Monday 7 January 2013

Grammar - continued, Verbs

Grammar - continued - a few thoughts on verbs in English

Verbs in English are much more complicated than seem to those of us who are what are called 'native speakers' of the language.

Take a look at these:

'I eat figs.'
'Do you eat figs?'

We don't say, 'Eat you figs?'  but we do say:

'You are daft.'
'Are you daft?'

So when we ask some questions we use the verb 'do', then turn the verb and the 'subject' round ('invert' it, as it's called). In other questions we can 'invert' without the 'do'.

'I have got a red face.'
'Have you got a red face?'

But with the verb 'have' we can also say,
'Do you have any money?'

but with 'is' and 'are' (the verb 'to be', as we say)
we can't use 'do'

'Do you are daft?' - No, we can't say that.

And now think about the way we make negatives and negative questions:

'I eat figs.'
'I do not eat figs' (I don't eat figs)
'Don't you eat figs?' or 'Do you not eat figs?'

'I have a red face.'
'I don't have a red face.'
'Don't you have a red face?
'Do you not have a red face?'

This is all hellishly complicated for people learning English. For native speakers, we just get it by the time we're 5, if not earlier.

And now think of the verbs (or parts of verbs) 'may', 'might', 'will', 'would', 'should', 'shall', 'can', 'could', 'must'.

See what happens if you first make a statement, then a question, then a negative statement, then a negative question. Something like this:

'You would do it.'
'You wouldn't do it.'
'Would you do it?
'Wouldn't you do it?'

So, in terms of how we make the phrases and sentences ('horizontally') we make some verbs behave one way, and some verbs behave in other ways.

It's worth remembering here that when people say there are right and wrong ways of using grammar, we should remember that there was a time when using 'do' to say, 'I do not eat figs' or 'Don't you eat figs?' was new. It was a fundamental shift in grammar. And this is going on all the time. London children are saying things like 'Is it you're going out?' If they take that into adulthood, that will be a fundamental shift in grammar.

On with verbs:

it's convenient to talk about 'main verbs', 'auxiliary verbs' and 'modal verbs'.

We use auxiliary verbs to make the 'future' and some forms of the past. Our main verb for making the future is 'will', our main one for the past is 'have'.

'I will go'
'I have gone'.

But we can also do all sorts of extra and nuanced things like:

'I will be going'
'I have been going'
'I had gone'
and even:
'I will have been going...'
'I had been going...'

The 'modal verbs' are the verbs that, the grammarians say, 'express modality' - a sense of doubt, possibility and compulsion:
'would', 'could', 'can', 'should', 'must', 'may, 'might' are the most common. I think some people include 'dare' as when you say , 'I dare say...' or 'I dare not go there...'

(Interesting that 'Must you do that?' sounds OK, but 'Dare you do that? ' sounds old-fashioned or not quite right to my ears.)

So where does 'the verb' begin and where does it end?

In all these statements and questions I've been writing, we could treat them all very vertically and say that

 'I would have gone'

breaks down into four separate parts: 'I' (which isn't a verb, it's a 'pronoun' and it's the 'subject'), then there are three parts to 'the verb' each of which can be changed for other parts or left out. Or I could say 'horizontally' that 'the verb' in this case is all three words stuck together according to special rules or conventions that stick them together in this particular way.

I suspect that if you're unfamiliar with grammar, your head might be hurting by now. So, only one more thing with verbs: 'to'.

This is a very handy word which enables us to hook together a string of ideas:

'I'm going to eat some beans.'
'I'm eating to get fit.'
'I ought to do some work.' (should that be a 'modal' verb?)
'I have to do some work.' (oh no! I said 'have' was 'auxiliary' but here it is being 'modal' - ie expressing 'compulsion'...but not sticking the verb together like 'may' or 'would' which do it without a 'to'...irritating or what?!)
'I used to go for a walk.'
'I've started to take the train.'


'I've finished taking the train'
'I've finished to take the train.'

'I like to walk to work.'
'I like walking to work.'

So, a) we have different ways of stringing these constructions together and b) how should we describe them? Vertically or horizontally'? Or both?

I find all this very interesting.
Anytime, you hear or read something that seems curious or 'irregular' or 'interesting', it's worth jotting it down in a notebook.