What Is a Verb Phrase? | Examples & Definition

There isn’t one absolute definition of a verb phrase. A common definition is that a verb phrase can consist of just the main verb or the main verb plus any modal verbs or auxiliary verbs.

Verb phrase examples
Kanoko climbed Mount Everest.

Kanoko had been climbing Mount Everest for hours.

Kanoko will climb Mount Everest.

In this article, we define verb phrases as consisting of the main verb of a sentence, along with any modal and auxiliary verbs. However, definitions of verb phrases are not always consistent. Some sources also include objects, prepositional phrases, or adverbs as part of the verb phrase.

What is a verb phrase?

A verb phrase is often defined as the main verb of a sentence along with any auxiliary or modal verbs. There are two types of verb phrase: simple and complex.

Simple verb phrases

When a main verb is used without any modal or auxiliary verbs, it is a simple verb phrase.

Simple verb phrase examples
The dog ate the food off the floor.

We went to the theater and watched a play.

Complex verb phrases

The main verb in a sentence can be accompanied by modal verbs, auxiliary verbs, or a combination of these to express tense, mood, and voice. The main verb and any accompanying verbs make up a complex verb phrase.

The main verb always comes after the modal or auxiliary verbs.

Complex verb phrase examples
We must not talk in the library.

Simon is looking for you.

The extension should have been finished by now.

Negation words such as “not” or “never” are adverbs and are not part of the verb phrase.

Verb phrase vs verbal phrase

A verb phrase is the main verb and any modal or auxiliary verbs (if any are used). A verbal phrase, on the other hand, is when a phrase that includes a verb functions as an adjective or a noun instead of the main verb.

Verbal phrases can include gerunds, infinitives, and participles.

Verb phrase vs verbal phrase examples
Hopping on one leg, Jayden won the race. [adjectival verbal phrase]

Playing board games can be a fun pastime. [verbal phrase used as a noun]

Verb phrase vs phrasal verb

A phrasal verb is a verb made up of two or more words (e.g., “look after,” “set apart”). These are sometimes referred to as verb phrases, but phrasal verbs is the more commonly accepted term.

Phrasal verbs can form verb phrases either on their own or with modal or auxiliary verbs.

Verb phrase vs phrasal verb examples
I tidied up my room.

You must check out by 10 a.m.

I have filled in the form already.

Noun phrase vs verb phrase

A verb phrase is the main verb and any modal or auxiliary verbs (if any are used).

A noun phrase is a noun or pronoun and any dependent words before or after it. Dependent words include articles (e.g., “a,” “the”), adjectives, quantifiers (e.g., “a lot of,” “some”), prepositional phrases, and other phrases that give more information about the noun. While a noun phrase can include a verb, it does not include the main verb of a sentence.

A noun phrase can consist of the noun or pronoun on its own, and it can act as a subject, object, or complement.

Noun phrase vs verb phrase examples
You are a wonderful singer.

The cat with the white paws is mine.

The lady sitting over there is reading an interesting book.

Frequently asked questions about verb phrases

How does the verb phrase “ran after” compare to “raced after”?

“Ran after” is the past tense of “run after.” This is a phrasal verb (which is different to a verb phrase) meaning to chase, pursue, or follow someone or something. It can be used literally (e.g., “she ran after the bus”) or figuratively (e.g., “girls were always running after him”).

“Race after” is not included in most dictionaries as a phrasal verb. It may be encountered as an alternative to “run after,” but it is likely to be used literally rather than figuratively most of the time (e.g., “Charlie ran out of the room, and Karlo raced after her”).

What does a verb phrase contain?

Different sources define verb phrases differently. A common definition, and the one held by Cambridge Dictionary, is that a verb phrase contains the main verb (e.g., “he ran home”) or the main verb and any modal verbs or auxiliary verbs (e.g., “he should be running home”).

Is this article helpful?
Sophie Shores, MA

Sophie has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Publishing, and a passion for great writing. She’s taught English overseas and has experience editing both business and academic writing.