An Overview of the English Verb Structure System: Introduction

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What is grammar?

Whenever you ask this question, e.g. in a first year Introduction to Linguistics course or to learners of English, the first reaction is often one of bafflement. Isn’t the answer rather obvious? Tenses, prepositions, if-clauses: all the stuff you were supposed to learn in school.

When I ask adult learners of English, which area of grammar they feel they have the most problems with or feel they need more practice in, they most often answer: tenses – closely followed by prepositions. The first year linguistic student as well as most learners of English equate ‘grammar’ with verb structures or ‘the tenses’. Especially in a German context there seems to be a certain obsession with ‘tenses.’ And many learners of English worry about getting the ‘tenses’ right, even students I consider quite advanced. Although, when asked, most agree that vocabulary is much more important than correct ‘grammar’, there seems to be a certain unease or insecurity when it comes to using the ‘tenses’.

The term ‘grammar’ – as most categories – means different things in different contexts of use. A student of linguistics comes to the subject with the concept of grammar as learned in school: there is a certain catalogue of topics that fall under the category of ‘grammar’, some of which I would rather place under the category of semantics or pragmatics (language use).

However, in linguistics the term ‘grammar’ describes other things than those in a course or school book for learners of English. The latter ‘grammar’ is commonly referred to as ‘pedagogical grammar’, or ‘teaching grammar’. It attempts to break down the complexity of the language into learnable chunks, often simplifying to make things – at least in theory – easier to learn.

In linguistics, the grammar of a language is the way the language organizes its meaning  (or rather the users of the language organize its meaning – we tend to personify categories, but more about that in another post). Here grammar is something inherent to the language itself. A language has a grammar, a system of organization.

One branch of linguistics – theoretical linguistics – seeks to describe this system. There are many different approaches to doing this, different theories and models of how best to describe the complexity of any given language. These theories or models are also called ‘grammar’, or rather ‘grammars’. We have such notions as ‘transformational grammar’, ‘cognitive grammar’ and ‘comprehensive grammars’  in which linguists try to describe as comprehensively as possible all structural phenomena of the language (for example: Quirk, Greenbaum et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985).

The models differ from each other and, like in all sciences, are in flux, develop and change. What they all have in common, though, is the underlying principle of being ‘descriptive’ (one of the most important concepts students of linguistics are meant to grasp.) No linguistic grammar, or descriptive model, seeks to tell people how they should speak, or what right or wrong (‘good’ or ‘bad’) language use is. It is in this respect that linguistics considers itself a science: it strives to describe phenomena it observes, seeking to find and explain regularities.

So the term ‘grammar’ refers to two related, but different things: the underlying or inherent structure or system of a language, and the model that seeks to describe it  This duality can cause confusion (‘anatomy’ has a similar duality). We sometimes tend to equate the model with what it attempts to describe.

Thus, being a rather wide category, speakers might not always mean the same thing when speaking of grammar.

The same goes for the term ‘tense’. Sometimes I discuss it’s meaning in class (though only with more advanced groups).  Again, in linguistics, 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 it would be the –ed ending that marks a verb for past time (though that is not all the ending does and a verb marked with an –ed does not always refer to the aspect of past time – more about this in a (later) post about problematic misnomers in grammar models.)

All other English verb structures are combinations of auxiliaries (be, have and various modal auxiliaries) with the main verb in (unchanging) participle form (‘present’ participle or –ing participle and ‘past’ participle i.e. third form of the verb).

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 (see post Is it I or is it me), 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 it has only one 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 course books use it in this sense too, even up-to-date and modern course books of English.

However, there seems to be a strong association of the term ‘tense’ with time (which, according to its linguistic definition, is correct) .This finds its expression in how German learners of English (and others) translate the term into German ‘Zeiten’, thereby suggesting that the different English verb structures are mainly related to aspects of time. This I find problematic.

To call all English verb structures tenses, and translate tenses to ‘times’ or  ‘Zeiten’, strongly associates any English verb structure with time. This can lead to confusion, especially if what we mean by ‘time’ is not specified. And, as Michael Lewis already pointed out in his book The English Verb (1986), our concepts of time are rarely discussed in grammar classes about ‘tenses’, and I would strongly assume that, in absense of any specification, learners will associate ‘tense’ with linear time, as is common practice in our societies. This means that for most learners of English, the ‘tenses’ are used to express ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’. And this is simply not true.

The 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 ‘present tense’, ‘past tense’, and ‘willfuture‘. Usages of the respective ‘tense’ that deviate from this sort of time reference are considered exceptions or given some exceptional explanation. This I believe to be one reason for why students find ‘the tenses’ so difficult. (In following posts, I will provide examples to demonstrate these issues further.)

An additional difficulty arrives 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 provocatively do when we discuss the term ‘tense’ and what it actually means) 12 is the lowest number mentioned; it depends a little on whether e.g.  ‘if-clauses’ are included in the count or not. The largest number, I believe, was 17.

A webpage called, for instance, presents such a long list in form of a table. 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 posts, I intend to dismantle this complexity and show how the English verb structure in its basics is not that difficult, and 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, and by doing so hope the system will reveal itself as less intimidating and confusing as is often felt.


The complete system has been moved to the page section as one text. See page The Verb Structure Circle.

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