I know my blogiversary is the 1st of November, but I found out recently that I was coming up on 400 posts, so it seemed a good idea to combine the two. (By the way, the stats tell me that that I’ve had more readers already this year than in the whole of last year. I welcome/encourage comments, please, please, please!)
I have recently started a series called Microgrammar or Grammarbites, I can’t quite decide. The first installment is here. Following that, I probably should have first written about nouns and pronouns, but I’ve had verbs on my mind.
1 Definitions of verbs
Traditional definitions of verbs included “a verb is the name of an action” or “a verb is a ‘doing’ word”, but many verbs do not involve actions, or someone or something “doing” anything. Some other important meanings of verbs are physical, mental and emotional states (be, know, understand, love, hate), possession (have), processes (become) and events (happen). Many actions involve movement (go, come), interaction with objects (touch, hold) and movement or transfer of objects (take, bring, give, get).
Modern definitions of verbs focus on their distinct grammatical characteristics, including:
form (most verbs have V, Vs and Ving forms (do, does, doing), many have a V-ps form (did) and some have a separate V-pp form (done))
what other words they can combine with to make verb strings (are/am/is/were/was doing, have/has/had done, can/could … do)
function (most verbs can function as the only or most important word of the predicate).
Two important groups of verbs are:
main verbs: Most verbs are main verbs. They can join a subject noun phrase or pronoun (and maybe an object noun phrase or pronoun) to make a sentence.
auxiliary verbs. There are two sub-groups of these: be, have and do (which can also be main verbs), and can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would (modal auxiliary verbs, or simply modal verbs). These must be followed by another verb in a specified form.
I eat pizzas. She is eating a pizza. He has eaten a pizza. You ate a pizza. They will eat a pizza.
As an auxiliary verb, be can be followed by a verb in its Ving form (to make continuous aspect) or V-pp form (to make passive voice). As an auxiliary verb, have must be followed by a verb in its V-pp form (to make perfect aspect). As an auxiliary verb, do must be followed by a verb in its V form (to make questions and negatives, except with be and modal verbs). Modal verbs are always auxiliary, and must be followed by a main verb in its V form.
Some other verbs can or must be followed by another verb in its Ving, to V, or V form: I like eating pizzas. I want to eat a pizza. Please let me eat a pizza. We can also say I like _ pizzas and I want _ a pizza, but we can’t say Please let me _ a pizza.
Some verbs are usually or always followed by a preposition: listen to music, look at the scenery, and are often called prepositional verbs. Some of these have developed meanings which are not related to the separate parts, and are usually called phrasal verbs: take off (clothes) and take off (aeroplanes). One test of this is that the opposite is not made just by changing “off” to “on”. The opposite of take off clothes is put on clothes, and the opposite of the plane took off is the plane landed. There are some three-part phrasal verbs: put up with, give up on.
Some important ideas relating to verbs are agreement, tense, aspect, mood and voice.
Agreement is the difference between You eat pizzas and She eats pizzas. Almost all English verbs except modal verbs have V and Vs forms. In present simple tense, Vs matches with 3rd person singular subject noun phrases and she, he and it, and V matches with everything else. Verb be also has two forms in past simple: This was a pizza and These were pizzas.
Tense is the difference between You eat pizzas and You ate a pizza. Present simple tense is usually about always …, and past simple tense is usually about “past time”. English usually shows tense by changing the form of the verb (except for a few irregular verbs like put).
Aspect is the difference between You eat pizzas (always), You are eating a pizza (now) (continuous aspect) and You have eaten a pizza (before now) (perfect aspect). English shows aspect by be + Ving, have + V-pp and have + been + Ving.
Mood is the difference between You eat pizzas and Eat your pizza(, please) or Hey you, eat your pizza! Many languages have a separate verb form (or forms) for this; English doesn’t.
Voice is the difference between You ate a pizza and A pizza was eaten by you. English shows voice by be + V-pp.
The most general word is “tense”. Very often, when we talk about verb “tenses”, we really mean some combination of these ideas; we talk about continuous aspect but “present continuous tense”.
Be is the most common, important and irregular English verb.
It is the only English verb with two plain present forms, both of which are different from the plain form, and the only one with two past simple forms. It is the only English verb for which I matches differently from you, we, they: I am ~ you/we/they are, and I/she/he/it was ~ you/we/they were. Finally, it is the only English verb for which the different parts look so different. Look ~ looks ~ looking ~ looked are obviously different forms of the same word; be ~ are am ~ is ~ being ~ were was ~ been is not obviously ‘the same word’, and it is sometimes easy to forget that it is a verb.
As a main verb, be can be followed by four different patterns:
I am/was happy/sad. (adjective) I am/was engaged/married (V-pp used as adjective)
I am/was a student/teacher. (noun phrase)
I am/was at work/on holiday. (prepositional phrase)
I am/was here/there. (adverb)
As an auxiliary verb, be must be followed by another verb:
be Ving: I am/was eating. (present/past continuous)
be going to V: I am/was going to eat (a form of ‘future tense’)
be V-pp: I am/was eaten by zombies. (present/past simple passive)
Are, am and is are often contracted in informal speech and writing, especially after a pronoun – I’m, you’re, we’re, they’re, she’s, he’s, it’s – but also after a noun phrase. Were and was are never contracted.
Negatives are formed simply by adding not after be: I am not, you/we/they are not, she/he/it is not. This leads to two contracted forms:
* Especially in questions, some people use ‘Aren’t I?’. Some native English speakers say ain’t, especially in informal speech and common expressions.
Questions are formed by inverting the pronoun and the verb:
Am/Was I happy/sad?
Am/Was I a student/teacher?
Am/Was I at work/on holiday?
Am/Was I here/there?
Am/Was I eating?
Am/Was I going to eat?
Am/Was I eaten by zombies?
Negative questions are possible, but are sometimes awkward and often have a different ‘feel’ to them. If you see a movie and are telling me about it, I can ask ‘Was it good?’, and you can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If you come out of the cinema looking disappointed, I can ask ‘Wasn’t it good?’, expecting the answer ‘No(, it wasn’t good)’. But if we see a movie together and are talking about it, I can ask ‘Wasn’t it good?!’, expecting the answer ‘Yes(, it was good)’.
Have is the second most common English verb.
Note the spelling rule for the Ving form: hav(
e) + ing = having.
As a main verb, have is always followed by a noun phrase, but there are two groups of meanings. The first is related to possession (some people say ‘I’ve got …), and the second to doing. This affects some of the verb tenses we can use.
As the auxiliary verb for perfect aspect, have must be followed by another verb in its past participle form (V-pp):
have V-pp: I have had a shower this morning. (present perfect) / I had had a shower before you called. (past perfect)
Also, there is a special use of have followed by to V, with a meaning similar to the modal verb must.
have to V: I have/had to have a shower every morning. =
’ve got to V: I’ve got/(x) I’d got to have a shower every morning.
must V: I must have a shower every morning.
Have as a main verb is usually not contracted, and negatives and questions are usually made with do-support, but a small number of native speakers contract it, and form negatives and questions like are/am/is (but only for the ‘possess’ meanings, not the ‘do’ meanings).
Have got (for possession), have as the auxiliary verb for perfect aspect and have got to (= must) are usually contracted, but have to (= must) is never contracted. (In the next two boxes, italics show emphasis, not verb forms.)
I have got a shower in my apartment. > I’ve got a shower …
I have had a shower this morning. > I’ve had a shower …
I had had a shower before you called. > I’d had a shower …
I have to have a shower every morning. > (x) I’ve to have a shower …
I have got to have a shower every morning. > I’ve got to have a shower …
The placement of not in negatives depends on whether have is the main verb or an auxiliary verb.
I don’t have a shower in my apartment.
I haven’t got a shower in my apartment.
I haven’t had a shower this morning.
I hadn’t had a shower before you called.
I don’t have to have a shower every morning.
(x) I haven’t got to have a shower every morning.
Do is the third most common English verb.
Note the spelling rule for the Vs form: do + es = does, and the pronunciation /dʌz/.
As a main verb, do usually talks about actions in general: What are you doing? We must do something! Do it well/badly/quickly/slowly.
It is also the usual way to talk about exercise (do (some) exercise), homework (do my/your homework), housework (do (the/some) housework) and shopping (do the/some shopping).
As an auxiliary verb, it is used:
to avoid repetition or add emphasis: A: I’m hungry. B: I thought you ate a pizza every morning. A: I do (no emphasis) / I do (emphasis) (eat a pizza every morning), but I’m still hungry.
to form negatives (except with be, modal verbs and possibly have): I don’t eat a pizza every morning.
to form questions (except with be, modal verbs and possibly have): Do you eat a pizza every morning?
to form short answers (A: Do you eat a pizza every morning? B: Yes, I do.), short questions (A: I eat a pizza every morning. Do you? or A: I eat a pizza every morning. B: Do you? (interest) or Do you? (surprise)) and tag questions (A: You eat a pizza every morning, don’t you? or You don’t eat a pizza every morning, do you?).
Do, does and did are never contracted. Don’t, doesn’t and didn’t usually are.
5 Auxiliary verbs and main verbs
Be, have and do can all be used as main verbs and auxiliary verbs. Sometimes two forms of the same verb fall together, with the first being the auxiliary verb and the second the main verb: I was/am/will be being serious/silly. Be being is obviously the most awkward.
Because be is the auxiliary for continuous aspect and the auxiliary for passive voice, we can have the same two verbs both as auxiliary verbs, followed by another main verb.
I was/am/will be being eaten by zombies.
Or adding other auxiliary verbs: I had/have/will have been being eaten by zombies. Been being is obviously very awkward, but perfect continuous passive tenses are very, very rare.
More usually, we can have have had, has had and had had (have have is not possible).
I have had a shower this morning (which is usually contracted to I’ve had …), and
I had had a shower before you called (which is usually contracted to I’d had …).
Many students hesitate when they see had had in a reading or have to produce it in a grammar exercise or when speaking.
We can also have do do, does do and did do (the other combinations are not possible).
A: You should do your homework every morning. B: I do do my homework every morning (which might be shortened to I do.)
A: You should have done your homework this morning. B: I did do my homework this morning (which might be shortened to I did.)
6 Modal verbs
Modal verbs are a group of nine verbs with special meanings and grammatical properties. They do not have Vs, Ving and V-pp forms and form negatives, questions and short answers without do-support. Their negatives are usually contracted in informal speaking, while will and would are the only positive forms which are ever contracted. They are always followed by the plain form of another verb.
There are several irregular forms. Cannot is usually written as one word. Can not is possible, but has a different use. In British and Australian English, can’t is usually pronounced /kant/, which makes it more different from can than the US English /kænt/. Some people say mayn’t, but it is very, very rare. Shall is rare and shan’t is very rare. Mustn’t is pronounced /mʌsənt/ (the first t disappears). Many students pronounce won’t very similarly to want. There is a difference in meaning and grammar; want is followed by to V.
Modal verbs have meanings related to possibility, necessity, permission, ability, prohibition and similar ideas. In the box in the previous section, the meaning of I eat a pizza doesn’t change. The difficulty for English language learners is that each modal verb has different meanings and each meaning can be expressed by different modal verbs, as well as by other main verbs, or adjectives, adverbs or nouns. Some modal verbs have different meanings when they refer to past, present or future time.
strong (im)possibility: I must / shall / will / ’ll / can’t eat a pizza.
probability: The pizza should be ready soon.
possibility: The pizza may (not) be ready soon.
weak possibility: The pizza might(n’t) / could be ready soon.
strong necessity: You must / will eat a pizza.
weak necessity, advice: You should / might eat a pizza.
permission: You can / could / may / might eat a pizza.
ability: You can eat a pizza.
prohibition: You can’t / may not / mustn’t eat a pizza.
offering: Can / shall / should I buy you a pizza?
Sometimes, with no context, it is impossible to tell which meaning is intended. You must eat a lot of pizzas might mean a strong possibility based on evidence (I can see a stack of pizza boxes outside your door) or it might mean a strong necessity (I am telling you to eat a lot of pizzas). It is even possible to say You can walk on the roof of the Sydney Opera House, but you can’t walk on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. It is possible, but it is not allowed.
references: Huddleston and Pullum, A student’s introduction to English grammar
Swan, Practical English usage