Grammatical Structures: Revision on finite and non-finite clauses

Skill Focus: Avoiding Common errors

Vocabulary Development: Register of Science

 Grammatical Structures: Revision on finite and non-finite clauses

What is the structure of the following sentence?

Deterred by the lack of future job prospects,

many Nigerian secondary school students avoid science subjects.

The sentence contains two clauses, and what follows the comma is the main clause. But what about the clause preceding the comma, ‘Deterred… prospects’? The explanation requires some understanding of the difference between finite and non-finite clauses.

So far you have only learned about finite clauses. A finite clause is one that contains a finite verb form, which in turn means one that can function as the predicate of a sentence.

For example:

She wrote a message

She was writing a message.

Here wrote and was writing are finite verb forms and they appear in meaningful sentences. Non-finite verb forms are ones that can not, just by themselves function as predicates. For the verb write the non-finite forms are infinitives ( to write, to have written) and the participles writing and written. When we say that they cannot function as predicates, we mean that, for example, She to write or She writing or She written a message is not acceptable as a sentence, and really has no meaning.

However, non-finite forms CAN appear in dependent clauses. In addition to one example that is given at the beginning of this section, look at the following:

To speak many languages is a great asset

They accused him of having stolen it

Delivered by the Vice-principal, the welcome address was much appreciated.

In the first sentence, ‘To speak many languages‘ is a non-finite noun clause, functioning as the subject of ‘is‘, in the second sentence, ‘having stolen it‘ is a non-finite clause, functioning as the object (or complement) of the preposition ‘of ‘, in the third sentence, ‘Delivered by the Vice-principal’ is a non-finite adjectival clause that describes or qualifies ‘the welcome speech’ in the main clause.

Let us look at another example more carefully:

Seeing the bus in front of him, Samuel applied the brakes

The non-finite clause is ‘Seeing …. him’. What type of clause is it? It surely gives the reason why Samuel applied the brakes; hence it is an adverbial clause of reason.

Analysing non-finite clauses is harder than analysing finite clauses because a finite clause has a word at the beginning that serves as a clue to the type it is: e.g. who indicates an adjectival clause of condition. Seeing, however, could indicate an adverbial clause of reason, as here; but sometimes it can indicate an adverbial clause of time. How will you know? You have to exercise your own judgement.


Join the following pairs of sentences together making one of them a non-finite clause. Some words will need altering but make minimal changes. (a) say what type of non-finite dependent clause you have used in each sentence. b) say what the function of that clause is.

  1. I needed more money. I went to the bank.
  2. She started with a capital of €50,000. Now she has a turn over of millions
  3. The man was overwhelmed by numerous debts. He shot himself
  4. The dog heard voices. It began barking
  5. Abuja is situated in a very central position. It is accessible from all parts of Nigeria

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