I'm not a native speaker. How do I determine what the main verb is in a sentence like
I used to hurt people.
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In your example, hurt is the lexical verb, cast in the infinitive after the auxiliary used. To may be regarded as an infinitive marker on hurt, required by this particular auxiliary; but it is now tied so strongly to used that it may equally be regarded as a component of a new lexeme useta.
The expression “main verb” does not (as far as I know) have a fixed meaning in the formal discussion of English grammar. It is not a technical descriptive term but one employed by teachers to draw learners toward understanding, and its meaning will vary from context to context.
So let’s replace your term “main verb” with what I suspect you’re talking about, which is the distinction between “auxiliary verb” and “lexical verb”. Over the centuries English has evolved a system of verb constructions in which the lexical (“dictionary”) verb, the one which expresses a particular eventuality, is preceded by one or more auxiliary (“helping”) verbs which express grammatical categories: tense, aspect, voice, mode. All of these auxiliary verbs were originally lexical verbs, and some of them (have and be, for instance) are still used in other contexts as lexical verbs. But in the context of the verb constructions they are fully “grammaticalized”: they express only grammatical meaning, not lexical meaning.
Note that in any verb construction of more than one verb there are two verbs which might be described as “main”.
Semantically, it is always the last verb in the construction which is the lexical verb: it expresses the core meaning, action or state, and in this sense it is the “main”.
In a construction, however, this verb is always cast in a “non-finite” form—a participle or infinitive.
He has seenPaPpl
He is seeingPrPpl
He will seeInf
Syntactically it is the first verb in a construction which is the “head” of the verb phrase, and only this first verb can be “finite”—inflected for person, number and tense.
He hasFinite seen
I am Finite seeing
I willFinite see
This fairly straightforward situation has recently gotten a little more complicated. In the longest-established verb constructions, any infinitive forms are “bare”—not accompanied by to. But in the last couple of centuries (the blink of an eye in linguistic terms), English has evolved a new set of auxiliary expressions—have to for must, and be going to for will, for instance—which take “marked infinitives”—infinitive forms preceded by the “infinitive marker” to. These expressions usually found their origin in lexical senses of their verbs:
He has this task to do. → He has to do this task.
He is going there tomorrow to help them. → He is going to help them there tomorrow.
But in many cases the marker has become syntactically and phonetically very strongly bound to the preceding verb. With Have to = must, for instance, the to cannot be separated from the have form, and the pronunciation has changed from /hæv tə/ to /hæftə/—hafta. In these circumstances it is very difficult to decide whether the to “belongs” to the preceding auxiliary or to the following lexical verb.
Used to is a similar case. Originally the use in this expression was unambiguously a lexical verb meaning “do habitually, practice”, pronounced with /z/ and employed in all tenses:
His own Wife would often say, you must not believe my husband; for he uses to tell Lies to make Gentlemen laugh. —1719
But today use has become fully grammaticalized in this sense. It is employed only in the past tense, and it has undergone the same phonetic reduction as have to, with devoicing of the final consonant, /justə/—useta. If you want to regard useta as a new auxiliary and hurt as a bare infinitive I won't argue with you!
I'm going to say that the tensed or finite verb is the "main" verb in a sentence. Example time!
She was going to have been writing the paper
She had written the paper.
She (could/would/might/may) write the paper tomorrow.
In English, the last verb in the verb phrase is the "main" verb. Things get a bit more difficult with subordinate clauses, but that's probably a separate question.
It is pretty easy to find the main verb.
All you have to do is to find what is the sentence trying to convey you mainly and plays the biggest role.
I used to hurt people.
The main verb is hurt because its main agenda is to tell you that you hurt people.
"love" is the main verb since my agenda to tell you is what I love — play video games.
Another way to identify is to test if it can standalone (not recommended),
i.e. I love video games.
The main verb is "have" since my agenda is to tell you many high school students have part-time jobs, others are extra.
many high school students → have a part-time job
So, it is fine to be standalone too.
i.e. Many high school students have a part-time job.