For a language that does not have overt morphological tense and any tense distinctions (e.g. Malay), how is it possible to discern whether a clause is finite or non-finite? Is it possible to use aspectual markers as a diagnostic for finiteness and say that a clause that does not permit aspectual markers is non-finite?

Saya biar dia  (*akan) makan
1.SG let  3.SG (*PROS) eat

Saya mahu (*akan) makan
1.SG want (*PROS) eat

Are subjunctive and imperative clauses finite? In English, the verb form used in subjunctives is unconjugated, so it's tempting to say that at least subjunctives are non-finite. It's less clear for imperatives though, because of the 2nd person.

The examples below do not permit prospective aspect marker 'will'.

I recommend that he (*will) choose this option.

(*Will) choose this option!

Look to see if it has a subject. Clauses with subjects are finite; those without subjects are nonfinite. This criterion was once proposed by my friend Stan Starosta. Works for me, for English, though I think he intended it more generally.

  • 1
    For me to leave early would be a mistake has an infinitive clause with a marked subject, but I'd have to say it was non-finite. I agree with Yellow Sky that finiteness is irrelevant for Malay, as I imagine it would be for Mandarin. And in Malay subjecthood is not a simple concept; only subjects may be relativized, for instance, but all relative clauses are introduced by the same morpheme (yang) and there are no relative pronouns. So it looks like yang is the subject, but it's not, really.
    – jlawler
    Jun 7 '16 at 2:49
  • @jlawler I can't decipher your comment that for me to leave early has a "marked subject". What's a "marked subject"? Is it a subject? If so, what I said is wrong. If it means a non-subject which has the interpretation of a subject, then what I said may be correct. // Assuming what I said is right, finitenes is relevant in Malay, provided Malay distinguishes between clauses with and without subjects.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 7 '16 at 4:25
  • In an infinitive, for marks a(n unRaised) subject NP and to marks the VP. It sounds like you're insisting that infinitives have no subjects, but rather another kind of NP with all of the properties of subjects. As for Malay, "subject" doesn't mean the same thing as it does in English (if it means anything -- Indonesian-style GRs run to three NP types, not two as in erg or acc systems), and I don't know any way Malay distinguishes clauses that way. It's an interesting idea, but I don't think "subject" is a universal property.
    – jlawler
    Jun 7 '16 at 12:34
  • @jlawler Two tests commonly used to determine English subjects are whether you get the subjective forms of pronouns and whether verbs agree in number. It's not just me. Of course, the "for" objects of infinitives satisfy neither test. So it's very puzzling why you would say they have "all the properties of subjects".
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 7 '16 at 12:57
  • Those are properties of the clause types, which has to be what finitude refers to, if it refers to anything. By "subject" in English I normally refer to what would be a 1 in Arc Pair grammar; for me it's a semantactic category, and morphology, like preposition choice, complement type, and most everything else variable, is particular to the clause type and predicate type, and not a criterial property.
    – jlawler
    Jun 7 '16 at 13:17

The idea of finite/infinite verb forms is definitely irrelevant for Malay since the Malay verbs have no forms at all. As for English, if a verb form can be a predicate and it can be the only verb form inside the clause, then it is a finite verb form.

  • 1
    By that standard, English infinitives are finite. This seems unfortunate.
    – jlawler
    May 8 '16 at 3:55
  • @jlawler - Sorry? Can you give an example where the predicate is expressed by an infinitive and that's the only verb form inside the clause?
    – Yellow Sky
    May 8 '16 at 6:01
  • 2
    @YellowSky You ask jlawler to answer. In the italicized clause the infinitive to answer is the entire predicate and the only verb form. May 8 '16 at 14:31
  • @StoneyB - Nonsense! jlawer is no way the subject, that's a direct object, it can be easily seen if you substitute jlawer with a personal pronoun: I ask him to answer. Him is probably the logical subject of to answer, but the point is that him to answer is not a clause, that's an objective infinitive complex.
    – Yellow Sky
    May 8 '16 at 15:50
  • 1
    @YellowSky To embrace your style of argument, Poppycock! . . . him to answer is the clausal complement of the verb ask--what you ask is that he answer--with its subject cast in object case because ask is a 'control' verb like want or expect. May 8 '16 at 17:29

For your first question, many grammarians agree that the idea of finite/infinite verb forms is not applicable when the language lacks enough verb inflections (usually an analytic language). However, some grammars argue that aspectual markers can help to distinguish finite verbs from non-finite verbs.

Your second question has been discussed in A COMPHRENSIVE GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. enter image description here

enter image description here 1. List item

  • Well, in order to use unmarked voice, mood, or aspect to categorize finite from non-finite, we have to posit a number of further categories that have problematic existence, like "subjunctive". Since the only difference between non-finite infinitives and finite "subjunctives", according to the chart, is that the "subjunctives" are "in the subjunctive mood", while the infinitives are not, there are certain problems with the logic.
    – jlawler
    Jun 7 '16 at 12:42

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