Serial verb construction

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The serial verb construction, also known as (verb) serialization or verb stacking, is a syntactic phenomenon whereby two or more verbs or verb phrases are strung together in a single clause.[1] It is a common feature of many African, Asian and New Guinean languages. Serial verb constructions are often described as coding a single event;[2][3] they can also be used to indicate concurrent or causally related events.


The terms "serial verbs", "serialization", etc. are used by different authors to denote somewhat different sets of constructions. There are also differences in how these constructions are analyzed, in terms of both syntax and semantics.

In general, a structure described as a serial verb construction will consist either of two (or possibly more) consecutive verbs, or of two or more consecutive verb phrases in which each verb may have its own object and possibly other modifiers. There will usually be no marking, by means of affixes or subordinating conjunctions, that one verb is dependent on the other; nor will they be linked by coordinating conjunctions. Some linguists insist that serial verbs cannot be dependent on each other; however, if a language does not mark dependent verbs with affixation, it can be hard to determine whether any dependency relation exists when verbs appear in sequence.[4]

Serial verbs normally denote actions that are closely connected and can be considered to be part of the same event. They may be actions taking place simultaneously, or one may represent the cause, purpose or result of the other. In most cases, the serial verbs in a sequence are understood to share the same subject.

Certain expressions resembling serial verb construction are found in English (surviving from Early Modern English), such as let's go eat and come live with me.[1] In such constructions, the second verb would normally be regarded as a bare infinitive (and can generally be replaced by a "full" infinitive, by the insertion of to before it).

Examples with consecutive verbs

The following example of serialization comes from the Nupe language of Nigeria:[1]

Musa bé lá èbi.
Musa came took knife
"Musa came to take the knife."

The two verbs and appear consecutively, with no linking word (like "and") or anything to indicate that one verb is subordinate to the other. The subject, "Musa", is understood to apply to both verbs. In this example, the second verb also has a direct object. Note that in the English version given, the second verb is translated by an infinitive, "to take", which is marked as subordinate to the first verb.

Depending on the language, the shared subject may be marked on both verbs or only on one. In most of the examples given here, it is marked only once. However, in the following example from the Baré language of the Upper Amazon, the first person singular subject ("I") is marked twice:[1]

nu-takasã nu-dúmaka
deceived(1SG) sleep(1SG)
"I pretended (that) I was asleep."

As a rule, serial verbs cannot be marked independently for categories such as tense, aspect and mood. Either all of the verbs are marked for the same features, or a sole marker is shared by all of them.[1] In the Hindi फ़ोन उठा-कर कहा fon uṭhā-kar kahā (lit. phone pick-up say(PAST)), "...picked up the phone and said...", only the second verb is marked as past tense, although both are understood to refer to the past. In the following example, from the West African Ewe language, both verbs appear in their perfective form:

Kofí trɔ dzo kpoo
Kofi turn(PERF) leave(PERF) quietly
"Kofi turned and left quietly."

In Japanese, two verbs may come together with the first verb in the continuative form (連用形 ren'yōkei), as in 押し通る oshitōru ("push through"), where oshi is the continuative form of osu ("push"), while tōru ("get through") is a finite form whose present tense and indicative mood are understood to apply to oshi. Similarly: 飛び込む tobikomu ("jump in"), where tobi is from tobu ("jump") and komu means "go in"; 出来上がる dekiagaru ("be completed"), where deki is from dekiru ("be able to be done") and agaru means "rise, be offered". No arguments can come between the two verbs in this construction (in contrast to those described in the following section).

In the case of negation, normally only one negator can be applied to the whole serial construction, as in the following Baré example:[1]

hena nihiwawaka nu-tšereka nu-yaka-u abi
NEG go(1SG) speak(1SG) mother(1SG) with
"I am not going to talk with my mother."

In Chinese, as in Southeast Asian languages, when a transitive verb is followed by an intransitive verb, the object of the combined verb may be understood as the object of the first verb and the subject of the second: 老虎咬死了張 lǎohǔ yǎo-sǐ le zhāng (lit. tiger bite-die PERF Zhang) "the tiger bit Zhang to death", where Zhang is understood as the direct object of yǎo ("bite") but as the subject of ("die"). In the equivalent construction in Hindi, the one who dies would be the tiger, not Zhang.

Examples with intervening elements between verbs

In some languages which have verb serialization, the verbs must appear consecutively, with nothing intervening. In other languages, however, it is possible for arguments, normally the object of one of the verbs, to come in between the serialized verbs. The resulting construction is a sequence of verb phrases rather than of plain verbs. The following example is from the Nigerian Yoruba language:[1]

ó mú ìwé wá
he took book came
"He brought the book."

Here the object of the first verb intervenes between the verbs, resulting in two consecutive verb phrases, the first meaning "took the book" and the second meaning "came". As before, the subject ("he" in this case) is understood to apply to both verbs. The combined action of taking the book and coming can be translated as "bringing" the book.

A serial verb construction may be used to introduce an actant ("money" in the following example, from the Akan language of West Africa):

Aémmaá de sikaá maá Kofä
Amma take money give Kofi
"Amma gives Kofi money."

In Japanese also, strings of verb phrases can be created, often denoting events that are related causally or in time. Such strings may be translated into English using "and", "while", "(in order) to" or other connectives, but some may have a more compact translation, as in the following example (from Hayao Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime), where the actions of "following" and "coming" are simultaneous:

ashi-ato o tadotte kita
following his footprints I came
"I followed him here."

The following sentence from Mandarin Chinese can be considered to contain four verb phrases in sequence:

zuò fēijī cóng Shànghǎi dào Běijīng
I sit aircraft depart Shanghai arrive Beijing travel
"I travel from Shanghai to Beijing by aircraft."

In Chinese, however, there is often no clear distinction between serial verb phrases and prepositional phrases. The first three "verbs" in the above sentence may alternatively be regarded as prepositions (this applies particularly to words like cóng which do not normally appear as independent verbs). Words used in this way in Chinese, and also in some other languages, are commonly referred to as coverbs. For more information and other types of serial verb construction in Chinese, see Chinese grammar.

Contrast with compound verbs

A distinction is sometimes made between serial verbs and compound verbs (also known as complex predicates). In a compound verb, the first element (verb or noun) generally carries most of the semantic load, while the second element, often called a vector verb (light verb) or explicator verb, provides fine distinctions (such as speaker attitude or grammatical aspect) and carries the inflection (markers of tense, mood and agreement). The first element may be a verb in conjunctive participle form, or as in Hindi and Punjabi, a bare verbstem). For example, Hindi: सत्तू खा लिया sattū khā-liyā lit. parched.grain eat-TOOK, "ate up the sattu" (completive action), versus बच्चे.को खा डाला bacce.ko khā-ḍālā lit. child eat-THREW, "devoured the child" (violent or unwanted action). In these examples, खा khā is the main or primary verb, and लिया liyā (TOOK) and डाला ḍālā (THREW) are the vector verbs. Both खा लिया eat-TOOK and खा डाला eat-THREW alternate with the corresponding simple verb खाया "ate" under partly specifiable semantic and pragmatic conditions. For instance, negation often suppresses compound verbs in favor of their non-compound counterparts: सत्तू खा लिया (X) parched.grain eat-TOOK, versus सत्तू नहीं खाया (X) parched.grain not ate.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Tallerman, M. (1998). Understanding Syntax. London: Arnold, pp.79–81.
  2. Aikhenvald, A. and Dixon, R.M.W. (2005). Serial Verb Constructions: A cross-linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  3. Lord, C. (1991). Historical Change in Serial Verb Constructions. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
  4. Sebba, Mark (1987). The Syntax of Serial Verbs: An Investigation Into Serialisation in Sranan and Other Languages. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 3–4. ISBN 902725222X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. and R.M.W. Dixon. 2006. Serial Verb Constructions: a cross-linguistic typology. (Explorations in Linguistic Typology, 2.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Crowley, Terry. 2002. Serial Verbs in Oceanic: A Descriptive Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

External links