Section 5: Main Verb Phrase Formula

The main verb phrase formula, also know as the verb expansion rule, describes which tense and participle morphemes are affixed to the auxiliaries and verb of the main verb phrase. It is a descriptive analytical tool, designed to help you distinguish between the main verb phrase and other, especially verbal, phrases. Once you identify a main verb phrase, you can use the Main Verb Phrase formula to analyze it in the context of a particular clause.

The main verb phrase consists of the main verb of the clause plus its auxiliary or helping verbs in an unchanging order. We can represent the main verb phrase linguistically as follows:

MVP = TENSE + (MODAL) + (HAVE + [-en]) + (BE + [-ing]) + MAIN VERB

When analyzing using the Main Verb Phrase Formula, you start at the left and move to the right, analyzing only on what you see. The parentheticals represent optional elements, which means that TENSE and MAIN VERB are the only required elements; in other words, TENSE and MAIN VERB will exist in every Main Verb Phrase. If both are not there, the structure is NOT a main verb phrase.

In English, TENSE is actually at the beginning of the main verb phrase, which may seem antithetical to how you have always thought about the main verb. So when analyzing, you always start at the left of the main verb phrase and always start with TENSE. Again, if TENSE is not there, it is NOT a main verb phrase. TENSE can only be PRESENT or PAST. (While some argue that the use of MODALS creates a FUTURE tense, for our purposes, and simplicity, we are sticking with only PRESENT or PAST). For example:

  1. John yells. (present tense)
  2. John yelled. (past tense)
  3. John has yelled. (present tense - notice TENSE is on the first verb, the auxiliary)
  4. John could have yelled. (present tense - the modal comes firsst, but modals do not take tense markers, so modals are ALWAYS present tense)
  5. John was yelling. (past tense - notice TENSE is on the first verb, the auxiliary)
  6. John could be yelling. (present tense - the modal comes firsst, but modals do not take tense markers, so modals are ALWAYS present tense))
  7. John had been yelling. (past tense - notice TENSE is on the first verb, the auxiliary)

In these seven examples, you can see how TENSE is determined at the beginning of each Main Verb Phrase. This means that an inflection for TENSE will always be added to the first element in the Main Verb Phrase, whether that first element is an auxiliary or the main verb. NOTE: obviously, there are exceptions to the tense inflection rule and the verb that follows maintains its base form (present tense for first-person singular, for example). The most common exception is the MODAL auxiliary, which never takes an inflection, but is ALWAYS analyzed as present tense. 

While TENSE may add an inflection to the word that immediately follows it, AUXILIARIES always require adding an inflection to the verb that follows it. So when analyzing for the Main Verb Phrase, you should be able to identify this feature. If the auxiliary does not precede an inflected verb, then it is NOT a main verb phrase. For example:

  1. John yells. (PRESENT + yell)
  2. John yelled. (PAST + yell)
  3. John has yelled. (PRESENT + HAVE + [-en] + yell) NOTE: Oftentimes, the PARTICIPLE form is irregular, which, in this case, adds the -ed inflection, rather than -en.
  4. John could have yelled. (PRESENT + MODAL + HAVE + [-en] + yell) NOTE: There is no inflection associated with the MODAL auxiliaries, instead requiring that the verb that follows it appear in its base form.
  5. John was yelling. (PAST + BE + [-ing] + yell)
  6. Yelling, John was stomping his feet, as well. (PAST + BE + [-ing] + STOMP - NOTE: the first word, YELLING, is NOT a main verb: -ing is not tense)
  7. John could be yelling. (PRESENT + MODAL + BE + [-ing] + yell)
  8. John had been yelling. (PAST + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-ing] + yell)

As you analyze the main verb phrases of clauses, understand that the auxiliaries always inflect on the verb that FOLLOWS it. In this way, you can look specifically for these common markers in the main verb phrase forms:

Simple Present or Simple Past

Carol speaks = (Carol) + present + (speak)

Carol will speak = (Carol) + present + modal + (speak)

Carol spoke = (Carol) + past + (speak)

Present Perfect or Past Perfect

Carol has spoken = (Carol) + present + HAVE + [-en] + (speak)

Carol will have spoken = (Carol) + present + modal + HAVE + [-en] + (speak)

Carol had spoken = (Carol) + past + HAVE + [-en] + (speak)

Present Progressive or Past Progressive

Carol is speaking. = (Carol) + present + BE + [-ing] + (speak)

Carol will be speaking. = (Carol) + present + modal + BE + [-ing] + (speak)

Carol was speaking. = (Carol) + past + BE + [-ing] + (speak)

Present Perfect Progressive or Past Perfect Progressive

Carol has been speaking. = (Carol) + present + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-ing] + (speak)

Carol will have been speaking. = (Carol) + present + modal + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-ing] + (speak)

Carol had been speaking. = (Carol) + past + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-ing] + (speak)

NOTE: As we discuss in more detail on the next page, the passive structure - BE + [-en] - is the only exception to the Main Verb Phrase Formula, but should be considered another Main Verb Phrase form.

When asked to analyze the main verb phrase, you should be able to 

Create a main verb phrase from the formula:

The (agency) + present + HAVE + [-en] + make + their records public only recently.

The agency has made their records public only recently.

Create a formula by analyzing a main verb phrase in context:

We have been planning a get-together for a long time.

(we) + present + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-ing] + plan + a get-together for a long time.

Recognize the verb form:

The communities are simply trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

are trying = present + BE + [-ing] + try

present progressive

Recognize all main verb phrases in the context of a sentence:

Airlines that are willing to provide in-flight cellular service will have a new source of revenue.

In this sentence, there are two main verb phrases:

(that) are willing = present + be + [-ing] + WILL (WILLING is the main verb)

(airlines) will have = present + modal + have (have is the main verb)

From this point forward, all analysis you do should ALWAYS begin with the Main Verb Phrase. 

Finally, as we mentioned in Section 4, we will be discussing Verb Types in Section 6, so later you will need to understand and maintain the distinction between verb FORMS and verb TYPES.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for main verb phrases.

When Dorothy was standing in the doorway, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun has been burning the tops of the long blades for decades, until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the MAIN VERB PHRASE SAMPLES ANALYSES page.