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Chapter V THE VERB

The system of the English verb is rightly considered to be the most complex grammatical structure of the language. The most troublesome problems are, indeed, concentrated in the area of the finite verb, and include, in particular, questions tense, aspect and modal auxiliary usage. This seems to be an area of grammar which has always gained the greatest interest in language learning. We can say with little fear of exaggeration that learning a language is to a very large degree learning how to operate the verbal forms of that language.

In Modern English, as well as in many other languages, verbal forms imply not only subtle shades of time distinction but serve for other purposes, too; they are also often marked for person and number, for mood, voice and aspect.

The grammatical categories of the English verb find their expression in synthetical and analytical forms. The formative elements expressing these categories are: grammatical affixes, inner inflection and function words. Some categories have only synthetical forms (person, number), others —only analytical (voice distinction). There are also categories expressed by both synthetical and analytical forms (mood, time, aspect).

We generally distinguish finite and non-finite forms of the verb.

The grammatical nature of the finite forms may be characterised by the following six oppositions with reference to:


a) person I read:: He reads
b) number She reads:; They read She was:: They were
c) time relations I write:: I wrote I write;: I shall write
d) mood If he knows it now:: If he knew it now
e) The aspective character of the verb She was dancing for half an hour (durative aspect):: She danced gracefully (common aspect)
f) voice distinctions: active — passive We invited him:: He was invited 1 asked:: I was asked

The non-finites (verbids) are: the Infinitives, the Gerunds and the Participles. The following, for instance, are the non-finites of the regular verb to paint:


Non-progressive Infinitive active passive active perfect passive perfect to paint to be painted to have painted to have been painted
Progressive Infinitive active active perfect to be painting to have been painting
Gerund active passive active perfect passive perfect painting being painted having painted having been painted
Participle: Present Perfect Past active passive active passive painting being painted having painted having been painted painted

Verbal forms denoting time relations are called tenses. The two concepts " time" and " tense" should be kept clearly apart. The former is common to all languages, the latter varies from language to language and is the linguistic expression of time relations so far as these are indicated in any given form.

Time is universally conceived as having one dimension only, thus capable of being represented by one straight line. The main divisions may be arranged in the following way:

past ← __________________ present____________________ -future

Or, in other words, time is divided into two parts, the past and the future, the point of division being the present moment, which, like a mathematical point, has no dimension, but is continually moving to the right in our figure. These are the primary divisions of time. Under each of the two divisions of infinite time we may refer to some point as lying either before or after the main point of which we are actually speaking. These may be referred to as the secondary divisions.

It seems practical to represent the two divisions as follows:


The Present Tense: She works and studies with enthusiasm. She is reading.
The Past Tense: They continued their way. They were speaking when I came in.
The Future Tense: I shall come to see you to-morrow. What will you be doing at five?

The secondary divisions of time are expressed by the Present Perfect, Past Perfect and Future Perfect Tenses.


The Present Perfect: She has written a letter to her friend. I have been working for two hours.
The Past Perfect: He had been back some two months before I saw him. I asked him what he had been doing since I saw him last.
The Future Perfect: He will have finished his work by that time. By the first of May I shall have been working here for 5 years, (almost out of use).

Each tense has naturally its characteristic time range, though every tense meets competition from other tenses within its characteristic range. These complicated distinctions, which in speech are made automatically without thinking, may be well presented in terms of binary oppositions. These oppositions have a characteristic structure of the markedunmarked term type —always in their functions, and sometimes in their forms. And this will justify labelling them in terms of a positive characteristic contrasted with its absence (the unmarked term). Such are the contrasts which operate throughout the range of the conjugation and free independent variables:

(a) non-progressiveprogressive (continuous);

(b) non-perfective-perfective;

(c) поп-passive (active)passive.

The progressive (continuous), as a positive term in a contrast, indicates, where necessary, to the fact that an " action" is thought of as having (having had or to have) duration or progression. The perfective adds a positive implication of " being in a state resulting from having..."; indicates that the action is thought of as having consequences in or being temporarily continuous with а " now " or " then" (past or future).

There are two types of inflection in the conjugation of the English verb — the weak and the strong. The weak class comprises all the verbs in the language except about one hundred. This is the only living type (lovelovedloved; workworkedworked). All new verbs are known to be inflected weak. Many verbs, once strong, have become wholly or partially weak. The weak type of inflection is much simpler now than it once was, but older regularities have left traces behind, so that there are still a number of non-standard verb forms in Modern English.

In older English, the vowel of the tense and participial suffix was sometimes suppressed, which led to the shortening of a long root vowel: sweep, swept; leave, left; etc.

In a number of verbs ending in -d the -ded of the past tense and participle is contracted to -t: bend, bent; build, built; etc.

In some verbs ending in -d and -t the suffix is dropped, leaving the present and the past tense and past participle alike: cut (present), cut (past), cut (past participle). There are a large number of such verbs:

bid (make an offer), burst, cast, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, rid, set, shed, shut, slit, split, spread, thrust. Some of these verbs: bid, burst, let, slit, are strong verbs which have been drawn into this class under the influence of their final -d or -t. Alongside of the literary forms burst, burst, burst are the colloquial and popular forms bust, busted, busted, which have become especially common in the meaning to break. In a few cases we use either the full or the contracted form: bet, bet or betted, bet or betted; knit, knitted or knit; quit, quit or quitted, quit or quitted; shred, shredded or shred, shredded or shred; sweat, sweat or sweated, sweat or sweated; wed, wedded or wed, wedded or wed; wet, wet or wetted, wet or wetted. The compound broadcast is sometimes regular: broadcast, broadcasted, broadcasted. In American English we say spit, spit, spit, but in England the parts are spit, spat, spat. In the literary language the British forms are now often used also in America. In older English, the list of the short weak forms was longer, as attested by their survival in certain adjective participles: " a dread foe, " but " The joe was dreaded", " roast meat, " but " The meat was roasted." The extensive use of these short forms is in part explained by the fact that in the third person singular the -s of the present tense distinguishes the two tenses: he hits (present) hard; he hit (past) hard. Elsewhere we gather the meaning from the situation. As the past tense is the tense of description, there is here usually something in the situation that makes the thought clear. As this simple type of inflection is usually not unclear, it is spreading to the strong past, which in loose colloquial or popular speech now often has the same vowel as the present tense: He give (instead of gave) it to me yesterday.

In a number of words ending in -l or -n the ending is either -ed or -t, the latter especially in England: spell, spelled or spelt; learn, learned or learnt; etc.

Had and made are contracted from haved and maked.

In a large number of words the difference of vowel between the present and the past gives them the appearance of strong verbs, but the past tense ending -t or -d marks them as weak: bring, brought; tell, told; etc.

The process of regularising strong verbs, which has likewise been going on for centuries, continues to replace " irregular" forms by more " normal" ones.

Thus, for instance, on consulting the Concise Oxford Dictionary in its 1964 edition we find the past tense of the verb thrive given as:

" throve rarely thrived" and the past participle as " thriven, rarely thrived." This is in fact outdated, and the opposite is already the case whether in the spoken or written language.

The verb to bet is also often regularised with" betted" more and more used for the past tense and past participle, whereas in earlier decades the normal form was " bet" in each case.

It will be interesting to consult three different dictionaries for the forms of this verb:

(1) The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1950 edition) gives only " bet" as past tense and past participle.

(2) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1958) gives " bet", also " betted".

(3) The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1964 edition) gives only " bet, betted" for the two forms respectively 1.

The common devices for verb-making in Modern English are: 1) affixation, 2) conversion, 3) verb-adverb combination, 4) backformation, 5) composition.

A special interest attaches to such single linguistic units as: bring up, break up, come in, go down, get over, get up, get out, make out, make up, etc. In actual speech they may appear with their two parts following each other or separated by one or more other elements of the structure of which they are a part.

Formations of this kind are not recognised as single grammatical units by all grammarians; some call them " verb-adverb combinations" 2. They have also been called " separable verbs" 3, " merged verbs" 4, " separable compounds" 5, " compound verbs" 6 and " poly-word verbs" 7.

There seems no small justification for adopting W. N. Francis' term " separable verbs" which is meant to bring out both grammatical qualities of these verbs: a) that they function as single parts of speech, and b) that their two parts may be separated from each other by intervening elements.

Such verbs, though often colloquial, add an idiomatic power to the language and enable it to express various subtle distinctions of thought and meaning.

A great many modern verbs have been coined after this pattern: to boil down, to go under, to hang on, to back down, to own up, to take over, to run across, to take up, etc. It is to be noted that figurative combinations of this type express a verbal idea more forcibly and more picturesquely than the literal word-combination.

Cf. drive away = banish

come about =happen

come by = acquire

fall out = disagree

give in = yield

keep on = continue

look after = tend

pass out = faint

pull out — depart

put up = tolerate

quiet down = diminish

take off = remove

1 See: B. F о s t e r. The Changing English Language. Great Britain, 1971.

2 See: R. W. Zandvoort. A Handbook of English Grammar. London, 1963, p. 275;

3 W. N. Francis. The Structure of American English. New York, 1958, p 265;

4 J. R. А і k е n. A New Plan of English Grammar, 1933, cited in M. Bryant. A Functional English Grammar. Boston, 1947, p. 208;

5 G. O. Curme. Principles and Practice of English Grammar. New York, 1947, p. 24;

6 J.Grattan and P. Gurrey. Our Living Language. London-New York, 1953, p. 80;

7 E. W. Stevick. The Different Preposition. American Speech, 1950, p. 214.

take in = deceive
turn in = go to bed
turn up =happen

The unity of the two parts of separable verbs may be well illustrated by numerous examples. Let us take the following sentence: He drank up the milk. In a conventional sense, up might be an adverb signifying direction, or it might be a preposition introducing the phrase up the milk, but this makes no sense at all. The only answer is that to drink up is a single linguistic unit. Up in this construction serves to intensify the action, and comes to be synonymous with the adverb completely. In usage, these verbs function as normal single-ones except that they are separable. Examples like this may easily be multiplied.

To distinguish between the prepositional element and the ordinary adverbial adjunct compare also the following:

(a) He ran up a hill.

(b) He ran up a bill.

We cannot fail to see that up in (a) and (b) has quite distinct functions.

The difference will be observed in the sequence of the elements. We can say He ran a bill up, but we can hardly say He ran a hill up. If we substitute a hill and a bill by a pronoun, the sequence of the pronoun and the postpositional element is fixed and contrastive. We may say only:

(a) He ran up it. (a hill)

(b) He ran it up. (a bill)

. The contrasting patterns that appear when it is substituted can be best illustrated as answers to questions:

(a) Where did the bill come from? He ran it up.

(b) How did he climb that hill? He ran up it.

Ambiguity may arise, at least in written language, when the position of up is final but this ambiguity is generally resolved by intonation. There is usually a difference of stress as, for instance, in a relative clause, where depending on the context we may contrast:

(a) The hill he 'ran up.

(b) The bill he ran 'up.

In the first there is nuclear stress on run, in the second on up. Similar contrasts will be seen in such examples as:

(a) The passenger flew in the plane.

(b) The pilot flew in the plane.

or: The pilot flew the plane in, but not: The passenger flew the plane in.

Cf. (a) The passenger flew in it. (b) The pilot flew it in.

Observations of the idiomatic character of separable verbs and their stylistic value give every reason to say that they possess, as A. G. К e n -

n e d y has it 1, " a certain amount of warmth and colour and fire which the colder, more impersonal, more highly specialised simple verb lacks". As such they are commoner in colloquial than in other varieties of English.

" The student may learn grammar and, with time, acquire an adequate vocabulary, but without a working knowledge of such idioms as to get up, to look up, to look through, to look over, to call on, to call for, to get on, to get along, to make up, to make for, etc., his speech remains awkward and stilted" 2.

In English grammars of conventional type the adverbial formative element in such compound verbs is often called " a preposition-like adverb". But there seems no small justification for adopting the term " postposition" to supersede the former3. Among postpositions the following are most productive: about, away, down, forth, in, off, over, out and up.

There are important treatments of the question made by Y. Zhluktenko4 where these separable elements are referred to as postpositional morphemes:

a) verbs with postpositional morphemes retaining their primary local meaning: come in, go out, go down, fly off, sweep away, etc.;

b) verbs with postpositional morphemes having a figurative meaning: boil down (умовляти), take off (збавляти ціну), take up (заповнювати собою), get along (досягати успіху), speak away (заговоритись), etc.;

c) verbs with postpositional morphemes intensifying the verb or imparting the perfective sense to its meaning, e. g.: eat up, rise up, swallow up, etc.;

d) verbs whose meaning can hardly be derived from their separable component parts, e. g.: bear out (підтверджуватись), give in (уступати), give up (покидати), соте about (траплятись), turn up (траплятись).

It is interesting to note that English verbs with homonymic prefixes and postpositions will always differ in their meaning.

Compare the following: upset —перевернути, перекинути; set up — організувати, встановити; uphold —підтримати; hold up —тримати догори, затримувати.

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