Grammar: Groups & phrases: Verb group: Structure of the verb group

Double verb constructions

Combining two verb groups in a verb group complex

Constructions which combine two main verbs are very common in all varieties of English, speech and writing, formal and informal:

Dotty decided    to      write  a story about her favourite pop star. 
          verb 1      particle   verb 2 

Bozo  likes   writing  stories about famous sports stars. 
          verb 1     verb 2

The first of the two verbs may consist of a main verb, or an auxiliary verb + main verb, or a modal auxiliary verb + auxiliary verb + main verb, whereas the second verb will always take the to form or the -ing form:

Dotty  should have decided    to write    her story earlier. [to form]
verb group 1            verb group 2

Mr Gong  has liked     writing     stories since he was at school. [-ing form]
verb group 1  verb group 2

Verb group 1 expresses the first clause 'happening' (via the main verb), and relates it to the situation of the speaker (via tense choice in the auxiliary verb or the main verb itself if there is no auxiliary). In addition, it may also express the speaker's judgement of the likelihood or obligation of the event (via the modal auxiliary verb). 

Verb group 2 expresses a second clause 'happening' which modifies the happening of the first clause, with the to form (to write) and the -ing form (writing) expressing a subtle difference in meaning:

Kitty tried to do her homework quickly
Kitty tried doing her homework quickly.  

In the example with to, doing her homework quickly is Kitty's goal. By contrast, in the example with -ing, doing her homework quickly is the means to achieve some other goal, perhaps to watch TV. 

The most general difference between these forms is 'real' (to form) or 'unreal' (-ing form). More specifically, the difference in meaning may be glossed in a number of different ways, depending on the verbs involved. 

Meanings of -ing form and to form

to form ('unreal')

-ing form ('real')
meaning example example  meaning
initial state starts to win ends up winning final state
activating begins to work keeps working maintaining
goal try to relax try relaxing means
intention decides to write starts writing action
proposing to do would like to paint likes painting  discussion of doing 
attempt leading to possible success struggled to open succeeded in opening success following attempt 

In double-verb constructions the first verb group typically provides a kind of gloss for the second verb group, and this may be of various kinds:

the reality or unreality of an action (seem to do, appear to do
the timing of an action (start to do, continue to do, stop doing)
the effort or success of an action (try to do, succeed in doing, manage to do)
the cause of an action or event (force to do, help to do)

For a summary of the relationship between the forms and the functions of verb group complexes, click here: Form and function

Alternative terms

PrimeGram Other grammars
verb group  verb/verbal phrase

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