3

Are those terms totally interchangeable in all contexts (finite = conjugated) (non-finite = conjugated) or are there slight meaning differences?

  • 2
    Depending on the language there can be multiple non-finite forms of a verb, usually including some or all of the gerunds, infinitives and participles. A verb form is said to be finite if it expresses a tense. But maybe also if it expresses an aspect. I'm sure whether other verbal categories such as mood and voice would affect whether a verb form is called finite or non-finite. – hippietrail Jun 15 '13 at 10:12
  • 2
    Close. Generally "non-finite" means a verb that's less verby than a main verb. English verbs have two finite (goes, went) and three non-finite forms (go, gone, going). Respectively, these are the 3rd Person Singular Present Tense, the Past Tense, the Infinitive, the Perfect Passive Participle, and the Present Active Participle forms of the verb. Finite verb forms can be main verbs in main clauses; nonfinite verb forms only occur in subordinate clauses. Finite verb forms require a subject; nonfinite verb forms frequently appear with implied or indefinite subjects. And so on. – jlawler Jun 15 '13 at 19:31
  • 2
    Oh, and conjugation only refers to inflections that occur in paradigms, which are characteristic of Indo-European amalgamating (fusional) inflected languages like Latin. Agglutinative inflections like Turkish don't occur in paradigms, but still practice finite/non-finite distinction. A better general term would be "inflected/uninflected". – jlawler Jun 15 '13 at 19:35
  • 1
    Yes Georgian is a great example of where the distinction between inflection and agglutination breaks down. But I wouldn't use that as proof of terminology use. – hippietrail Jun 17 '13 at 2:16
  • 1
    I'm saying that go in they go home might be non-finite; you can't tell from the clause or the verb form. It depends what it can alternate with. It's important that they go home alternates with It's important that he go home, so it's a non-finite verb form (used in a finite clause, note -- a subject is required and can't be deleted). But I don't remember when they go home alternates with I don't remember when he goes home, so it's finite by both criteria. – jlawler Jun 17 '13 at 18:30
1

As these terms originate in Indo-European grammar, I will focus on Indo-European languages; these names may not apply as well to non-Indo-European languages.


The conjugation of a verb can mean two things:

1.) All the finite forms of a verb.

2.) All the inflected forms of a verb, including non-finite forms, like the infinitive and participles. I believe this usage is more common.

A finite form of a verb is one that has an ending; conventionally, the suffixes used to form infinitives (what's in a name?) and participles are not considered endings, although one might question the rationale behind this.

A verb ending is normally that part of a verb which expresses the features person and number (and usually mood). That is, a non-ending normally cannot express person or number or mood; but an ending can express more than person and number and mood (such as tense). You could say endings that express more than person, number, and mood are a contraction of some suffix with an ending, like the Latin imperfect (e.g. stabam, "I stood"), which is either analysed as present stem + imperfect suffix -ba- + ending (sta-ba-m), or as present stem + imperfect ending (sta-bam). We usually say the tense is included in the ending in such cases, of which there are many, but in other situations it is more practical to treat the suffix or contraction as a separate morpheme.

Strictly speaking, an ending / finite form is a kind of inflected form (finite inflexion), and an inflected form is a kind of suffixed form. Often, but not always, we use suffix to mean "non-inflexional suffix", because we already call inflected forms "inflected"— although inflected forms are also said to have inflexional suffixes in some contexts. "Inflected forms" normally does include all finite forms / endings.

Tense is a difficult concept of which different people use different definitions. An ending can be said to express tense, although there are endings that do not express tense. The forms of the Greek optative, for example, are always finite, but they never express a tense, while the endings of the imperfect do express tense (even though they are always finite too). Luoi = "may he unbind" (optative), which can be used in present, future, or past sentences alike, i.e. there is no real tense in it.

Aspect can be expressed in suffixes, in (suppletive) stems, in additional words, but also in endings, if you consider something like -bam above to be a single morpheme.


In English, most endings have contracted or disappeared in ways that make different persons, moods, and numbers invisible. There is still -s in the 3rd person present singular indicative for most verbs, and the most important and frequent verb of all, to be, still has many distinctive endings; but most other Indo-European languages have many more visible endings. The "invisible endings" in English finite verbs are often called zero endings, an kind of zero inflexion.

Because of this, many linguists have resorted to using the present tense v. the (synthetic) past tense as a more practical way of distinguishing between finite and non-finite forms. English doesn't really have endings that can be conveniently separated from tense, so a problem as with the Greek optative endings above (which have no tense) does not occur in English. So a way to test whether a verb form is a finite form or not is by testing whether it can be put in the (synthetic) past tense and present tense without changing the structure of the sentence. He goes to school => he went to school: that is possible, so it must be a finite form.

| improve this answer | |
  • There are some languages which have an infinitive which is not the basic form of the verb but is derived from it by inflections such as changing the ending. No example of the top of my head though sorry. Oh I wrote that before seeing you state a difference between endings and suffixes I had never heard before - but I have no formal linguistics training. I also hadn't come across contraction used for the combination of verbal categories that go into a suffix or ending before. – hippietrail Jun 16 '13 at 11:03
  • I've not encountered this distinction before, and I find your use of the words rather unhelpful. – Colin Fine Jun 16 '13 at 17:19
  • @ColinFine: Which distinction and which words, exactly? – Cerberus Jun 16 '13 at 23:19
  • Sorry if I was unclear: I was appending this to hippietrail's comment, and means ending vs suffix. In any given discussion one might reasonably use them distinctively, but I have not met the particular distinction you are making. – Colin Fine Jun 18 '13 at 18:19
  • 1
    @hippietrail: For an example of a language which has an infinitive which is not the most basic form of the verb, Japanese and all other Japonic languages work. In modern standard Japanese, for instance, the most basic form of the verb is the verb stem plus the imperfective suffix. For instance, ik-u |go-IPFV| versus ik-i |go-INF|. The situation in Okinawan and other Japonic is similar, though the citation form of verbs appears to be the final predicative form (which Japanese no longer distinguishes): ʔicu-n |go.IPFV-FIN| versus ʔic-i |go-INF|. – limetom May 7 '14 at 0:14
0

In Latin grammar the term "finite verbform" means the use of this verbform is limited to the use with a subject or a pronoun of the first or second or third person. Infinite verbforms as infinitive, participles or gerunds don't have this limited use. They are not connected with a subject or personal pronouns.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.