Saturday, March 24, 2012

Constructing Simple Tenses

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Verb Forms
Part 3: Constructing Verb Tenses

The simple tenses are your "go-to" tenses. Unless you have a specific reason to use the complex tenses (progressive and/or perfect) use the simple tense.

I'll go into more detail about when to use which tense in the next post.

Simple Present Tense

I'll cover The simple present tense is used for three primary purposes, in descending order of importance:
  1. To make statements that are generally or universally true: I attend college. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. To make statements about the future that are planned or expected with near certainty: The plane leaves at 3:30 PM tomorrow. My son starts college next Fall.
  3. You can also use the simple future tense for these statements.
  4. To follow "story time" in a present tense narrative: Indiana Jones walks into the cafe. He sees Belloc.
The simple present tense is almost never used to make statements about what is happening right now; the present progressive tense is usually used for that purpose.

To construct the simple present tense:
  • If the subject (who or what is performing the action) is the third person singular (he/she/it), use the second form ('s' form) of the verb.
  • Otherwise, use the first form (root form) of the verb
I write a blog. [note the root form here]
You write a blog.
He writes a blog. [note the second form here]
We write a blog.
They write a blog.

I walk to school.
You walk to school.
He walks to school.
We walk to school.
They walk to school.

"Be" is a special case:

I am a blogger.
You are a blogger.
He is a blogger.
We are bloggers.
They are bloggers.

Memorize "Be".

Simple Past Tense

The simple past tense is used for two primary purposes, in descending order of importance:
  1. To follow "story time" in a past tense narrative: Indiana Jones walked into the cafe. He saw Belloc.
  2. To make statements about events that happened in the past, without emphasizing their duration and completion (see the progressive and perfect tenses later): I attended college last year. I boiled water for my coffee yesterday.
Always use the third form (past form) of the verb to construct the simple past tense, regardless of the person and number of the subject.

I wrote a post [yesterday].
He walked to school.

The simple future tense is used to make statements about what is expected and planned for the future.

The simple future tense (almost) always uses the helper verb "will" and the first form (root form) of the main verb (even "be" is regular here):

I will write a post [tomorrow].
He will walk to school.
They will be lawyers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Verb Forms

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Verb Forms

Except for "to be", verbs have at most five forms. Strong verbs (mostly Anglo-Saxon in origin) have different spellings for all five forms. For example, the strong verb "write" has five different forms:
  1. write: root form. This is the form you'll find as the main entry in the dictionary
  2. writes: present conjugated form: except for "be", this form is constructed by adding 's' or 'es' to the end of the root form, changing a final 'y' to an 'i'.
  3. wrote: simple past tense form
  4. written: passive/"past" participle form (pa. pple.)
  5. writing: "present" participle form (pr. pple.); this form is always constructed by adding 'ing' to the end of the root form, dropping the silent 'e' if present.
There are patterns to the strong verbs, but I think it's easier to just memorize them. Regular verbs (mostly French in origin) usually have the same form for the past tense and past participle. For example:
  1. walk
  2. walks
  3. walked
  4. walked
  5. walking
Remember that tense names don't match all that well with actual time. In fact, I usually refer to the forms by number when I'm teaching English to non-native speakers, including Deaf students. But it's still necessary to know their names, because the dictionary refers to them by name. If you look up the root form of the verb in the dictionary, you'll usually see the past tense, past participle and present participle along with the main entry (the present conjugated form is regular enough that it's often omitted). If you look up one of the derived forms, the dictionary will usually tell you the root form and which particular form you've found. For example, if you look up the forms of "write" in, you'll find:
  1. write: (omitting the archaic forms) "wrote... [3rd form; past]; written... [4th form; pa. part.]; writing [5th form; pr. part.]"
  2. writes: just goes to "write".
  3. wrote: "a simple past tense of write."
  4. written: "a past participle of write."
  5. writing: if you scroll down to look at the verb form, it's just a copy of "write".
Here's a list of irregular verbs.

Memorize "be", "have", and "do". They are often used, and they are used to form complex tenses. "Be" is especially irregular. Unlike every other verb, "be" has three present conjugated forms and two conjugated past tense forms:
  1. be
  2. am/are/is
  3. was/were
  4. been
  5. being
I amWe areI wasWe were
You are-You were-
He/She/It isThey areHe/She/It wasThey were

Seriously: memorize this table cold.

The singular forms for the second person, "you", look more like the other plural forms. English used to have separate singular and plural forms for "you". The singular forms, "art" and "wert", and the singular pronouns, "thou", "thee", and "thy", fell into disuse, and the original plural forms ("are", "were"; "you", "your") took over for both singular and plural.

Here's "have":
  1. have
  2. has
  3. had
  4. had
  5. having
and "do":
  1. do
  2. does
  3. did
  4. done
  5. doing

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time and Tense: Introduction

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Verb Forms

Verb tenses are probably the most difficult parts of English Grammar, especially for non-native English speakers and writers. There are two reasons for this difficulty. First, English has a lot of tenses, which express a lot of subtle information and emphasis about the location of events in time. Second, the labels applied to the rules for constructing verbs of the correct tense are profoundly misleading.

If you are a native speaker of English, you're probably using tenses very close to correctly, and if you make a mistake (especially in writing), the correction will almost always sound more correct than the mistake. Still, learning the actual rules is challenging. For non-native speakers, there are only two ways of learning verb tenses. The first is brute force: read a thousand books in English, and (if you're a hearing person) listen to professional productions (especially the news) on television and radio. (If you're Deaf, don't rely on Close Captioning for learning English grammar by brute force; the captioners make too many mistakes.) When you read and listen, pay very close attention to how the writers and speakers form their sentences. A thousand books is a lot of books, however, so the second way is to learn the rules. The rules are fairly complicated, and there are some irregularities, but there are fewer than a thousand books worth.

Some linguists and grammarians use "tense" in the narrowest sense, to mean only changes in the main verb to indicate time. In this sense, English has only two "true" tenses (present and future); the rest of the tenses in English all use auxiliary verbs, i.e. extra words that add time information. In this series, however, I use tense in the broader sense, to indicate all the forms of the complete verb, which includes the main verb plus all auxiliary verbs.

One of the ways that the labeling of verb tenses in English is that tenses have explicit time names (past tense, present tense, future tense, present perfect tense), and the serve to locate the verb in time, but these time names do not necessarily refer to actions in the stated time. For example, we can use the present tense to refer to actions in future time (the plane leaves tomorrow), and we always use the present participle to form the past progressive tenses (I was going to school yesterday) for actions progressing in past time. When you are studying the grammar of verbs, you must "free your mind" of the association between tense names and location in time. The names are totally arbitrary. In this series, I will always explicit add the word "time" or "tense" (or "participle") to be completely clear.

Tense is only one aspect of verbs. There is also voice (passive and active) and mood (indicative, imperative, and interrogative) for main verbs. Additionally verbs can be used in place of nouns and as complements to other main verbs (notably the gerund and the infinitive). I will cover these other aspects of verbs in a different series.