Verbal Phrases: Talk Soup

A verbal is a verb form used as another part of speech. Like Gaul, verbals come in three varieties: participles, gerunds, and infinitives. Each type has a different function in a sentence:

  • Participles function as adjectives.
  • Gerunds function as nouns.
  • Infinitives function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.

Although a verbal doesn't function as a verb in a sentence, it does retain two qualities of a verb:

You Could Look It Up

A verbal is a verb form used as another part of speech.

A participle is a form of a verb that functions as an adjective.

A gerund is a verb form used as a noun.

  • A verbal can be described by adverbs and adverbial phrases.
  • A verbal can add modifiers to become a verbal phrase.

Let's get to know the three verbals a little better.

Part and Participle

A participle is a form of a verb that functions as an adjective. There are two kinds of participles: present participles and past participles.

  • Present participles end in -ing (jumping, burning, speaking).
  • Past participles usually end in -ed, -t, or -en (jumped, burnt, spoken).

In the mood to add some participle action to your sentences? Here's how you do it:

  • The howling children disturbed the neighbors.
  • The present participle “howling” describes the noun “children.”
  • Fred Flintstone gave Barney Rubble a crumbling rock.
  • The present participle “crumbling” describes the noun “rock.”
  • The frozen candy bar broke her $900 bridgework.
  • The past participle “frozen” describes the noun “candy bar.”
  • Annoyed, Rita ate dinner by herself in the bathroom.
  • The past participle “annoyed” describes the noun “Rita.”

Don't confuse participles and verbs. Participles aren't preceded by a helping verb, as these examples show:

  • The sputtering car jerked down the road. (participle)
  • The car was sputtering down the road. (verb)

Participle phrases contain a participle modified by an adverb or an adverbial phrase. The whole kit and caboodle acts as an adjective, as these examples show:

  • Swimming slowly, I didn't notice the shark on my tail.
  • The participle phrase “swimming slowly” describes the pronoun “I.”
  • Annoyed by its heavy breathing, I told it to get lost.

The participle phrase “Annoyed by its heavy breathing” describes the pronoun “I.” However, the participle phrase can also be placed after the word it describes. In that case, it is usually set off by commas, as in this example:

  • “My sister, burning the toast, looked distracted.”

Like appositives, participles and participle phrases are an indispensable part of the writer's bag of tricks because they allow you to create concise and interesting sentences. Use them to combine information from two or more sentences into one sentence. Notice how much more punch the following sentence has when it is combined by using a participle:

Two sentences: Noel Coward made a slight but pointed adjustment to an old cliché. He once described another writer as every other inch a gentleman.

One sentence: Making a slight but pointed adjustment to the old cliché, Noel Coward once described another writer as every other inch a gentleman.

Gerund Phrases

A gerund is a form of a verb used as a noun. Remember the following two guidelines when you hunt for gerunds:

  • Gerunds always end in -ing.
  • Gerunds always act as nouns.

Gerunds can function as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, objects of a preposition, predicate nominatives, and appositives. Here are some examples of gerunds:

  • Leroy expanded his skills by studying.
  • The gerund “studying” is the object of the preposition “by.”
  • At the age of 10, Irving started running.
  • The gerund “running” is a direct object.
  • My mother's sole occupation, kvetching, makes her tedious company.
  • The gerund “kvetching” (an especially virulent form of complaining) is an appositive in this sentence.

Like a participle, a gerund can be part of a phrase. In that case, the whole package is called a gerund phrase. (Got you with that one, didn't I?) Here are some gerund phrases busy at work in their sentences:

Danger, Will Robinson

Don't confuse gerunds and present participles, because both end in -ing. A gerund functions only as a noun, while a participle functions only as an modifier.

  • The quiet, steady rowing soothed him.
  • The gerund phrase is “the quiet, steady rowing.”
  • My evening routine features jogging slowly around the block.
  • The gerund phrase is “jogging slowly around the block.”
  • Thousands of “Dead Heads” show their dedication to their departed leader by following what's left of The Grateful Dead around the country.
  • The gerund phrase is “following what's left of The Grateful Dead around the country.”

Infinitive Phrases: The Final Frontier

Last but not least we have the infinitive, a form of the verb that comes after the word to and acts as a noun, adjective, or adverb. Versatile little babies, infinitives can fill as many roles as gerunds, with the addition of adjectives and adverbs. Here are some examples:

You Could Look It Up

The infinitive is a verb form that comes after the word to and functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb.

  • To succeed takes courage, foresight, and luck.
  • The infinitive is “to succeed,” and it functions as the subject.
  • Alone in her cubicle, all she wanted was to survive.
  • The infinitive is “to survive,” and it functions as the direct object.
  • Afraid to move, she froze in terror.
  • The infinitive is “to move,” and it modifies the adverb “afraid.”
Danger, Will Robinson

Don't confuse infinitives with prepositional phrases that begin with to. Remember that a prepositional phrase always ends with a noun or a pronoun; an infinitive always ends with a verb.

An infinitive can be used as a phrase. An infinitive phrase, as with the other verbal phrases, contains modifiers that together act as a single part of speech. Following are some examples:

  • His goal, to break into Fort Knox, was never achieved.
  • The infinitive phrase is “to break into Fort Knox” and modifies the noun “goal.”
  • The pilgrim's hope was to reach the shrine before sundown.
  • The infinitive phrase “to reach the shrine before sundown” describes “hope.”
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.


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