Why grammar is hard

When I was in the 9th grade at Brooklyn Technical High School, my English teacher stood at the board and said, ‘Your textbook defines a verb as a word that describes an action or state of being.’ On the board she wrote:

A verb describes an action or state of being.

Next she wrote this sentence on the board:

Eating custard pie, Peter is a picture of happiness.

Then she called on me to identify the verb in the sentence.

It seemed clear to me that eating expresses an action, so I answered, ‘Eating.’

To my surprise the teacher said, ‘No, eating is not the verb.’

I protested, ‘But the book says a verb is an action word. Eating is an action.’

The teacher responded with what was to her an apparently clear explanation: ‘Yes, but eating is a participle, not the verb in this sentence.’

I had no idea what a participle was, but I began looking for another action word in the sentence—without success.

Sensing my frustration, the teacher offered a hint. ‘Remember that a verb can describe a state of being.’

State of being, I thought. What is a state of being?

Scanning the sentence to find a word expressing a state of being, I considered happiness. Happiness seemed to express a state of being. I figure that if I knew what a verb was, I would be in a state of happiness. Unsure but hopeful, I asked, “Is happiness the verb?”

‘No,’ came the judgment.

After another minute or so, the teacher answered her own question:

‘The verb in this sentence is is.’

But it didn’t matter. Grammar made no sense to me, and I dismissed it as something I would never understand.

Dennis Baron in Whimbey, Arthur and Linden, Myra J. Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. Chicago: BGF Performance Systems, LLC, 2001. Print. (4-5).

Huddleston and Pullum on auxiliary verbs

A passage from Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar:*

“There is a very important distinction between a small class of auxiliary verbs and the rest, called lexical verbs. The auxiliary verbs have a number of special propertiesOne is that they can sometimes precede the subject. This occurs in interrogatives:

AUXILIARY VERB LEXICAL VERB
a. Can you speak French ? b. * Speak you French?

AUXILIARY VERB     LEXICAL VERB
a. Can you speak French ?   b. * Speak you French?

Although [b] is ungrammatical, there is a way of forming an interrogative corresponding to the clause You speak French: the auxiliary verb do is added, so the interrogative clause has an extra word: Do you speak French ?

Auxiliaries are usually followed (perhaps not immediately) by another verb, as can and do in the foregoing examples are followed by speak. Notice also It will rain; They are working in Paris; She has gone home. The words will, are, and has are all auxiliary verbs.”

[The color blue, used for emphasis, does not appear in the original.]

AND SEE
23 auxiliary verbs
Huddleston, Rodney and Pullum, Geoffrey K. A Student’s Introduction to
English Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hansel and Gretel and the present tense

There is a problem with tense consistency in the paragraph below. Can you find it?

ANSWER

Hansel and Gretel live on the edge of a huge, dark, forest with their mother and father. It was the worst of times and there was not enough to eat. Hansel and Gretel’s mother makes a plan to abandon the children in the forest. The father does not want to do it but his wife forces him. Hansel and Gretel overhear the plan. Hansel goes outside and fills his pockets with shiny pebbles.
Hansel and Gretel Plot Summary 

23 auxiliary verbs

The 23 verbs below are traditionally called ‘helping verbs,’ but linguist Geoffrey Pullum says we should stay away from the helping verb definition, so we will.

Pullum on Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

That said, please know that the words “helping verbs” and “auxiliary verbs” mean the same thing.

“Helping verbs” = “Auxiliary verbs”
“Auxiliary verbs” = “Helping verbs”

All other verbs are called lexical verbs.

THE AUXILIARY VERBS:
do
does
did
has
have
had
is
am
are
was
were
be
being
been
may
must
might
should
could
would
shall
will
can

CGEL says that need and dare can be used as either auxiliary or lexical verbs.


The two most important differences between auxiliary and lexical verbs occur in:

  • questions
  • not-statements
Auxiliary v. Lexical verbs in questions
Auxiliary verbs   Lexical verbs  
She is walking home.   She walks home.  
Is she walking home?   Walks she home?  WRONG
Subject & auxiliary switch places   Subject & lexical verb can’t change places  
    Does she walk home?
Must add auxiliary verb “does” in front of subject
 
Auxiliary v. Lexical verbs in ‘not’ statements
Auxiliary verb: has
“Not” is added after the
auxiliary verb:
  Lexical verb: brings
“Not” can’t be added after the
auxiliary verb:
 
Harry has brought his owl.   Harry brings his owl.
Harry has not brought his owl.   Harry brings not his owl. WRONG
    Harry does not bring his owl.
(must add “does” & place “not”
between “does” and the lexical verb)
 
Auxiliary verbs can form a contraction with ‘not’
Lexical verbs cannot form a contraction with ‘not’
do   don’t  
does   doesn’t  
did   didn’t  
has   hasn’t  
have   haven’t  
had   hadn’t  
is   isn’t  
am    
are   aren’t  
was   wasn’t  
were   weren’t
should   shouldn’t WRONG
Lexical verbs can’t form a contraction with ‘not’
Lexical verbs      
took   tookn’t WRONG
eat   eatn’t WRONG
see   seen’t WRONG

Here is Huddleston and Pullum’s definition of the auxiliary verb:

Auxiliary verb. A subclass of verb that prototypically marks tense, aspect, mood or voice. In English, auxiliaries can invert with the subject in interrogatives (Can you swim?), and have special primary negation forms (She hasn ‘t seen it).

AND SEE:
Huddleston & Pullum on auxiliary verbs
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
A short overview of English Syntax by Rodney Huddleston

Finite and nonfinite verbs

A complete sentence has a FINITE verb.

A FINITE verb changes spelling for the present and past tense:
The cow jumps over the moon. (PRESENT TENSE)
The cow jumped over the moon. (PAST TENSE)

FINITE verb also changes spelling for “person”:
The cow jumps over the moon. (3rd person SINGULAR)
The cows jump over the moon. (3rd person PLURAL)

A NONFINITE verb — a verb in the ing, ed, or infinitive form — does not change spelling for tense or person.
The cow is jumping over the moon. (is jumping is the PRESENT PROGRESSIVE)
The cows are jumping over the moon. (2 cows)
The cow was jumping over the moon. (PAST PROGRESSIVE)
The cow will be jumping over the moon. (FUTURE PROGRESSIVE)
The cow has jumped over the moon. (has jumped is the PRESENT PERFECT tense)
The cows have jumped over the moon. (2 cows PRESENT PERFECT)
The cow had jumped over the moon. (PAST PERFECT)
The cow will have jumped over the moon. (FUTURE PERFECT)
The cow wants to jump over the moon. (to jump is the INFINITIVE form)
The cows want to jump over the moon. (2 cows)
The cow wanted to jump over the moon.

EXAMPLES:
The cow jumps [FINITE] over the moon. (COMPLETE SENTENCE)
The cow jumped [FINITE] over the moon. (COMPLETE SENTENCE)
The cow is [FINITE] jumping over the moon. (COMPLETE SENTENCE)
The cow was [FINITE] jumping over the moon. (COMPLETE SENTENCE)
The cow  jumping [NONFINITE] over the moon. (INCOMPLETE SENTENCE or SENTENCE FRAGMENT)

The first verb in a verb phrase is FINITE. The verbs that follow are NONFINITE :
The cow is [FINITE] jumping [NONFINITE] over the moon.
The cow was [FINITE] jumping [NONFINITE] over the moon.
The cow wants [FINITE] to jump [NONFINITE] over the moon.
The cow wanted [FINITE] to jump [NONFINITE] over the moon.

AND SEE:
Tense and aspect chart at Deb’s Quick Picks Blog

Present-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

A horse belonging to a man in northern China runs away, and when everyone consoles the man his father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Months later the horse returns accompanied by a “splendid nomad stallion,” and when people congratulate the man his father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Later, when the man breaks his hip falling off the horse, and people again try to console him, the father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” A year later nomads attack and slaughter nearly all of the able-bodied man who must fight them. Because the son is lame, he and his father survive “to take care of each other.”

Blessings turn to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, and the mystery cannot be fathomed.

Past-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

AND SEE:
The “literary present” in English papers