Feature GB118: Are there serial verb constructions?



This summary of serial verb constructions from Haspelmath (2016: 296) serves as a good clarification: "A serial verb construction is a monoclausal construction consisting of multiple independent verbs with no element linking them and with no predicate–argument relation between the verbs."

Serial verbs are different from verb compounds, in that they are compositional: "a serial verb construction must be a productive schematic CONSTRUCTION such that the meaning of a concrete construct can be determined on the basis of the meanings of its parts and the construction meaning. This means that non-compositional combinations of verbs do not fall within the definition." By contrast, verbal compounds are lexicalized and often non-compositional.

Serial verb constructions are also defined in Grambank as different from clause-chaining. Clause chaining involves a series of verbs which are not inflected, and one verb which is (see GB150). A serial verb construction is defined using Haspelmath's definition above, but in addition where it is not an example of clause chaining (i.e. it is not true that there is an inflected verb and the other verbs are missing inflection). It is however possible for a language to have both serial verb constructions and clause chaining.

Serial verb constructions are also different from light verb constructions, which are made up of a verbal element and a lexical stem which is not an inflected verb, jointly determining argument structure (see GB123).

'Verb' here refers to words that can be used as independent verbs in the language in question; but it is also best if they are dynamic verbs, as per the definition in Haspelmath (2016), 'Verbs are defined as dynamic event expressions that do not have special coding when used in predication function'. Serial verb constructions which are more restricted than that, such as only applying to stative verbs (e.g. a verb meaning 'good'), should not be counted as 1.


  1. Code 1 if two or more verbs can be juxtaposed, this verbal sequence functions as a single predicate, there is no predicate-argument relationship between the verbs, and where it is not a case of clause chaining, i.e. it is not true that there is an inflected verb and the other verbs are missing inflection.
  2. Code 0 if you find no description or examples of serial verb constructions in an otherwise comprehensive grammar.
  3. Code ? if the only potential examples of serial verb constructions in a language can also be analyzed as verbal compounds.
  4. Code ? if there are no examples of serial verb constructions but you believe the authors of your sources may have missed serial verb constructions.


Ewe (ISO 639-3: ewe, Glottolog: ewee1241)

Coded 1. "Subject is only expressed with the first verb. Some of the verbs may share objects as is the case for ‘dig’, ‘cook’ and ‘eat’ in the sentence below. Serialising connectives may be used to link verbs in a series" (Ameka 1991: 58).

é-fɔ́      do go      le zã    me dazáá   ɖa-ku     te   ɖa    ɖu
3SG-arise go outside at night in quietly PURP-dig  yam  cook  eat  
‘He got out quietly at night, dug up yams, cooked them and ate them.’ (Ameka 1991: 58)

Dongxiang (ISO 639-3: sce, Glottolog: dong1285)

Coded 0. The following is an example of clause chaining, not serial verbs. The first three verbs are non-finite (‘take’, ‘make’, ‘hang’) and each take a non-finite marker. The final verb (‘eat’) is the only finite verb and takes an aspectual marker. The first three verbs are medial verbs, and the finite verb occurs sentence-finally where main verbs usually occur in Dongxiang.

bi     tʂi-ni  barisə dʑiəku niə saji-dzi        dʑiauliədʑi=dəə idʑiə=nə.
1SG.NM 2SG-ACC take   rope   one make.rope-SIM   hang.up=SEQ     eat=IPFV
‘After I catch you, I will make a rope and hang you up, then I will eat you.’ (Field 1997:384)

Further reading

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. & R. M. W. Dixon. 2006. Serial verb constructions: A cross-linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2016. The serial verb construction: Comparative concept and cross-linguistic generalizations. Language and Linguistics 17(3). 291–319.


Ameka, Felix K. 1991. Ewe: Its grammatical constructions and illocutionary devices. Canberra: Australian National University. (Doctoral dissertation.)

Field, Kenneth Lynn. 1997. A grammatical overview of Santa Mongolian. Santa Barbara: University of California. (Doctoral dissertation.)

Haspelmath, Martin. 2016. The serial verb construction: Comparative concept and cross-linguistic generalizations. Language and Linguistics 17(3). 291–319.

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