The Verb Structure Circle: An Alternative Approach to Teaching the English Verb System
Whenever I ask adult learners of English which area of grammar they still feel insecure about, they more often than not answer: ‘tenses’;‘tenses’ closely followed by prepositions.
‘Grammar’ is much more than just ‘tenses’: question formation, word order, prepositions, if-clauses: all the stuff you were supposed to learn in school. Nevertheless, it is verb structures, commonly referred to as ‘tenses’ (or ‘Zeiten’ in German) that are most commonly associated with ‘grammar’.
Especially in a German context there seems to be a certain obsession with ‘tenses.’ Many learners of English worry about getting the ‘tenses’ right, even students I consider quite advanced. Although most agree that vocabulary is more important for communication than correct ‘grammar’, there seems to be a certain unease or insecurity in respect of verb grammar when communicating freely: a certain discomfort or even fear of making mistakes and feeling unsure about how to apply ‘the tenses’ correctly.
What is ‘tense’? In linguistics, the academic study of language, the term is defined differently from how it is used more generally in language teaching and in course books of English.
In linguistics, ‘tense’ refers to the morphological change of a verb in respect to time (emphasis mine, and I know it sounds rather technical). Thus, in English tense would be marked by the –ed ending that transforms a verb’s meaning into (mostly) past time.
All other English verb structures are combinations of auxiliaries (be, have and various modal auxiliaries) with the main verb in (unchanging) participle form (either ‘present’ participle verb + –ing or ‘past’ participle i.e. the so-called third form of the verb. In regular verbs, the past participle resembles the ‘past’ tense form – verb + ed -, in irregular verbs the forms differ and needs to be memorized). I will describe and explain this in more detail later.
English does not have various endings (suffixes) that change nouns and verbs according to grammatical functions like case, object and subject, verb-noun agreement etc. like e.g. German, a language with a morphological case system. English does have some rudimentary case in its pronoun system (I can change to me, he to him, she to her, they to them), but other than that there is not a lot of grammatical morphology. Sentence functions (like subject and object) are expressed by word order. Word order is one of the essential principles of meaning organization in English. And in its verb system, as mentioned above, it has only one regular morphological tense marker, the -ed.
The linguistic definition of tense might seem to be a mere technicality and I don’t insist on its use. Most people, when asked what ‘tenses’ are, use the term to refer to all possible verb structures of English, and most course books use it in this sense too. I do see some problems in this practice, though.
The term ‘tense’ is commonly associated with time and, ironically, from the linguistic definition of the term, this is correct: However, in accordance with this definition, English has only two tenses: the English verb, as described above, is marked for tense only in the second form (by –ed; and some irregular forms). Linguists thus speak of the two tenses past and present, or more accurately: past and non-past . The reason for the preference of non-past over present is that the core meaning of the socalled ‘simple present’, the first form of the verb, is not present time.
Text books and many English teachers mean all verb structure combinations when they speak of ‘tenses’.
Calling all verb structures ‘tenses’ and associating their respective meanings with time as expressed by the German translation of ‘tenses’ into ‘Zeiten’, strongly associates any English verb structure with time. This I find problematic, as it can (and commonly does) lead to confusion, especially if what we mean by ‘time’ is not specified. As Michael Lewis pointed out in his book The English Verb (in 1986 and still valid today, as I believe), our concepts of time are rarely discussed in grammar classes about ‘tenses’, and I would strongly assume that, in absence of any specification, learners will associate ‘tense’ with linear time, as is common practice in our Western societies. This means that most learners of English learn to believe that the ‘tenses’ are used to express ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’. And this is not true.
Again to take the example of the ‘simple present’, further inspection reveals that we do not use it to refer to present time, but to activities that are repeated and habitual, in other words: when (linear) time actually is no issue. Or to express timeless facts, things we believe to be internally true. (Which is why statements meant to mislead – commonly referred to as lying – are in the first form.)
I wouldn’t go so far as to claim present time plays no role whatsoever when using the ‘simple present’; however, what we mean by present needs discussing.
Note: Michael Lewis proposed to rename the ‘simple present’ and ‘simple past’. For the ‘simple present’ he suggests ‘basic form’ in order to distinguish it from infinitive and ‘imperative’ use. In my slides I have decided to use the contrastual terms First and Second form of the verb. (For Michael Lewis’ detailed discussion of the First and Second forms see chapters 8 and 9 in The English Verb, 1986, LTP). I found many of Michael Lewis’ thoughts and explanations insightful and convincing and I have integrated many into my own concepts of describing the English verb. They are at the basis of much of what follows.
Another example concerns a common misunderstanding of the ‘present continuous’ by non-native speakers. Many learners of English also associate the ‘present continuous’ with ‘present time’ since it can be used to speak about what we are doing at the moment of speaking and is often taught in such a context. Many then seem to believe that ‘expressing present activity’ is the form’s main meaning. Which leads to confusion between ‘simple present’ and ‘simple continuous’. In consequence, the ‘present’ continuous is often used when the ‘simple present’ would be the more appropriate choice, or speakers fail to use it when it would be the most appropriate form to refer to future activities or events. In reality, the continuous – also referred to as ‘progressive’ – is not one of the most frequent verb structures used (and ‘present time reference’ is not its main meaning; future time reference seems to be more common):
Only a small proportion of all verb phrases appear in the progressive form, and most of those are found in conversation. (David Crystal, 1995, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, CUP)
An attempt to fit the different verb structures of English into linear concepts of time is strongly supported by the terms traditionally applied to these different structures, like ‘simple present tense’, ‘simple past tense’, and ‘will–future tense’. Deviations from these time references are often considered exceptions or given some exceptional explanation. This is another reason I believe why students find ‘the tenses’ so difficult. ‘Nomen est omen’ and misnomers can confuse.
An additional difficulty arises from the sheer number of ‘tenses’ learners of English believe the language to have (again I am referring to a mainly German context of learning). When asked how many ‘tenses’ English has (which I sometimes do when we discuss the term ‘tense’), 12 is the lowest number mentioned. The largest number, I believe, was 17.
You can find many tables with such listings in books and websites. I find this absolutely intimidating. A language with 12 to 17 ‘tenses’! No wonder students retain a permanent and life-long feeling of insecurity when it comes to the English verb structure system.
In the following, I intend to dismantle this complexity and show how the English verb structure in its basics is not that difficult, and indeed very systematic. I will not claim it to be simple and easy to understand, but I do intend to try to show how the various structures encountered are the consequence of systematic combinatorial possibilities based on the meanings of the forms. By doing so, I hope the system will reveal itself as less difficult and confusing as is often felt.