Wondering the different ways you can nest verbs, and what is technically allowed from a mental perspective, not necessarily from a grammatical perspective b/c I imagine it would vary significantly across languages.

I am not quite sure what it means to write nested verbs either, in English at least. I would like to know if it is even possible to nest verbs. These are some of the examples I could think of that seem like they are nested.

I bought farmed food. ("I bought food someone farmed." That seems like an equivalent sentence).

I ate purchased cooked farmed food.

I ate store-bought cooked farmed food.

I had hand-made clothing.

I ran walked paths. (Trying to say "I ran paths that were well walked.")

I slept curled up.

I ate standing. (Not sure if standing is the verb).

I am eating standing. ("am" is also a verb I guess, so 3 here).

So those are just basic sentences where the verbs seem to be nested but the verbs follow directly after each other. Maybe these words like farmed are not actually verbs but nouns, or perhaps adjectives, I'm not sure. "To farm" is definitely a verb, and farmed is past tense of that, but maybe I'm confusing something.

Some "verb nesting" that doesn't make any sense (and why it makes me think maybe verb nesting isn't a thing) is illustrated with these sentences:

I walked ran to the store. (Actually maybe that is a thing).

I walked biked to the store. (Can't do these two things at once).

I circled walked chatted observed with my friend. (Walking in a circle, chatting and observing stuff, it seems to need to chain them rather than nest them, but I don't know).

I drank blinked kicked turned. (All at once). Rather you would say, "I drank, blinked, kicked, and turned all at once". But I don't see why you can't nest them and if there are cases where something like this is possible in other languages.

I'm partly wondering too if you can separate the verbs by a few words and still technically have "verb nesting".

I bought delicious farmed food.

I ate at the dinner table standing.

Partly the reason I'm asking is because there is such thing as "action nesting" in the real world. Take for example this story.

Every day I make dinner. While I eat dinner I sit at the table. While sitting at the table I use my hands and utensils. etc.

So you have:

  • the day that starts and ends
    • eating dinner
    • grabbing the utensil
      • using your arms
      • using your muscles
        • etc.

But you paint this picture in the sentences outlined above, rather than in this nested structure. So the other part I'm wondering about is the difference between "verb nesting" and actual action / information nesting in the content of the sentence. So this question just focuses on the verb nesting part. I'm trying to see if there is any nesting going on at the verb level, or if it occurs elsewhere.

If English is a primitive example, I'd be interested to know what languages have complex examples of verb nesting.

Finally, a different example of nesting is in these sentences.

I ate the food they farmed after they built their farm using their hands and after they invested in some crops that they later planted in the soil that was already there.

It seems like this is the nesting structure:

       /      \
  built       invested
  /             /
using         planted

But I can't tell. Maybe it is really a flat structure of some sort.

The reason I call that last one nesting is because the verb farmed isn't "complete" until all the rest of the sentence is said. Likewise, the verb built isn't complete until it gets past using, etc.. So in some sense they seem nested. But it wouldn't make sense to write the sentence like this sort of VSO form:

ATE (I) (the food FARMED (after they BUILT(their farm USING(...))))

Another example includes:

Adding something is changing its value.

adding -> is -> changing
  • 1
    You probably will benefit by looking at Jim McCawley's The Syntactic Structures of English. It gives many examples, and details exactly how they can be analyzed and which methods work best.
    – jlawler
    Sep 20, 2018 at 16:18
  • 1
    Or Noam Chomsky's earlier Syntactic Structures
    – amI
    Sep 21, 2018 at 17:27
  • Not really a fan of anything to do with "Parts of Speech". Too many edge cases that don't work with it.
    – Lance
    Sep 21, 2018 at 17:56
  • @LancePollard Whatever do you mean by that? I've never heard of a linguist who doesn't believe in parts of speech.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 21, 2018 at 23:20
  • "standing" is not a verb. It's a adjective to a verb. Jan 27, 2019 at 21:04

3 Answers 3


You have three distinct phenomena here.

I bought farmed food.

"Farmed" here is a participle: an adjective formed from a verb. You can use it anywhere you could use an adjective: "this food is farmed", "the farmed food is good", etc.

I ate the food [which] they farmed after they built…

"Nesting" isn't a bad name for this phenomenon, but I would call it embedding. Syntactically, you start with a complete sentence (=IP) like "they built [the house]", then embed that into "they farmed the food after they built [the house]", then embed that into "I ate the food [which] they farmed after they built [the house]", and so on. (This last embedding has some movement involved, but the details will depend on your particular theory of syntax.)

Adding something is changing its value.

This time "adding" and "changing" are gerunds: nouns formed from verbs representing the action as an abstract concept. You can use them anywhere you could use a noun: "I like swimming", "adding is better than changing", etc.

EDIT: To be clear, "swimming" and such can also be a participle: "he sees the swimming children". It's an unfortunate coincidence of English that these two forms look exactly the same, but this isn't universal: in Latin for instance the gerund would be natandum, while the present participle would be natans.

  • This helps a lot, thank you. I never learned about gerunds. Wondering though if this means that there is no "nesting" other than your embedding example.
    – Lance
    Sep 20, 2018 at 4:08
  • @LancePollard All languages in the world have some way of embedding one phrase into another of the same type: this is the property of recursion. Participles are one way to do it, as in Ancient Greek; relative clauses are another, more common in English. But all of them are recursive in that e.g. you can have a VP be a component of another VP.
    – Draconis
    Sep 20, 2018 at 4:11
  • I just realized that I should eat or I should probably eat is nesting as well, wonder if that is a different category since. Same with I will probably eat or I will eat. Then there is I should soon eat, with soon, but I don't know about soon yet, probably a separate question. (Google says will and should are verbs, while soon is an adverb).
    – Lance
    Sep 20, 2018 at 10:21
  • 1
    @LancePollard Will and should are "auxiliaries", which morphologically act like verbs but syntactically are in a category of their own.
    – Draconis
    Sep 20, 2018 at 16:05
  • The '-ing' form of a verb is a participle (adjective), which can also be used as a gerund (noun). The answer confuses them a bit.
    – amI
    Sep 21, 2018 at 17:21

There are also very common examples of nesting in other languages, especially ones with a SOV word order, such as latin. In latin, because of the fact that the subject and object come before the noun, a sentence can be made up of "SO, SOV, V", where the nested verb is often just a participle. In English, this would be written in this word order as, "Bill the food, the cutlery using, was eating", or as we would write it, "Bill, using the cutlery, was eating the food". There is a story of some ancient teacher giving a lecture on verb nesting, where the entire lecture was nouns and adjectives, ending with a string of verb, as "SO, SO, SO, SO, SO, SO, ... , V, V, V, V, V, V."

Another interesting topic to do with nesting which another answer addressed is that of recursion. It was touted by the "father of modern linguistics", Chomsky, as the basis of language, the universal grammar. However, there is a controversial counter theory, from Daniel Everett, who claims to have found a tribe in the Amazon, with a non-recursive grammar.

  • 2
    BTW, Chomsky is not "the father of modern linguistics". He's the father of generative syntax, all right, but not the whole linguistics family. He's been active, but not that active. As for the tribe in the Amazon, google "Pirahã". Most linguists nowadays think Chomsky's theories are ... um ... peculiar; and not of much use for any practical purpose. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.
    – jlawler
    Sep 20, 2018 at 16:12
  • 1
    @jlawler, yes, I myself am not a fan of Chomsky's theories, if his theories were correct, he would have contributed a lot, but it turns out they almost certainly aren't, so he is not actually that influential. At some point I had read, from an old book which still considered his theories completely true, that he was considered the "Father of Modern Linguistics", and I did not realise that the general mood towards his theories had changed so much. Sep 21, 2018 at 21:48
  • 1
    @LancePollard This could cause some issues with comprehension, but it would not happen naturally very often, and people would adapt and get used to storing previous clauses, just like we learn to understand often vague and confusing English constructions. Sep 21, 2018 at 21:58
  • 1
    @LancePollard a classic example of this kind of thing in English: "Is that the car the girl the professor kissed, drove?" This is comprehensible, but it can be taken to another level as: "Is that the tree the car the girl the professor kissed, drove, hit?" at which point it seems like English but no-one would say it. Sep 21, 2018 at 22:46
  • 1
    @Lance: No, center embedding is rare, and only goes about two ply deep in ral language before it's too hard to count parentheses. Language is not LISP.
    – jlawler
    Sep 21, 2018 at 23:25

This is what I was looking for: Serial verb construction. That came from Chinese Grammar.

It also looks like Compound Verbs might be related:

The English lexicon contains a few true compound verbs, such as stirfry, kickstart and forcefeed.

I would still like to see what it would look like to have a verb chain of more than 2, as these examples only show 2 verbs together.

Musa bé lá èbi.

Musa came took knife.

"Musa came to take the knife."

Kofí trɔ dzo kpoo

Kofi turn(pfv) leave(pfv) quietly

"Kofi turned and left quietly."

hena nihiwawaka nu-tšereka nu-yaka-u abi

neg go(1sg) speak(1sg) mother(1sg) with

"I am not going to talk with my mother."

  • 1
    I don't see the connection of this answer to the question
    – b a
    Sep 23, 2018 at 8:31

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