Notes on A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar

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Chapter 3, Verbs, tense, aspect and mood

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1 Verb inflection

The set of inflectional forms of a variable lexeme (together with their grammatical labels) is called its paradigm. The great majority of verbs in English have paradigms consisting of six inflectional forms. For example, for the verb walk:

  • Preterite (walked) is used for an inflectionally marked past tense. The preterite does not always signal past time but always at least makes a reference to the past.
  • 3rd singular present (walks) is used for the present tense with 3rd person singular NPs.
  • plain present (walk) is used for the present use for all other non-3rd person singular NPs.
  • plain form (walk) is used in three clause constructions (the infinitive has two forms): imperatives are usually commands for people to do something (walk here), subjunctive is typically used in subordinate clauses, though some will prefer a finite verb in this case (It’s essential that you walk here), to-infinitival where the subject is optional (It’s essential for him to walk) and bare-infinitival almost always have no subject and mostly occur after auxiliary verbs (He should walk).
  • gerund-participle (walking) in Latin a gerund is a verb form functionally similar to a noun (He is walking), whereas a participle is one functionally similar to an adjective (Walking slowly, he missed the bus). In English, one word is used for both purposes, hence the term gerund-participle.
  • past participle (walked) occurs in two major constructions: the perfect generally marked by the auxiliary have followed by a past-participle (She has walked home), and the passive.

The latter three are secondary forms of the verb. Secondary forms have no tense inflection and cannot occur as the head of a canonical clause.

Regular verbs have identical shapes for the preterite and the past-participle (adding the suffix -ed). Irregular verbs can have different forms.

Almost all verbs have a present tense form that is identical in shape with the plain form. The only verb with a plain form distinct from all its present tense forms is be: it has three present tense forms (am, is and are), all different from its plain form be.

2 Finite and non-finite clauses

Clauses may be finite or non-finite. Finite clauses may be either main or subordinate; non-finite clauses are always subordinate.

The relation between finiteness and verb inflection can be stated as follows:

  • if the verb is a primary form, the clause is finite
  • if the verb is a gerund-participle or a past-particple, the clause is non-finite
  • if the verb is a plain form, the clause may be finite or non-finite (imperative and subjunctive clauses are finite and infinitival clauses are non-finite).

Imperatives belong in the finite category because they occur as main clauses. Subjunctive clauses are considered finite becuase of the use of a finite verb in the clause.

3 Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs form a small subclass of verbs whose members are characteristically used to mark tense, aspect, mood or voice.

1 have perfect tense Sue has written the preface.
2 be progressive aspect Sue is writing the preface.
3 may, can, must mood Sue may write the preface.
4 be passive voice The preface was written by Sue.

Auxiliary verbs behave differently from lexical verbs, the most important differences include:

  • Subject-auxiliary inversion, in interrogatives the subject follows a primary verb-form, instead of preceding the verb as it always does in canonical clauses. This inversion of positions between subject and verb is permitted only with auxiliary verbs.
  • Negation, the simplest type of negation is associated with a primary verb-form is permitted with auxiliary verbs but not with the lexical verbs (She has not taken the money). In addition, auxiliaries have negative inflectional forms (they all end in n’t and are found in preterite and present tense).

Within the class of auxiliary verbs, modal auxiliaries have a number of identifying characteristics:

  • No secondary forms, modals have only primary forms and cannot occur in constructions that require a plain form (*I am musting to work late compared to I am having to work late).
  • No distinct 3rd singular agreement form in the present tense, note the impossibility of *cans, *musts, etc.
  • Bare infinitival complement, modal auxiliaries do not take the ‘to’ in the to-infinitival construction.

4 Perfective and imperfective interpretations

A situation describes the kinds of things that are described in a clause — actions like publishing a novel, processes like growing tall, states like being a student, etc. There are two basic kinds of situation:

  • When a clause describes a situation in a way that considers it as a whole without reference to any internal temporal structure or subdivision it might have, we say the clause has a perfective interpretation (eg, She wrote a novel).
  • When a clause describes a situation in a way that makes reference to its internal temporal structure or subdivisions, we say that the clause has an imperfective interpreation (eg, She was writing a novel). Note that it does not follow from this example that she ever completed the novel.

The perfective interpretation is different from the perfect tense (a type of past tense formed by the verb be). The potentially confusing similarity between the terms reflects that both are derived from a Latin word meaning “complete”.

5 Primary tense

The primary tense comprises the preterite tense and the past tense.

The preterite has three central uses.

  • The central use of the preterite is to locate the situation, or part of it, in past time (eg, Shemowed the lawn).
  • The modal preterite presents the situation as modally remote (eg, “I wish they lived nearby”or “If he loved her, he’d change his job” not “If he loves her, he’ll change his job”).
  • The preterite can backshift indirect reported speech. For example, I utter to someone that “Kim has blue eyes”. I might later report this statement to a third party as “I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes”. I have not reproduced the exact words I told Stacy but instead have backshifted the verbhave. The backshift is generally optional. The backshift also occurs where a clause is embedded in another, such as Stacy didn’t know that Kim had blue eyes.

The most basic use of the present tense is to indicate present time. But the time of utterance is very short. So naturally there are severe restrictions on the use of the present tense in clauses with perfective interpretations.

The present tense is also used in cases where we have some knowledge of the future, such as the sun rises tomorrow at 6.10. This construction is called the futurate.

The present tense is used with future time reference, without the above restrictions, in certain types of subordinate clause, eg Please bring the washing in if it rains.

Finally, in certain types of narrative the present tense is used instead of the preterite.

6 The Perfect

The perfect is a past tense makred by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection. The auxiliary is have which is followed by a past participle (eg, She has been ill). Perfect constructions have a present perfect (has), a preterite perfect (had) and a plain form (have).

The present perfect differs from the preterite in that it combines past and present tense. Compare ‘She has read your letter’ with ‘She read your letter’. For this reason the present perfect allows time adjuncts that refer to the present ‘We have by now finished most of it’. In addition the present perfect bestows a sense of current relevance; compare ‘She has met the President’ with ‘She met the President’.

The preterite perfect also combines two tenses, but generally two past tenses, such as ‘She had alreday gone to bed when we arrived’. Also note its use in the backshift ‘You said she had gone to bed’ and modal remoteness ‘It would have been better if she had gone to bed’.

The perfect can also appear in cases where there is no primary (inflectional) tense: ‘We believe her to have been in Bonn at the time. Note that it is generally more common to use the preterite in these cases: ‘We believe that she was in Bonn at the time’.

Finally, one difference between the perfect and the preterite is that we can use the perfect to indicate that the situation lasted over a period starting before a certain time and continued up to that time (the continuative use of the perfect). Compare ‘She has already gone to bed’ with ‘She has been in bed for two hours’.

7 Progressive Aspect

The progressive is formed by means of the auxiliary be followed by a gerund-participle. Compare ‘She was writing a novel’ (progressive) with ‘She wrote a novel’. In the latter the event is considered in its totality and is complete, whereas the progressive aspect is presented as being in progress at a certain time. As a result, the progressive asepect generally contains some form of imperfectivity.

However, there are certain cases where clauses with progressive form do not have the usual “in progress” meaning. For example, the futurate construction (‘I’m seeing my broker today”).

8 Mood

Mood is a grammatical category associated with the semantic dimensions of modality. Modality deals with two related contrasts: factual vs non-factual (She saw him vs She must have seen him) and asserted vs non-asserted (She saw him vs She may have seen him).

Modality can be expressed by a great variety of formal means, for example adverb (Perhaps she saw him), adjective (It is possible she saw him) or noun (There’s a possibility that she saw him).

There are three main meanings that modal auxiliaries express:

  • epistemic expresses meaning relating to what we know or believe (He must have overslept)
  • deontic expresses meaning relating to what’s required or permitted (He must apologise)
  • dynamic expresses properties or dispositions of other entities (She can speak five languages)

These attributes are not in general associated with different expressions, some can relate to the same expression.

  • You must be very tactful [epistemic or deonitc]
  • She can drive [deontic or dynamic]

Some people insist that can should not be used in a deontic since — may should be used instead.

Another modal auxiliary ‘will’, specifies time as well as mood. There is an intrinsic connection between future time and modality: we don’t have the same kind of knowledge about the future as we do about the past and the present, so it isn’t possible to be fully factual about future events or situations (eg, She left Paris yesterday vs. She will have left Paris yesterday).

Note that the latter example is actually describing a sense in the past. Indeed, the version without the modal is more assured than the use of will. The meanings contributed by will belong in the epistemic family.

Four of the modal auxiliaries (can, may, will and shall) have preterite forms (could, might, would and should). Further, normal preterite can be used in a modal sense at times (If he loved her he’d change his job vs. If he loves her he’ll change her job).

This use can also occur with the verb to be. However, in this case we can also use the verb were in a singular form (If he were in love with her he’d go). This use is known as the irrealis were as it conveys verying degrees of remoteness from factuality.

The use of were is highly exceptional: there is no other verb in the language where the modal remoteness meaning is expressed by a different inflection.


Written by drpage

March 7, 2009 at 1:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] Chapter 3, Verbs, tense, aspect and mood « Notes on A Student’s … […]

  2. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo


    March 31, 2009 at 4:48 pm

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