I'm not a native speaker. How do I determine what the main verb is in a sentence like

I used to hurt people.

  • 1
    See this question & answers from the English SE site: english.stackexchange.com/questions/55384/…
    – zerohedge
    Apr 20, 2015 at 9:39
  • How do you determine the main verb in your mother tongue? Tell us your procedure. Then follow it for this English sentence. What does it get you?
    – ЯegDwight
    Apr 20, 2015 at 9:39
  • @ЯegDwight i mean should i take hurt as verb or to hurt infinitive as verb?? Apr 20, 2015 at 9:42
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    @ЯegDwight It's the last word in the sentence in my language. So, is it the word people? ; -) Apr 20, 2015 at 9:43
  • 3
    @KaranamVishnuVardhan It kind of depends on what you mean by "main verb" ... Apr 20, 2015 at 9:44

3 Answers 3


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!

  • Your English too strong, but is this understanding correct: In the past, "used" will be regarded as main verb but now "hurt" is regarded instead.
    – XPMai
    Apr 21, 2015 at 10:27
  • Exactly! In the past I used to hurt people had the same pattern as I wanted to hurt people, but now it has the same pattern as I had to hurt people. Apr 21, 2015 at 12:10
  • +1 I'm just wondering about catenations such as "I want to go" ... Apr 22, 2015 at 12:39
  • @Araucaria First snailboat and now you! I refuse to be drawn into making this long answer any longer. Ask a question (and then answer it, since you probably know more about catenae than I do). Apr 22, 2015 at 19:22
  • @StoneyB I thought it was a great answer, I was just wondering what you thought. Apr 22, 2015 at 22:41

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.

e.g. I love to play video games whenever I am free.

"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.

e.g. Many high school students, some of whom are aged 12 only, have a part-time job.

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.

  • can you give me some examples with "used to" Apr 20, 2015 at 11:55
  • That's more easy. I used to play computer games. So, "play" is the main verb. "used" just kind of adverb only, doesn't make any sense with that verb alone since it's just describing the main verb (by frequency) but it makes sense with "play" alone. i.e. I play computer games.
    – XPMai
    Apr 20, 2015 at 20:06

I'm going to say that the tensed or finite verb is the "main" verb in a sentence. Example time!

She writes
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.

  • please check my other post related to same sentence. then you will understand my question better. Apr 20, 2015 at 10:07
  • Do you really think "was going to have been writing" is a helpful example?
    – TimR
    Apr 20, 2015 at 12:32
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    No, if there is more than one verb in a verb phrase the tensed verb will be the first auxiliary verb. If there is only one verb in a verb phrase, that's the main verb; but if there are more than one, the last verb in the verb phrase is normally the main verb. But that's only for the auxiliary verb chains up to She must not have been being photographed all that time, where the (untensed) modal must is the first verb, but photographed is the main verb. Main verbs determine other things, like possible particles, complements, alternation rules, deletions, etc. Apr 20, 2015 at 13:26
  • @JohnLawler yes, you're right. Clearly I'm out of practice ;) Actually, are you familiar at all with functional grammar? I have a feeling that what I said is true in that paradigm, but don't have my books on hand.
    – jimsug
    Apr 20, 2015 at 23:18
  • @TRomano I suppose my example needs more explanation, but do you really think a comment like yours is constructive or helpful? ;)
    – jimsug
    Apr 20, 2015 at 23:19

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