Similar to modal verbs in distinctness, catenative verbs are a unique verb form to the English language. Catenative verbs form strings of verbs by linking the catenative verb to an infinitive, present participle, or base form of another verb within a single verb phrase. The adjective catenative — derived from the verb catenate — means “connecting, linking, stringing together” and refers to the connecting of one verb to another without a conjunction. Catenative verbs are verbs followed directly by another verb in the infinitive, present participle, or base form. For example, the following italicized verbs are catenative verbs:
- She asked to borrow the car.
- The plumber came to fix the leaky faucet.
- Does he dare to eat a peach?
- I enjoy reading books about English grammar.
- We hope to move by the end of the summer.
- His grandpa finally quit smoking.
Conjugations of Catenative Verbs
Similar to most English verbs and unlike modal verbs and quasi-modal verbs, catenative verbs have at least four but up to six conjugations depending on the regularity or irregularity of the verb. For example:
- Base – Infinitive – Present Tense – Past Tense – Present Participle – Past Participle
- begin – to begin – begin, begins – began – begun – beginning
- enjoy – to enjoy – enjoy, enjoys – enjoyed – enjoyed – enjoying
- have – to have – have, has – had – had – having
- quit – to quit – quit, quits – quit – quit – quitting
- strive – to strive – strive, strives – strove – striven – striving
- wish – to wish – wish, wishes – wished – wished – wishing
Also unlike both modal and quasi-modal verbs, catenative verbs express both grammatical tenses and all four grammatical aspects in the active voice. For example:
- I aim to write a book on grammar. (simple present)
- He considered finishing his college degree early. (simple past)
- She is failing to find the results that she wanted. (present progressive)
- The students were helping to set up the tables. (past progressive)
- The neighbors have neglected to mow their lawn again. (present perfect)
- We had intended to call last night. (past perfect)
- Her dad has been resisting signing up for a Facebook account. (present perfect-progressive)
- His brother had been threatening to move out of the house. (past perfect-progressive)
Differences Between Catenative Verbs and Modal and Quasi-modal Verbs
Although catenative verbs resemble modal and quasi-modal verbs both in grammatical form and grammatical function, the two verb forms differ significantly. Similar to modal and quasi-modal verbs, catenative verbs precede another verb. For example:
- You should wash your hands. (modal)
- We ought to take a trip next summer. (quasi-modal)
- I want to travel to New England. (catenative)
Unlike modal and quasi-modal verbs, however, catenative verbs function as the verb phrase head. The verb following the catenative verb functions either as a direct object (usually) or a verb phrase complement (sometimes). For example:
- She loves to read about grammar. (direct object)
- He enjoys writing non-fiction. (direct object)
- The student expects to finish school this semester. (direct object)
- The man threatened to explode the bomb. (verb phrase complement)
Modal and quasi-modal verbs function as modals within verb phrases. The head of the verb phrase follows the modal or quasi-modal verb. For example:
- The child can swim. (modal + verb phrase head)
- The President may attend the wedding. (modal + verb phrase head)
- She would run every morning. (modal + verb phrase head)
- He used to draw comics. (modal + verb phrase head)
Catenative verbs further differ from quasi-modal verbs in the function of the p-word to. P-words are prepositions and adverbs that no longer perform prepositional or adverbial functions. Within verb phrases containing a catenative verb, the p-word to functions as an infinitive marker within the verb phrase in the form of an infinitive following the catenative verb. For example:
- Catenative | Infinitive Marker | Verb
- have | to | study
- love | to | sing
- neglect | to | finish
- try | to | graduate
The p-word that follows a quasi-modal verb, however, functions as a particle. For example:
- Modal | Particle | Verb Phrase Head
- ought | to | exercise
- used | to | maximize
Catenative verbs additionally resemble modal and quasi-modal verbs in meaning. For example, both the catenative verb have and the modal verb must express obligation as in You have to wash the dishes and You must wash the dishes. The grammatical, both formal and functional, differences distinguish catenative verbs from modal and quasi-modal verbs.
For more information about catenative verbs, check out the Catenative Verb Dictionary.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.