Verb Structure Circle: Brief Summary

The English verb system in its basic structure is very regular and fairly free of inflection. It does not consist of 12 to 17 tenses as some sources claim. It is a combinatorial system whose building blocks are: two simple forms (traditionally called ‘simple present’ and ‘simple past’), two auxiliaries (BE and HAVE) and two participles (verb + ing, commonly called ‘present participle, and ‘past participle’). Together they can be combined to form various structures of different semantic complexity. This I demonstrate with the Verb Structure Circle.

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Future perfect continuous – what?

In one of my classes, a participant showed us one of these traditional, never going to go away lists of verb structure combinations sold to students of English as ‘all the tenses of English’. Daunting. I have written about this in more detail on my page ‘The English Verb Structure Circle’.

The internet is full of pages that list these structures. (Some) English course books and grammar reference books present these kinds of lists too. I find them little helpful as they lack insight into the regularity of the English verb structure system. Besides the two ‘simple’ forms, they are lists of all possible combinations of the auxiliaries BE and HAVE plus participles, and modal auxiliaries plus participles. The two modes (factuality and modality) are not clearly differentiated from each other. Instead, constructions with WILL, for instance, are singled out and named as future tense of English.

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Major Mistakes

Major mistakes are mistakes that matter. Where what you say (wrongly) can really lead to a misunderstanding (worst case), violates the basic structural regularity of the language, or is simply not the correct form to use or right thing to say because it has a different meaning from the one intended.

Analysing and discussing these mistakes can help understand the semantics of grammatical forms, especially verb structures. In the case of vocabulary, it can help improve your active use of words and phrases (and I find talking about words and their meanings enjoyable, but that might just be me).

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The Rules of the Game – Basics principles of the English verb structure system

For an extensive description go to my page The Verb Structure Circle.

This post is the first in a new category: Basic Principles of English. My focus in the beginning will be on verb structures. I will provide examples and exercises (which is why you will also find these posts under the category Lessons and lesson activities). Each post will focus on one point. Sometimes the exercise will consist of only one small task so that the topic need not take up a whole session.

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Present perfect or simple past?

A grammar question that comes up quite frequently in English classes with German speakers concerns the semantic differences between the perfect and past tense forms in English and German. Especially the perfect forms cause confusion. Structurally, they look very similar, but their semantics or the way they are used differ.

I have been trying to find out more about the history behind this phenomenon. German uses the perfect form to speak about things past, English uses the simple past for this. Learners of English, especially German native speakers, struggle with this distinction.

Learners of German most likely struggle with the fact that German has two forms to refer to ‘things past’. One is prevalently used in writing, the other in spoken language.

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Talking about the future

Very often, the verb system of English, and maybe also of other languages, is described under the aspect of time. In German, this even finds its expression in the grammar term ‘Zeiten’ for different verb structures. Though not completely incorrect, this creates a focus that places too much emphasis on ‘time’, thereby giving learners of English a distorted perspective on the various aspects and/or meanings of verb structures.

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‘Words for Nerds’

Do you know what a finial is? In one of the Spotlight issues from 2020, Judith Gilbert, writer, editor and translator, wrote a little column titled ‘Words for Nerds’. Here she lists a number of words most people probably never heard of, and which demonstrate that it is impossible to know all the words of any language. They are all nouns denoting special little items of everyday life. See if you can find out what they are with the help of internet images. Do you know the term for the thing in your own native language?

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Find the mistakes

Featured

Below you find a list of sentences with mistakes learners of English have made or commonly make. Some are more common than others, but all of them touch upon certain ‘problem’ areas, though not all of them are so wrong that they would lead to misunderstandings in communication.

I regularly add to the list, therefore it has gotten pretty long. I would not recommend going through all sentences at once.

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‘Be that as it may’ – a little language exploration Parts 1+2

Posted on February 1, 2022

This topic came up rather spontaneously in one of my advanced classes and definitely relates to a more advanced language issue. I wanted to post the topic anyhow. But since we haven’t yet finished with our language exploration, I will divide the post up in two parts. The second part will reveal the grammar point in question and elaborate a little.

In the text from The Case of a Tennis Player you find the sentence:

Judge Anthony Kelly’s ruling that Novak Djokovic be freed to contest the Australian Open overruled the government’s insistence that he should be barred for failing to prove he is exempt from being inoculated against Covid-19.

It was the BE in be freed that was unfamiliar, and the questions asked were: Why not is freed or should be freed?

Let’s do some language exploration to see if we can find out what kind of structure this is, and if we can find some similar patterns. Glosbe.com is a great web site for that.

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Modality

If you check my concept of The Verb Structure Circle, you will find that it does not deal with modality; it focusses on the four basic forms of the English verb and the various combinations possible among them. An additional page deals with modality.

This post relates to a lesson on modality we recently had in one of my groups and is meant to summarize what we discussed there with some additional elaborations.

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The various functions of Verb + ing

Brief summary: the VERB + ing form can cause a lot of confusion when analysed. First of all we are familiar with this form as part of the verb structure commonly know as continuous or progressive like in

We are talking about the continuous form in class at the moment.

Here, structurally, the VERB + ing is combined with a form of the auxiliary verb BE. Whereas the auxiliary BE takes on all the grammatical ‘work’,  the VERB + ing never changes. In traditional grammar terminology it is called a participle, the ing participle or ‘present’ participle. Confusion sometimes arises, I believe, from the various semantical functions this participle – the form VERB + ing – can take.

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What is a (grammar) rule?

(Revised March, 2020)

In February, I read an article with my classes about business ethics. You can find it on onestopenglish.com, Business Spotlight Worksheet: Money or Morals.

In the introductory paragraphs, the author (Vicky Sussens) describes a group of children playing hide and seek:

It is a beautiful autumn day. The sun shines golden on a small group of children who excitedly agree to play hide and seek. “Whoopee!” calls Sarah, racing off to a tree to hide her eyes. “Count to ten!” shouts Johnny, “That’s the rule.”

Rules are so much part of human interaction that even children can stick to them – especially in a game where there are winners and losers. (p 2)

This passage led to a discussion on the nature of rules, laws, regulations etc. and someone remarked that especially – not even – children insist on following the rules of a game. We all remembered such incidences. Without everybody sticking to the rules, many games would simply be unplayable. Rules are the defining features of a game.

In larger groups, like societies, rules become laws to ensure, in the best of cases, a cooperative and peaceful life among all members of the community. In any case, there are significant reasons for rules and they are always made by humans (‘humanmade’ so to speak).

Do languages have rules too?

If the answer were yes, what would be their nature? What would they be for? And who made them up or developed them?

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Looks like a ‘past tense’ verb but isn’t or: Confusion by misnomers

One of my main issues over the last years of teaching has been with traditional grammar terminology, especially with ‘present’ and ‘past’. To a certain extent I believe in linguistic relativity i.e. that the language we use to describe something has an influence on how we perceive this something. It is not such a surprising insight, if you think about it. When someone refers to an object as table, I will not think of a chair. Well, I actually might think of a chair in association with the table, but that is a different point.

So when a form is called ‘past’ tense, most people – if not all – will believe that the term refers to the meaning of the form. However … Continue reading

Verb Structure Circle

This year I have given several of my classes an overview of the English verb system using my concept of the Verb Circle. It seems to be helpful and clarifying.  Being a different way of conceptualizing the system, the different perspective is not always immediately accessible.It takes a little time, but, as I  have learned through dancing and guitar practice: there is only one way of becoming better at a skill – repeat, repeat, repeat.

So go to the page above and let me know what you think.