In the sentence "Pete wants to paint," "wants" is of course the finite verb, and "to paint" is of course the infinitive. But is there a syntactic term for a construction such as "wants to paint"?

Here's a bonus question: In English, constructions such as the one just described can consist of three or more verbs, e.g. "wants to begin to change," and "needs to want to begin to change." These constructions each consist of one finite verb plus X number of infinitives.

Are there any languages in which equivalents to such constructions would consist of X number of finite verbs followed by one infinitive, as in this nonce English example: "needs wants begins to change"?

  • 1
    You haven't defined this phrase that you wanted a name for, but perhaps you mean verb(al) phrase? In certain branches of modern linguistics, I believe the same is called a predicate.
    – Cerberus
    Feb 26, 2013 at 14:17
  • 1
    Isn't this what the term serial verb refers to? Jul 15, 2013 at 1:42
  • "infinitival complement", see Peter S. Rosenbaum, The Grammar of English Predicate Complement Constructions, jstor.org/stable/412292?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 23, 2018 at 19:32
  • @GregLee Unless the finite verb is a light verb but that’s perhaps too much detail.
    – Atamiri
    Mar 24, 2018 at 10:24

3 Answers 3


If we see those constructions just as finite + infinitive, I wouldn't know other term different from complex verb phrase. However, your example includes the verb want, which has some particular features. In the sentence Pete wants to paint, the matrix verb want is followed by the nonfinite clause to paint. In English, these clauses do not have an overt subject, so they are said to have a nonfinite null subject called PRO. Thus, the sentence structure is something like Pete wants [PRO to paint]. We think that this null subject PRO is controlled by the subject of the sentence, in this case Pete. You can see the subject as an antecedent of the null pronoun PRO. The sentence would mean something like Peter wantshimselfto paint. Verbs such as want or like, which admit this kind of infinitive complements, are called control verbs, and the clause with a null PRO subject is a control clause. The complete phrase would be then known as control predicate or control structure. This explains what happens in English, but languages vary in terms of the kind of clauses that allow null subjects.


In your example sentence Pete wants to paint, the word combination wants to paint is a simple finite verb phrase. But in the similar example Pete wants to paint the house, one can no longer claim that wants to paint is a verb phrase, since it no longer qualifies as a phrase (constituent) due to the presence of the house.

Thus to answer the question directly, there is no established term in theoretical syntax that clearly denotes a word combination consisting of a finite verb plus a to-infinitive. However in school grammar, many grammar teachers nevertheless call such a combination a verb phrase. The phrase concept is much more flexible in school grammar than it is in theoretical syntax.

There is, however, a relatively new term that theoretical syntax employs to denote the word combination like wants to paint; it is a verb catena. See the following article:


The catena is a much more flexible unit of syntax than the phrase/constituent. Many word combinations that are not phrases or constituents but are relevant to various phenomena of syntax are catenae.


Old question, but what the hay. As alluded by Tim Osborne, this is known as a "catenative" construction. The term "catenative" comes from "chain", and this use refers to the formation of a chain of infinite verb forms in a single string of meaning: He wanted to try to begin to understand.

Cambridge's A Student Introduction to English Grammar has a good chapter on it, that can be previewed on Google Books.

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