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

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

This post is intended as the first in a series on the 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.

Every language has its own specific patterns. And though there is variety in every area of a language, certain regularities are almost non-negotiable and need to be adhered to if what you say or write is still to be recognized as in the language you are using. I add an almost as there might always be some dialect version or a speech situation where one or the other regularity is violated.

Identifying and describing regular patterns does not mean that they are being followed in speech by every speaker all the time. (Which is why I don’t like calling them ‘rules’, you normally don’t get punished if you don’t follow them. Only in school you do, which is probably why so many people hate what is called ‘grammar’.)

Question formation would be a good example: Though everyone would agree on the syntax of an English question – conversion of the inflected verb and the subject (example: ‘You are coming’ becomes ‘Are you coming?’), in everyday speech you would also hear someone just asking ‘You coming?’ or ‘Coming?’ with rising intonation. Rising intonation seems more important for question formation in English than word order.

So what I intend to describe here are structural basics everyone would agree on even if we don’t adhere to them in every speech situation. On the basis of this description, I will point out real ‘no goes’ and explain why they are unacceptable violations of the system.

(And feel free to prove me wrong and/or find counter-examples.)

1. There is always only one inflected verb in a verb phrase – the other words carrying verbal meaning are participles

This might sound complicated, but all it means is that only one verb is changed to indicate e.g. past or person. (For more on inflection, check the wikipedia entry.) And this is not a characteristic of English alone. Other indo-germanic languages like German show the same regularity. This means that a sentence like *She did not went would not be following this regularity and thus be considered wrong. Transferring this mistake to German would give us something like: *Sie ist nicht ging.

English does not have a lot of inflection in comparison to other languages. The English verb is inflected to indicate past time and the -ed is the inflectional morpheme*** (see footnote at end of post) that does this.


a) We watched (watch + ed) a good film last night.

b) They visited their friends yesterday (visit + ed).

c) I painted my room… (paint + ed).

d) A friend of mine (he or she) helped (help + ed).

There are, however, also many ‘irregular’ forms that change internally like go to went, see to saw, am to was, has to had to name just a few. The irregular past tense forms need to be learned by heart which is why children developing English as a native language aquire them later than the regular forms. Children’s brains recognize the regular -ed first before they integrate the irregular forms into their language systems. Thus you hear them say things like: We goed to the playground.  I sawed a bird; I catched a ball; She drinked the milk etc.

In the first form of the verb or the ‘simple present’, we have an inflection on the third person singular represented by the pronouns it, he and she.

a) She read+s … (e.g. the paper every day or is a habitual reader). It rain+s here all the time. He work+s at an insurance company.

b) We run (regularly). They cook every evening. The kids like playing hockey.

In examples b), it looks as if the verb is in the infinitive form, but it is not. They just look the same, but are grammatically or functionally different.

Note: The singular -s does not carry any meaning other than being connected with the third person singular. It is more a formality than a useful or significant add-on. It is also something children who develop English as a native language acquire later. The child’s brain is more focussed, it seems, on regular structures that carry meaning like a raised voice to indicate a question or the -ed added to a verb to express past time.

See How Languages Are Learned 5th Edition – Patsy M Lightbown, Nina Spada)

Because of this lack of meaning, native speakers of English sometimes add the singular -s to other subjects or subject pronouns as well. You can hear people say things in a conversation like: …then he says, and then they says and then I says….Of course many would say this is bad or wrong English; linguists would describe this as dialect or sociolect feature.

These two verb forms of English – the ‘simple present’ and the ‘simple past’ – are the only forms that show inflection. The past or second form indicates past time in most cases (sometimes subjunctive), the singular -s lacks specific meaning.

It is important to note the semantics of these two forms. I would also recommend spending more time using and practising them in any English course. They are the most frequently used forms used whenever we exchange information, talk about things we express as facts or statements, things we believe to be true, things that we claim are true (e.g. that I run every day, or go swimming once a week).

It might also be important to note the special features of the verb BE. BE changes in more ways than all other verbs of English (a feature shared by BE’s equivalents in other languages): (I) am, (you) are, (she) is, (he) is, (it) is, (we) are, (you, plural) are, (they) are in the first form or ‘simple present; (I) was, (you) were, (it) was, (he) was, (she) was, (we) were, (you) were, (they) were.

2. Multi-verb structures like the continuous, perfect or passive forms, questions and negations always consist of an auxiliariy that takes on one of the two simple forms plus a participle

This second ‘rule’ is strongly related to the first. These two principles are visualized in what I call the Verb Structure Circle.

*** There is an editorial ‘red flag’ at the beginning of this entry that I do not agree with and do not understand. Why the editor responsible does not believe a wikipedia entry on morpheme or morphology to be of interest eludes me.

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