, or the complement of a linking verb. Unlike participial phrases, which provide additional information, gerund phrases are essential to the meaning of the sentence and cannot be removed without changing the logical meaning of the sentence.

In the following example, the gerund phrase Riding the black stallion functions as a noun and is the subject of the verb terrified. Notice that the gerund phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Riding the black stallion terrified Hugh.

In the next sentence, the gerund phrase seeing the suspect is the direct object of the verb reported. Notice that the entire phrase, not just the word suspect, is the direct object.

The police officer reported seeing the suspect.

In the following sentence, the gerund phrase talking loudly and often is the object of the preposition by.

The senator made his reputation by talking loudly and often.

In the final example , Calling Uncle Robert is a gerund phrase acting as the subject of the sentence. Asking for trouble is a gerund phrase acting as a complement of the linking verb is.

Calling Uncle Robert is asking for trouble.

Infinitive phrases

An infinitive phrase contains an infinitive (for example, to sleep, to have spent, to consider, to throw) and its objects and modifiers. Infinitive phrases usually function as nouns, although they can also be used as adjectives and adverbs.

In the following sentence , To sleep all night is an infinitive phrase functioning as a noun and is the subject of this sentence.

To sleep all night was his only wish.

In the following sentence, To take an unpopular stand is an infinitive phrase acting as a noun. It is the direct object of the verb did not want.

The representatives did not want to take an unpopular stand.

Next, the infinitive phrase to spend foolishly functions as an adjective modifying the noun money.

He had plenty of money to spend foolishly.

In the following sentence, the infinitive phrase to clear her mind acts as an adverb modifying the verb drove. It answers the question “Why did she drive?”

After the confrontation, she drove miles to clear her mind.

Split infinitives

Breaking up an infinitive with one or more adverbs is called splitting an infinitive. Splitting an infinitive isn't considered the grammatical sin it used to be, but most writers avoid splitting infinitives unless they have a reason to do so.

They taught her to spend money wisely.

NOT They taught her to wisely spend money.

Sometimes, not splitting an infinitive is almost impossible.

We expect the population to more than double over the next twenty years.

Other times, not splitting an infinitive causes ambiguity or sounds unnatural. In these cases, don't worry about breaking the old rule; clarity and smoothness take precedence over unsplit infinitives.

In this sentence, does further modify Chinese efforts or discuss?

We wanted to discuss further Chinese efforts to modernize.

Splitting the infinitive makes the sentence clearer.

BETTER We wanted to further discuss Chinese efforts to modernize.

Splitting the infinitive makes the following sentence sound more natural.

He planned to take quickly the children to another room.

BETTER He planned to quickly take the children to another room.