Before this question is marked as a duplicate, understand that I am not questioning the classification of a non-finite clause nor asking the generic reason for said classification. I know that the subject is implied; however, I don't understand why that is sufficient justification.

Let's look at an example that doesn't contain a non-finite clause:

He watched from the rooftop.

In this sentence, we have a finite clause ('He watched') and a prepositional phrase ('from the rooftop'). The preposition phrase is functioning adverbially, explaining the way in which he watched. Now, I would like to know how this is any different from the next example:

He watched to find his target.

If I have interpreted the definition of a non-finite clause correctly, I believe that 'to find his target' (something I would ordinarily class as an adverbial phrase) is one of them. According to what I have read, the subject 'he' is implied by the matrix clause. However — and I know this is wrong (I just want to understand) — is it not implied that 'he' is the one watching 'from the rooftop' in the previous example? Why is the first example a phrase, while the second is a clause?

I would also like to add that most accessible English learning resources (available online) scarcely acknowledge the existence of a 'non-finite clause', which makes this especially confusing.

For reference, these are the resources I have read (and understood the most): 1, 2, and 3.

1 Answer 1


You're right: originally a clause was defined as requiring a finite verb, but now many linguists define clause more broadly and therefore there is the concept of nonfinite clauses.

However, even a nonfinite clause normally needs a verb. "From the rooftop" has no verb.

There is an exception: verbless clauses are clauses where a verb (usually "be") is implicit, e.g. "If necessary" (=if it is necessary) in "If necessary, you can contact me".

  • Does that mean that everything containing a verb is classed as a clause (finite or non-finite)? And is a subject always required (implied or evident)? Many posts that I have read seem to reject the need for a subject in a clause, at least for non-finite examples.
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 17, 2021 at 19:24
  • Yes, having a verb is what makes it a clause, whether it has a subject or not.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 17, 2021 at 20:01
  • In the case of a gerund and an infinitive, where it can fit the subject and object roles, do these also count as non-finite clauses? Using the rule that you say, I believe so, but I thought it was worth checking.
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 18, 2021 at 11:03
  • 1
    @MJAda It's clear from dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/… that in "I like to travel" and "I enjoy playing", "to travel" and "playing" are non-finite clauses embedded within the two respective main clauses. I'm not certain whether "travel" in "I can travel" is also considered a non-finite clause, although I suspect it is. / On finite/non-finite, traditionally they were qualities of verbs. Now they are qualities of both verbs and clauses, and some linguists argue that only clauses are finite/non-finite, and no longer apply those terms to verbs.
    – rjpond
    Oct 18, 2021 at 11:46

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