Facts and Fallacies About Verbs

ESL teachers often have to teach students about verbs, however, much of what’s written about verbs is misleading, incomplete or even plain wrong.  Here are some of the ones I encountered.

First, the present tense is used not to express actions that happen in the present (the present continuous is used for that).  What’s it used for?  Well, the following sentences may give you a clue:

  1. I go to work at 9.
  2. Ostriches have feathers.
  3. I like pizza.

None of (1) – (3) is happening in the present.  Rather, (1) indicates an ongoing action, (2) indicates a fact, and (3) indicates information about a preference.

Second, although students are taught about a future tense, that’s a bit misleading because tense is often associated with inflection.  For instance:

  1. I walked home.
  2. She walks home.
  3. They will walk home.
  4. I will walk home.

In (1) we inflect the verb walk by adding -ed to make the past.  In (2)  We inflect the verb walk by adding -s to agree with the third person pronoun subject.  But in (3) and (4) we do no such thing.  We simply use will in front of the verb, but it remains uninflected.  Given this, is it accurate to speak of there being a future tense for walk?  That’s almost like treating adverbs as tense because they also modify the verb.  Of course, it’s natural for us to divide time into past, present and future, so there’s a useful reason to lump it in with the tenses, and from a certain perspective, if we just use tense to mean a time aspect, we’re ok. But this is important to keep in mind.

Third, will and going to aren’t the only way to express the future forms in English — provided, you accept that the future isn’t certain.  May, Can, Might, etc… all indicate the future as well, although with varying degrees of possibility.

Fourth, although we have 3 simple tenses, we have 12 tenses:

  1. Past Simple
  2. Present Simple
  3. Future Simple
  4. Past Continuous
  5. Present Continuous
  6. Future Continuous
  7. Past Perfect
  8. Present Perfect
  9. Future Perfect
  10. Past Perfect Continuous
  11. Present Perfect Continuous
  12. Future Perfect Continuous

Fifth, the Past Tense isn’t just used to show things that happened in the past.  It’s also used to express attitude. For instance, take these sentences:

  1. John says he is coming.
  2. John said he would come.

Here, (1) expresses more certainty than (2).

Fourth, the line between verb, noun and adjective are often blurred.  For instance, we can add -ing to verbs to turn them into adjectives or nouns.  Take these sentences:

  1. The smiling man drove home.
  2. I like cooking.

In (1) smiling is an adjective, while in (2) cooking is a noun.  We can make (2) even clearer with a few more examples:

  1. I like to eat.
  2. I like food.

We can see from (1) that using a verb with like requires the infinitive, but nouns have no such requirements.  This should show that cooking is now a noun thanks to adding -ing (we call these gerunds).

Fifth, the continuous form isn’t used to express actions happening now — only the present continuous does that.  Other continuous forms are used as ways of framing an action, often so we can show one action interrupting another.  Here are some examples:

  1. I ate dinner when the phone rang.
  2. I was eating dinner when the phone rang.

(1) Indicates that dinner was being eaten while the phone was ringing, with an implication that dinner probably started around that time.  On the other hand, (2) emphasizes that the ringing phone interrupted dinner.

Sixth, we should treat the verb as the foundation of our sentence.  It’s the verb that determines whether or not we take a direct object and how many, and thus what (and what type) of prepositions we need.  For instance, take these sentences:

  1. I talked to John.
  2. I told John the information.

In (1) talk is intransitive, meaning it does not take a direct object, so I need to provide one via a preposition.  On the other hand, I don’t need a preposition for (2) because told is transitive and it takes 2 direct objects — the recipient and the information given.  In fact, treating verbs like functions with numbers and types of arguments can help with sentence constructions.  Think of the action to express, look at the verb’s arguments and if they aren’t enough, add more with prepositions.

I could say a lot more about verbs, but hopefully this gives you an idea of some of the nuances and pitfalls that hide within the humble verb. It should also give you an idea of how central verbs are.


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