The forms of verbs

I have, on my bookshelf, a copy of the almost-2000-page Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum (best known from Language Log).

A few years ago I tried explaining some concepts from the book in my own words, in the form of some draft web pages that never saw the light of day. I was essentially testing whether I understood the concepts myself by trying to explain them to others, and corresponded with Huddleston for a while at the time. Now, I’ve been thinking of starting a series of posts, right here on this blog, discussing much the same material but in a more fragmentary, blog-like manner. It will be mostly about the verbs, as that’s the section of the Grammar I have read the most thoroughly.

Here is the first installment.

Even if you were never taught much formal grammar (and who was?), you’re probably familiar with the idea that verbs come in various forms. But if you ask how many forms a verb has, the answer depends on how you count them. There is no single right answer, because verb forms and the labels we give them are tools to help us describe how English works, not objective truths, so the best answer is the one that helps us describe the language most succinctly and elegantly — a subjective question.

Very old grammar books contain long lists of forms, including forms made up of more than one word, such as “to write“, “will write“, “has written“, “had written“, etc. This approach was long ago abandoned by people who study the language seriously, and you should forget about it. If you think those are four different forms of the verb “write“, then you’ve not only accepted an unnecessarily complicated and unintuitive way of describing the language, but you’ve also made it impossible for yourself to think clearly about how the words “to“, “will“, “has” and “had” behave in their own right.

Tables of verb forms in old grammar books also contain many identical entries. The one verb in the English language that certainly has many forms is the verb “be” — for example the phrases “I am” and “you are” unquestionably contain different forms of the verb. Old grammar books assume that because one verb behaves that way, all verbs should be treated as though they behaved that way, so you’ll see tables where the verb “write” has a first person form “write” (as in “I write“) and a second person form “write” (as in “you write“) as well. Such tables are unwieldy, and it is more elegant to cut through the redundancy and say that “I write” and “you write” (in this example) contain the same form.

The other extreme would be to say that there are only as many forms as there are spellings or pronunciations (or realisations, to use the technical term). But that isn’t the most elegant description, either. The phrases “I wrote a letter” and “I have written a letter” clearly contain different forms of the verb, but they look identical in “I posted a letter” and “I have posted a letter“. Theoretically you could argue that for “post” and most other verbs they are the same form, but when you try to describe how the language works you’ll find it’s useful to give them different names so that you can name the forms that belong in “I ___ a letter” and “I have ___ a letter” without having to worry about whether the verb happens to be “write” or “post“.

So the best description of the language will be one in which the number of verb forms is neither too many nor too few. In The Cambridge Grammar, that number is determined by the following principles:

  • For two forms to be recognised as different, there must be at least one verb where the two forms are realised differently.
  • If the only difference between two forms has to do with agreement (e.g. first, second or third person), then they are regarded as the same form whenever they have the same realisation.

When a verb is spelt and pronounced exactly the same in two different forms (as in “posted“, above), those forms are said to be syncretised for that verb.

Before looking at the list of verb forms recognised by The Cambridge Grammar, we must note the existence of auxiliary verbs, such as “can“, “may“, “will“, “must“, “shall“, “ought” and “be“. In The Cambridge Grammar, verbs that are not auxiliaries are called lexical verbs, and in the following list of forms, it is the lexical verbs we are talking about. Auxiliary verbs (especially “be“) have additional forms.

  • For lexical verbs, there are two present tense forms, one for agreement with the third person singular (as in “he writes“, “she writes“) and one for agreement with everything else (as in “you write“, “I write“). The latter is called the plain present tense form.
  • The preterite, better known as the past tense form (as in “he wrote“, “you wrote“). This is not the place to fully explain why the authors chose to call it the preterite instead of the past tense form, but very briefly it’s because there are good reasons to think of the so-called perfect as a different type of past tense, which would confuse matters if we didn’t use a different word.
  • The gerund-participle. Traditional grammars distinguish between the gerund (as in “teachers enjoy confusing students” and the present participle (as in “teachers enjoy confusing explanations“). In The Cambridge Grammar, these are considered to be the same form, and gerund-participle is the name given to it. I confess that I find the traditional distinction between gerunds and present participles more than a little confusing myself.
  • The past participle. This form is used in two different ways. In conjunction with the auxiliary verb “have“, it is used to form the perfect construction, as in “I have written a letter“, and the word “past” is a nod to this way of using it. The past participle is also used to form the passive construction, as in “The letter was written last year“, and the word “participle” (which means a verb that’s used somewhat like an adjective) is a nod to this way of using it.
  • The plain form. This is used in a variety of ways, of which the following examples are representative. “Please post this letter.” “I like to post letters.” “I will post this letter.” “Be careful lest you post the wrong letter.” The plain form is always syncretised with the plain present tense form, so why they considered to be different forms? Primarily because the auxiliary verb “be” has the two forms “am” and “are” instead of a plain present form.

The preterite and the plain present tense forms are called primary forms, while the gerund-participle, past participle and plain form are called secondary forms. The reason for this division would be best explained during a detailed discussion of the auxiliary verbs, which I intend to do in a future installment of this series.

Traditional grammar divides up the verb forms somewhat differently, into so-called finite and non-finite forms. That division doesn’t work for the verb forms listed above, however, because the plain form can be either finite or non-finite, depending on how it is used. Rather than abandon the concept of finiteness, The Cambridge Grammar takes the position that it is not the verb forms that are either finite or not, but rather the constructions (the types of phrases) in which they appear. Exactly what it means to be finite or not will have to await a future installment.

I intend to cover each of the verb forms in detail, as well as the auxiliary verbs and the concept of finiteness. Also, I will try to be careful but there may well be mistakes – they are treacherously easy to make and writing this series is a learning exercise for me, too.


2 Responses to “The forms of verbs”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I find the five form paradigm useful, but only up to a point. Then ING form has so many uses – from pure noun to pure verb through hybrids – that it can be confusing.

    But if you’re looking at FORM instead of FUNCTION it’s useful. Then your main problem comes with the four-four regulars and the three-form irregulars – especially those like “put”. I’ll be interested to see how you go on.

  2. John Cowan Says:

    Of course, two-thirds of all anglophones do not use post as a verb in this sense at all, and the OED3 s.v. post, v.² sense 6b says “Chiefly Brit.“. [ɲæ˦ː ɲæː˨]

    Now of course you are not a Brit, chiefly or otherwise, and you might wish to protest by writing to oed3 at oup dot com — very polite and helpful people there, actually.

    (I omit, as too well known, the ancient yuk about how in the U.S. the Postal Service delivers the mail, whereas in the U.K. the Royal Mail delivers the post.)

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