My doubts arose after reading the section on Infinitives in the Oxford Guide to English Grammar by John Eastwood.

Part 1 of the question

Is it correct to generalize that all finite verbs change according to person, tense and number, while infinitives do not change? Or, are there exceptions? The book I have mentioned does not do that.

Part 2 of the question

In the questions "Do you play football?" and "Could you reach in time?", are "do" and "could" finite verbs and "play" and "reach" bare infinitives?

Part 3 of the question

"Can you reach in time?" Is this the present tense form of the question "Could you reach in time?" There seems to be a difference in meaning, "can" suggests possibility and "could" seems to ask about what actually happened. If "could" in this sense does not have a present tense, how can it be a finite verb form?

I went through the answers to related questions on this site but it is still not clear. Perhaps I do not understand some of those answers.

1 Answer 1

  1. That is true for most verbs, but modals (such as can, may, should) are finite, but have no infinitives and some of them do not change (but see my answer to 3)

  2. Yes. Do is an auxiliary, and could a modal, but they are both finite verbs. Play and reach are bare infinitives, as you say.

  3. Historically, could is the past of can, would of will, should of shall, and might of may. There are contexts when they are still used in this way (for example, in reported speech: "He said 'I can do it'" -> "He said he could do it".

    But in current English the "past" forms also have an independent existence, with various meanings. "Could" sometimes functions as a counter-factual version of "can" (in the same way as other past forms can have this function) but sometimes it is just a more tentative form, eg in requests: "Can you tell me...?" vs "Could you tell me...?"

  • So we can say that infinitives do not change according to person, tense and number. Most verbs change, but some modal verbs do not. Still, all modals are finite verbs and they do not have infinitives. Your explanation has been most helpful. Could you please explain what is a counter-factual version of a verb?
    – kuki
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 4:14
  • @kuki: my langauge was a bit imprecise. In counter-factual expressions (such as some conditionals) English uses the past tense of the verb to make that distinction. So "If I see him" implies that there is a real possibility that I will see him, but "If I saw him" implies that I don't think it is likely I will see him (that is the "counter-factual" bit) but I am thinking about what would happen if I did see him. So in the same way "If I can get there" is a real possibility in the future, "If I could get there" is a possibility that I don't think is likely.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 8:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .