So far we have looked at five function categories: Subject Verb Object Complement Adverbial.
There are seven basic sentence structures using these categories. In summary, they are as follows:
These function categories can take different forms.
|My grandmother||was baking||a carrot cake||in the afternoon.|
|The old lady next door||has been baking||the most wonderfully moist carrot cakes||during the school holidays.|
The subject function can be conveyed by a variety of forms:
Determiner + noun: The frog
Determiner + noun + prepositional phrase: The frog on the log
All of these are included under one umbrella called the noun phrase. A noun phrase nearly always contains either a noun or a pronoun. Most noun phrases can be seen as expansions of a central essential element, which is called the head of the noun phrase (unless the head is a pronoun, which usually stands alone).
The noun phrase has three parts.
|all the young||dogs||in the street|
|both the boisterous young||dogs||that were in the stree|
Pronouns do not usually have postmodifiers apart from a few exceptions, such as: she who must be obeyed; he who dares all.
Complex premodification can often be found in advertisements: A new delicious healthy chocolate-coated muesli snack.
A verb phrase is a main verb plus any auxiliaries.
So far, we have seen that the verb function can be represented by different forms.
The verb carries information about the time of the event, which is called the tense.
Tense is marked only on the first verb in the verb phrase.
If we change this sentence to the past tense, "has" changes to "had", but the other verbs (the non-finite verbs) do not change.
If we leave out the auxiliary HAVE in this sentence, the auxiliary BE moves up to first position and is in the present or past tense.
If we remove the auxiliary BE, the main verb is the first verb in the verb phrase and has the tense marking.
There is also a tense called the timeless present or habitual present.
She reads the Woman's Weekly (regularly). This sentence is in the habitual present tense.
She is reading the Woman's Weekly (right now). This sentence is in the present tense, progressive aspect, to be explained below.
The habitual present is common when the language is conveying information, such as in reports, descriptions, and expositions. It is a verb form often encountered in school reading and writing.
In everyday speech, the habitual or timeless present is often used to refer to an action planned for the future.
In spoken narrative, it can also refer to past events, increasing the immediacy of the telling.
And there they are, standing at the airport, and their luggage is in Sydney, and they haven't a clean shirt between them.
People learning English as a new language can find these usages very confusing.
As well as the time element, the verb can also convey more information about the action of the verb. Is it continuous, complete or incomplete, in progress, habitual?
This information is termed aspect.
In traditional grammar, the terms imperfect and perfect were used.
Imperfect referred to an action that is or was still in progress or incomplete.
Perfect referred to an action that is or was complete or "perfected".
The terms progressive and perfective are probably the most useful for teachers.
The progressive aspect refers to the verb BE with the present participle (the -ing form).
The progressive aspect describes an event in progress. You can see this by comparing progressive and non-progressive verb phrases.
In sentence (a), the verb "walk" is in the progressive. The sentence means that the event of Alan's walking downstairs was already in progress when the alarm sounded.
In sentence (b), the verb "walk" is not in the progressive. It tells you that Alan walked downstairs after the alarm sounded.
When verbs are describing a state rather than an event, they cannot be used with the progressive aspect.
In the following examples, the first shows an event, but the second has a stative meaning.
You can say:
You can't say:
It is a common feature of Indian English to use these stative verbs with the progressive aspect.
The progressive aspect is not the same thing as a tense.
The basic meaning of tense is past time, present time, or future time, but the progressive can combine with all of these.
The perfective aspect refers to an action that is or was completed.
The perfective aspect applies to the verb HAVE (have/has/had) used with the past participle. (See page 34.)
These sentences use an active verb:
These sentences use a passive verb:
Passive verbs "demote" the subject.
a) Vince painted the bedroom.
b) The bedroom was painted by Vince.
We can say that Vince is the agent in sentences (a) and (b) - in other words, in both sentences, he is the one who did the painting. However, in (b), Vince is no longer the subject. In fact, the agent can be left out altogether in passive sentences and they will still make sense:
c) The bedroom was painted.
In a passive sentence, the subject has the action done to it.
|The bedroom||was painted||by Vince.|
A bubble potometer must be set up very carefully. A bubble is introduced into the end of the tube. The rate of transpiration is shown by the speed of movement of the bubble. The bubble should not be allowed to reach the end of the stem.
Haydon, G. et al: Investigating Plants
There are also times when it is convenient, or appropriate, for those who did actions not to be named. Because it is possible to delete the agent in a passive sentence, it can be a useful device for avoiding responsibility.
It was said that he was drunk at the time. (Who said this?)
An order to drop the atomic bomb was given. (Who gave the order?)
The dress rehearsal was ruined. (Who ruined it?)
It is also common practice to use the passive when the agent is "people in general", or unknown, or obvious, as in:
The rubbish has been collected.
It is a dangerous and easy trick to use the passive to produce vague statements that sound superficially authoritative:
It is thought that ...
It is widely believed that ...
Children beginning school might have difficulty understanding sentences with passive verbs. Early in their development, they learn the English word order SVO.
The car bumped the truck.
The car was bumped by the truck.
When the sentence is in the passive, as in (b), children aged up to around six might think it has the SVO structure and therefore interpret this sentence as meaning the same as (a).
The understanding of passive verbs is a later development in language acquisition and might not occur until the child is over six. It will come.
So far we have discussed the auxiliary verbs HAVE and BE.
HAVE and BE are the primary auxiliaries.
There is another set of auxiliaries known as modal auxiliaries or modal verbs: do, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must, ought.
|do||I do like your hat.|
|will||I will take out the rubbish.|
|shall||We shall overcome.|
|can||They can all play the guitar.|
|may||You may have another cake.|
|must||You must clean your teeth.|
|ought||We ought to apologise.|
The following are also classified as modal verbs:
|use||I used to live in Dunedin.|
|need||He need not come.|
|dare||She dare not risk it.|
|BE||I am to look after you.|
Modal verbs indicate such things as intention, possibility, ability, obligation.
The modal auxiliaries will and shall are also used to indicate future time, forming what is sometimes called the future tense.
Modal verbs are unusual because there is no -s ending on the third person singular.
|I can/dare/need||I ride|
|you can/dare/need||you ride|
|she can/dare/need||she rides|
Modal verbs have no non-finite forms. This also makes them different from other verbs and from HAVE and BE (the primary auxiliaries).
You can use HAVE, having, had, to have.
You cannot use MUST, * musting, * musted, * to must.
There can only ever be one modal in a verb phrase, and it always appears in front of any other auxiliaries.
|I||might||+ have||+ recognised him without the beard.|
|modal aux.||+ aux.||+ verb|
The verb that follows the modal is always in the base form
. (See page 34.)
Some common modal verbs convey degrees of probability.
Probability can also be expressed through adverbs.
The vernacular usage: I could of, they would of, we must of, and so on occurs after the modal auxiliary. We don't find "have" shortened to "of" in sentences like:
Young children use simple active verbs and verb phrases with primary auxiliaries.
I like my dog and I like my Mum and I like my Dad. (Jon)
Our friends went away to Australia and they came back today. They gave me lots of presents. (Suzanna)
Jodie is coming to my house today and we are going to play on the swing. (Rebecca)
Modal verbs come later.
We might be getting a computer because it is Mum's last week. (Raymond)
It is often difficult to get the right modal and appropriate tense when a hypothesis is being made.
If she had come to school on Friday she would have been picked for the team.
Children find it easier to produce a hypothetical future than a hypothetical past.
If you can get hold of an old shirt you should wear it when you are painting.
Hypothetical sentences can be difficult, even for experienced writers.
Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.
Published on: 25 Feb 2009