22. Dr. E's grammar sequence

Home page  

Course Info  
Course index

22-2 Parts and tenses of verbs



Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 



Before we leave parts of speech and the tendency of some words to jump categories into other parts of speech, we have to look at the way that verbs do this. Understanding this behavior in verbs is a key to understanding everything else in grammar. Let's discuss this in 22-2 and 22-3.

As we've already seen, the term ''parts of speech'' is a quaint expression for the kinds or categories of words that a language can have. But "parts" of the verb are really parts: verbs have parts in the sense of real pieces. Sure, sometimes the verb is just one word, as in ''I fell.'' But how about, "I had fallen before," or "I was falling fast," or "I've fallen too many times." All of these verbs are more than one word, and in each instance the verb is made up of parts, pieces. We call these pieces the principal parts of the verb.

As noted earlier, verbs express action or states of being. Their principal parts express the time when the action takes place (past time, present time, or future time). In English, as in most of the world's languages, the verb carries time (or tense) either by adding a helping verb (I go, I will go), or by adding a suffix (she helped us), or by changing the word itself (today I speak, but yesterday I spoke). Verbs which add an -ed to form the past tense are called regular verbs; those that change the word itself are irregular verbs (Hacker section 11a).

How we think is very much a function of what our language allows us to think. In English, Greek and most other languages we have a false sense of security or permanence of things because nouns are stable; if we say "Socrates is dead," this expression inclines us to think that he's still Socrates, that he continues to exist somehow even though he is dead. Interestingly, however, in some Native American languages, nouns can carry time markers (much as English verbs sport an -ed for instance to show past tense). These noun tenses carry the idea that the river yesterday, the river today or the river tomorrow are not the same thing. The notion that anybody could own such a river might seem ludicrous, rather like a proposal to an English speaker to buy some water only when it is evaporating or only when it is 10 o'clock.

Right: early writing in oven-baked clay from Sumeria, c. 3200 BCE. Much of this writing apparently was used to keep track of inventories. All of the books were cooked! The earliest known writing in Greek was only half-baked (sun-dried), but it was used for the same practical purpose. Written laws didn't appear in the Greek world until the time of Draco (the Draconian laws) in about 600 BCE. Again, the Mesopotamians were far ahead with Hammurabi's law code dating from about 1750 BCE.

Of course, time is more complex than yesterday, today, and tomorrow (which we express using simple past, simple present, and simple future tenses). There are more subtle, pre-times that require what are called, for some reason no one is sure about, "perfect" tenses:

1) the past perfect indicates the past before the past. (I had seen him before I left.)

2) the present perfect indicates the past just before and including the present. (I see that you're smiling; I have seen this look before, and I know what it means.)

3) the future perfect indicates the future before a more distant future. (I will have seen her before she leaves tomorrow.)

So, what we have thus far are three simple tenses: past, present and future

I drove...................we drove

I drive................we drive

I will drive......we will drive

you drove...............you drove

you drive............you drive

you will drive..you will drive

s/he drove........they drove

s/he drives.. they drive

s/he will drive..they will drive


and three perfect tenses: past perfect, present perfect and future perfect

I had driven........we (etc)

I have driven.......we (etc)

I shall have driven... we (etc)

you had driven...you (etc)

you have driven..you (etc)

you will have driven..you (etc)

s/he had driven...they (etc)

s/he has driven....they (etc)

s/he will have driven..they (etc)


Verbs also can show action in progress: English verbs have progressive forms that show the action in progress in the present, in progress in the past, and in progress in the future. Reasonably enough, these tenses are called the past progressive, the present progressive, and the future progressive:

I was driving.........we (etc)

I am driving.......we (etc)

I will be driving.......we (etc)

you were driving...you (etc)

you are driving..you (etc)

you will be driving...you (etc)

s/he was driving....they (etc)

s/he is driving...they (etc)

s/he will be driving..they (etc)

Finally, verbs can combine the perfect and the progressive. These most subtle of tenses are called the past perfect progressive, the present perfect progressive, and the future perfect progressive:

I had been driving........we (etc)

I have been driving.......we...

I will have been driving......we..

you had been driving...you (etc)

you have been driving..you...

you will have been driving..you..

s/he had been driving..they (etc)

s/he has been driving....they...

s/he will have been driving..they..

All of these changes, all of these tenses, are signaled by the four principal parts of the verb:

the simple present: see

the simple past: saw

the past participle: seen (the part which is used in the perfect tenses)

the present participle: seeing (the part which is used in the progressive and perfect/progressive tenses)

Knowing the principal parts of the verb is crucial in order to grasp phrase structure and other more complicated aspects of grammar.

For further review of verb parts, look at Dr. E's Grammar Sequence for College Writers.




gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess 2003