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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 2 (session A) - Being creative with words and phrases > More on word classes > Verbs

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Session Overview
(Semi) Automatic poetry
Introducing word classes
More on word classes
Manipulating word classes
Changing word class - affixation
Changing word class - functional conversion
New words for old
Word class problems
Word class checklist
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More on word classes - Verbs

(a) Meaning

Verbs are often described as 'doing words', and it is certainly true that they prototypically 'refer' to actions and processes (e.g. 'run', 'hammer', 'escape, 'ooze', 'trickle'). So, we could invent a character to contrast with Mr Solid, our noun, who we might call 'Mr Shift'.

But meaning is again rather unreliable as a way of defining verbs. The most common verbs in English, 'is' (the verb 'to be') and 'have' do not describe actions or processes, and the same can be said of (a) 'linking' verbs like 'become', and 'seem' and (b) psychological verbs like 'believe' and 'see' as well as stative verbs like 'stand' and 'remain'.

(b) Internal Form

  1. In their finite form verbs are marked for tense. Hence the present tense verb 'talk' can be converted to the past tense by adding the '-ed' morpheme ('talked'). The other tense markers in English are supplied by auxiliary verbs, not morphological suffixes (cf. 'had talked').

  2. Verbs can also be marked for person concord with the subject of a sentence, although in English (unlike many other languages) distinctive person markings are now restricted to third person present tense concord:



    I talk

    I talked

    you talk

    you talked

    he/she/it talks

    he/she/it talked

    we talk

    we talked

    you talk

    you talked

    they talk

    they talked

  3. Finally, verbs can carry markings in relation to what is usually called 'aspect'. Aspect has to do with whether an action is perceived as being something which happens in a moment (is punctual) or is spread over a longer period of time (is continuous). Compare:




    Past tense

    He tapped his teeth

    He was tapping his teeth

    Present tense

    He taps his teeth

    He is tapping his teeth

(c) Function

Verbs always function inside verb phrases, either as the main (head) verb, or as an auxiliary to it, as in: has been drinking might have been being drinking In both these cases, 'drinking' is the main (head) verb and the other words are all auxiliary verbs of different kinds.

The participial forms (those ending in '-ing', 'Ed' or '-en') are ambiguous formally between verbs and adjectives, but their differing functions in context remove the ambiguity:



has been drinking

a drinking cup

was pressed

a pressed man


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