What do you call a verb phrase with no subject, like a description of purpose: "to exact revenge" or ability: "juggle cats while tap dancing"?

  • 1
    They are just heads of a clause, i.e. the predicates.
    – BillJ
    Oct 19 '21 at 9:50
  • 1
    Right. That's the definition of "verb phrase" -- a clause without a subject.
    – jlawler
    Oct 19 '21 at 20:45

If you're talking about these phrases as part of a larger structure, and you're using a theory that has "little v", you can call these (big) VPs:

syntax tree showing little v and big V

If you're talking about these phrases on their own, though, they can be complete clauses (TPs or IPs or what have you), just without pronounced subject. Infinitive clauses like "to exact revenge", for example, are generally said to have an invisible subject called "PRO":

syntax tree showing PRO

We know it's there, even if it's not pronounced, because it can e.g. bind reflexives ("[the goal is] to see myself"). Likewise in imperative clauses ("look at yourself"). So you could call these "clauses with PRO subject", or "clauses with unpronounced subject", but I'm not sure if that's a category that's generally used.

(These differ, of course, from the famous "English sentences without overt grammatical subject", like "bless you" or "damn you". These seem to actually lack a subject entirely, rather than just having an invisible one like PRO.)

  • Is "bless you" different from "bless yourself" which would seem to have a PRO?
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 18 '21 at 23:58
  • @curiousdannii I would say so.
    – Draconis
    Oct 19 '21 at 0:30
  • Would it be wrong to think of "bless you" and "damn you" as imperative clauses? Oct 19 '21 at 8:43
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM I'd call them subjunctives. Main clause subjunctives are restricted to more or less fixed expressions like the ones you cite.
    – BillJ
    Oct 19 '21 at 9:59
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM The reason I put "English sentences without overt grammatical subject" in quotes is because it's the title of a fairly famous (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) paper about them, which concludes that they're fundamentally different from imperatives and other verbs. For example, they can't conjoin with other VPs/vPs: stand up and describe communism, *damn you and describe communism.
    – Draconis
    Oct 19 '21 at 14:35

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