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Please indicate the verb in this sentence'' I can swim in the river'' Here swim is an infinitive,so where is the main verb. Because infinitive can't be used as a verb.

  • Swim is not an infinitive there. Swim is the verb. If it were an infinitive, the sentence would read something like "I like to swim in the river". – Roy C. Aug 10 '16 at 18:09
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    @RoyC. care to reconsider your definition of an infinitive in light of John Lawler's answer below? – oerkelens Aug 10 '16 at 18:29
  • From what I have read, an infinitive is usually to + verb. After reading his answer, I'm still unsure. – Roy C. Aug 10 '16 at 18:32
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    @Roy C Look up 'bare infinitive' (or 'base form of a verb') and 'to-infinitive' to investigate the differences. Note that when looking at which of these may follow different verbs, 'help' proves to be rather odd in that it can take either: He helped wash the dishes / He helped to wash the dishes. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 10 '16 at 18:42
  • You are right: the 'main' ('matrix') verb is "can". I can swim in the river, is syntactically a present tense clause with "can" as the tensed verb. Thus "can" (not "swim") is the matrix verb with the non-finite clause "swim in the river" as a catenative complement. – user36764 Aug 11 '16 at 10:38
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Obviously you have been told many semi-truths. Like the idea that there can be only one verb in sentence. There does have to be a verb somewhere, but there is often more than one verb in a verb phrase.

As for infinitives, don't confuse the form of the verb (the infinitive, or present, or basic, form of the verb -- in this case, swim) from the construction the verb form is in. This particular infinitive form of swim is obligatory because it is the verb following can, a modal auxiliary verb, and all modal auxiliary verbs must be followed by the infinitive form of the next verb in the verb phrase.

Since it is the last verb in the verb chain that is the matrix verb (what you might call the "main verb"), and since the form is determined by the preceding auxiliary verbs, if any, the main verb can have any of the following forms:

  • present tense form: He sings the song.
  • past tense form: He sang the song.
  • perfect participle form: He has sung the song.
  • present participle form: He is singing the song.

(or, if the infinitive form is different from the present tense form, as it is with be

  • infinitive He could be the singer.)

All of these may be the matrix verb. There may be up to four auxiliary verbs coming before the matrix verb, in what is called the Verb Chain, but it's the matrix verb that determines the meaning and grammar of the rest of the clause. As I used to tell my students, verbs have more fun.

  • I always thought an infinitive would be something like "to sing" as in " He wants to sing". I'm a bit confused now. – Roy C. Aug 10 '16 at 18:34
  • @RoyC. Those are also infinitives. Your favorite grammar probably has a section contrasting bare infinitives and to-infinitives. – choster Aug 10 '16 at 18:41
  • Those are infinitive constructions, like relative infinitives (the man to see, the man to paint it), subject infinitives (To escape with his life was his dearest desire), object infinitives (He started to light a cigarette), purpose infinitives (He stopped to light a cigarette), etc. All have different grammar rules; some use to, some don't. It's more complicated than your grammar book says it is. Get a different grammar book. – John Lawler Aug 10 '16 at 18:46
  • I don't agree. I can swim in the river, is syntactically a present tense clause with "can" as the tensed verb. Thus "can" (not "swim") is the matrix verb with the non-finite clause "swim in the river" as a catenative complement. – user36764 Aug 11 '16 at 7:20
  • If can is present tense, where's the affix? Or is it only present tense by fiat? Modal verbs do not inflect for tense; each has its own refractive index where time is concerned. How about He can't have been finished by ten, because he was in the parlor until 9? Are not have been finished by ten, have been finished by ten, been finished by ten, and finished by ten all catenative complements? I'd call them all verb phrases, just like can't have been finished by ten or can swim in the river. – John Lawler Aug 11 '16 at 17:09
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The word swim here is a bare infinitive. This page from the website of University College London reads:

Infinitives with to are referred to specifically as TO-INFINITIVES, in order to distinguish them from BARE INFINITIVES, in which to is absent.

To-infinitive: Help me to open the gate

Bare infinitive: Help me open the gate

You can read on the Kaplan International website (as well as many other grammar websites and books), that the bare infinitive is used as the main verb (or matrix verb, according to John Lawler's answer) after auxiliary verbs such as 'do', 'should', 'can', and 'will'.

So now it should be obvious what the roles are:

can is an auxiliary verb that qualifies the main verb which is swim. Together, they form a simple verb phrase that is used to attribute to the subject of the sentence (in this sentence I) the ability (~can) to do the main action (here the main action is to swim).

  • Not true! I can swim in the river, is syntactically a present tense clause with "can" as the tensed verb. Thus "can" (not "swim") is the matrix verb with the non-finite clause "swim in the river" as a catenative complement. – user36764 Aug 11 '16 at 7:30
  • Though not everyone believes this is the case. – John Lawler Aug 11 '16 at 17:16

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