Some years ago a friend told me a story about traveling in Japan and hitchhiking a ride with an elementary knowledge of the language. When she asked where they were going, the driver explained in surprising detail his whole family background, which she later understood as a concatenation of past and future direction, triggered by a verbal mismatch of terms.

When one studies a language, whether ancient or modern, it is not only the path through the new language which is of concern, but the other side of the equation --- where you are coming from. Pre-programmed in English, we find many things in Latin or French or German confusing because of the English, rather than because of inherent difficulties with the new language. Students generally know very little about English, which is intuitive and operates in the background.

My premise is that you have to know something about where you are coming from linguistically, before you can plunge into another linguistic system. When a student sees that English is odder and more idiosyncratic than he thought, the idiosyncrasies of the new language won't seem so curious and so foreign. And there is a lot about your native use of English which you should be aware of in this age where Grammar and Correctness seems to be taken as unacceptable words.

This paper was written to acquaint students with some of the basic functions of their native English as they reach high school or college, both in terms of standard English courses and also by way of approaching a foreign language. Much of the trouble students have "unraveling" sentences in a foreign language comes from a lack of perspective about their native, intuitive use of English. The orientation in this paper is toward the study of English but is applicable to any ancient or modern foreign language.

This paper is written rather formally for teachers' use, and may be interpreted and re-phrased for use in student discussions.


1) A WORD is best identified as: A string of letters representing sounds, regularly found with a white spot to the right and left of it in books.

2) WORDS in spoken language are run together, but when we write, or when we want to analyze written messages, we think in terms of Post. 1) above.

3) The LETTERS are signs for SOUNDS, about two dozen more or less serve for most languages, most affect meaning (phonemes) but some only show dialect, age, or origin (these are sub-significant sounds called allophones). "Right Pronunciation" usually means nothing more than "standard phonemes in general use", but it can be important in communication.

4) We follow Post.1) in separating words when speaking on the telephone with a bad connection, or when speaking with someone partly deaf, or with a person just learning English. Otherwise spoken English goes with the flow. American English has an unusual amount of word-suturing, perhaps comparable with the established usages of Classical Sanskrit's samdhi.

5) The LETTERS are signs for SOUNDS, about two dozen serve for most languages, most affect meaning (phonemes) but some only show dialect, age, or origin (allophones). "Right" usually means nothing more than "standard phonemes in general use", but it can be important.

6) WORDS have many different uses, which as native speakers we intuitively understand since childhood, but cannot exactly define. The purpose of GRAMMAR is to find terminology to describe the different kind of words and the different uses, so that we can make corrections in our spoken and written usage. (Without Grammar, we are as helpless as the person who tells the confused mechanic that only "there is something wrong with the car, just fix it!".)

7) If we try to separate out the various types of words, we find that:

       a)Some are different in form, often something is added on (for example "he/him" or "dog/dogs' or "go/goes".

       b) Some are differentiated by position in a group. (The basic "Rule of 3: 1)Subject 2) Verb 3) Object.) The words get their function from their location.

       c) Some words are grouped together with other formative words, for example: "I am going", which is different in use from "I am Joe". There are many of these verb-clusters, they tell us a variety of things which we will go into later.

       d) Some stand by themselves, and tell us special things: "Wow!", "watchit!" "uh-huh".

       e) Some give a special direction to other words, for example: "in the house", "to school" "on the desk"

       f) Some tell us how many things are involved: "the sheep" but "a sheep" or "every sheep " or "many sheep"., or combined with e) above, "for many people".


The English language "Rule of Three" distinguishes NOUNS and VERBS by their location in the sentence...


NOUN FUNCTION #1: Subject and Object

        In a "basic" sentence, the first word is a noun.

       The second word is a verb

       The third word is also a noun.

       Examples: "James hits Bill" as against "Bill hits James"

The force of location in determining grammatical function as noun or verb is illustrated in the language's ability to transmute nouns into verbs by re-locating them in the second structural position, for example:

       The cat climbs the tree.

       The dogs trees the cat

       The man burns the field

       Bandages cure the burns

These are obviously specimen examples, but in fact any noun can "become" a verb in situations where a semantic need arises.

But there is a semantic difference in the USE of the two nouns:

       The first noun is a SUBJECT, that is, it is doing something in the sentence, it is the basic "operator". In the sentence "James hits Bill", it is Jim who is doing the action.

       The second noun (the one after the verb, i.e. #3) is the OBJECT, so Bill gets hit. But if we said "Bill hits James", it would be the other way around. To summarize: "Place defines function".


(You can also cite the old rule: "A noun is a person place or thing, while a verb is an action." But be sure to point out the incompleteness of this statement, considering nouns like "love, smell, growth"; or special non-verbal verbs like "is" or "consists of.. ."

NOUN FUNCTION #2: Singular and Plural

Nouns can be Singular or Plural, that is ONE or MANY.

       The ending "-s" is the standard way of showing "manyness" for most words. Thus: "boy/boys, tree/trees" etc.

       But there are a few common words which have ancient forms, which must be learned one by one:
"child/children, ox/oxen, person/ people, foot/feet. etc.

And there are a few words show no difference at all: "sheep/sheep" etc.

NOUN FUNCTION #3: Special functions

Nouns can be Possessive,that is they show that something belongs to them, as "the boy's hats". We write this with an apostrophe ('), but in speaking "hats" is exactly like "boys" meaning Plural. The only clue is that the two nouns "boy's" and "hats" stand next to each other, so without a verb between, they must belong together.

But a noun can be Plural and Possessive at the same time, as: "the boys' hats' ". In this case we conveniently put the apostrophe (') after the -s in writing, but in speech we have to use our wits to tell things apart. (Language does often depend on "horse sense", which is knowing how something works without talking about it..)

So we have this set of forms:

       "boy" Subject

       "boy" Object

       "boys" Plural Subject or Object

       "boy's" Singular Possessive

       "boys' " Plural Possessive

as well as:

       "child" Subject

       "child" Object

       "children" Plural Subject or Object

        "child's" Singular Possessive

        "children's" Plural Possessive

This may seem arbitrary and odd, but it is quite within the parameters of how languages grow, retaining forms and spellings which are nothing more than historical linguistic "idiosyncrasies"


Nouns have three basic functions for words in English:

       #1) They can be Subject, or Object, depending on position.

       #2) They can be Singular or Plural, usually with a final -s.

       #3) They can be Possessive, always with a final -s in either Singular or Plural (but Singular spells it -'s, Plural spells -s'.)

And all of these three functions can take place at the same time.

The English language "Rule of Three" distinguishes NOUNS and VERBS by location. We have been speaking of the NOUNS, now we must look at the VERBS.

THE VERBAL SYSTEM: Active and Passive


The VERBS are complex and can have many more functions than the nouns.

VERB FUNCTION #1: Who the active person is...

Verbs tell us who is doing the "action", if it is "I", or "you" or "he/she". We call these functions:

       First person:..... I

       Second person:..... you

       Third person:..... he/she.

This series of personal verb-functions must reflect something about the thinking of the ancestors who devised the kind of language we speak. They figured that the almighty "I/me" came first, then came the "you" I am speaking to (since in direct sight, not necessary to mention whether one or many "you's", and last came some "he" or "she" (not worth mentioning gender in a male dominating society).

Language reflects a people's psychology and social structure as they were developing, with all the stupidities and blindnesses included. Language is a prime indicator of the historical record.

Originally there were separate forms for each of these "personal forms" in English, but only the Third Singular has retained a special ending, the final " -s", as in:

       I go

       you go

       he/she goes

The substandard English expression "he do" is perfectly logical, but outside the parameters of standard spoken English. Its use marks social status and social class only.

VERB FUNCTION #2: Singular and Plural

Unlike Nouns, verbs show few special forms for Singular and Plural. The accompanying Noun = Pronoun word (the" Pronouns" are really noun-like words after all) is what shows the function in the plural.

       we go

       you go (the singular and plural are the same, which can be confusing)

       they go.

Since there are no ways to tell if "you" is one or many, which can be important at times, side-forms have appeared: "You-se" in l930's New York-ese, and the common "you-all" in the South, even "you guys" for men and sometimes women too, or "you girls". "You people" is often used in the business world, but it can imply social or even racial difference, as Presidential aspirant Ross Perot found out when speaking to a black group.

Still the singular "he goes" retains an ancient ending not found in the logical plural "they go" which follows the other forms. Since leveling of all forms is natural, the Third Singular special form is often ignored in sub-standard speech, hence we hear:

       (yes) it do! (rare)

       it don't = it do not (commonly heard outside schools, but substandard). But his can be used by highly educated persons on occasion for a curious kind of emphasis, but as a conscious linguistic device. However "ain't" (coming from proper l8th century English "an't" = "isn't") has been killed by generations of schoolteachers and appears now only as a fossil in literature.

VERB FUNCTION #3: The Sequence of Time

The Verbs have a special role for telling the "Tense", which is the time framework of an action. It would seem that the logical human sequence of Past Present and Future would be enough, but there are many more subtle classifications.

Among the Factual Functions (ones that tell about reality in this world, as against sheer possibility or Conditionality) we find:

a) PRESENT TENSE: A habitual action

       I go

       you go

       he goes etc.

This is usually called The Present Tense, but it is really a Present Habitual Tense, since it refers specifically to repeated or habitual actions, and cannot be employed for all uses in the present timeframe.


       "I go to school", meaning that I am a student, I go to school regularly (or fairly regularly), that is my business.

If we overheard the following phrase in conversation, we would assume the speakers were new immigrants:
        "What you do?" "Oh, I go downtown."

This is an incorrect use of the Habitual Present, since the speaker really intended to say : "What are you doing (now)?" Answer: " Oh, I am going downtown" (actually a future action by implication).

b) PRESENT TENSE (regular present time

       I am going

       you are going

       he is going

       we are going

       you are going

       they are going

This is the form we normally use for "present" time.

       "What are you doing?"
        "Well, I am going downtown...

If the action is not regular or traditional or habitual, this is the form to use, the only way to say it.

c) FUTURE TENSE: A timeframe in the future

There are various ways to speak about the future:

       I will go

       you will go

       he will go.... etc.

       or with contractions: I'll go, you'll go, etc.

But there is a subtle distinction between the full and the contracted forms.
If I say "I'll do it... " it refers to the future pure and simple, and if I write in a letter of paper "I will do it" it means about the same but with a bit more formality or emphasis. But if in conversation I say "I will do it", especially if I say with accent "I will do it... " something different appears: a clear sense of purpose.

Even stronger is the future, purposeful phrase : "I shall do it... ", while the second singular "Thou shall not (covet...)" is clearly mandatory in the Mosaic sense. Confusion exists on the precise meaning of some of these usages, despite the efforts of traditional English teachers who have tried to distinguish will/shall, in vain.

1) But the Present (Habitual) Tense (the simple present) is regularly used for the Future, as in:

       I am going downtown.

To a new English speaker this would imply that the person is at the moment en route downtown, but we all know that it means an immediate future action. This is the most common formula for Future usage.

2) The Compound Future Tense

       I am going to go.

       you are going to go

       he is going to go... .

Redundant as this phrase sounds, it is the common expression for immediate future action, as in:

       I am going to go downtown....

       I am going to go to heaven....

To be sure, it has a bit more purposefulness that 2) above, especially if the word "going" is lightly accented. But this is a regular usage ion English.

There is a strange and little-used form which tries to combine the Future with the Past (going by the dubious name of "Future Perfect") for some pseudo-logical reason:

        I will have done... . (as in: "I will have done my homework by 3:00 PM")

This is a straight borrowing from Latin grammar, where such forms exist but even there are rarely used. This form does make sense, but is not used in English except as an imitation of Classical Ciceronian parlance or Southern senatorial filibustering, and need not be considered further.


The problem here is that "pastness" encompasses a number of what the linguist calls "aspects", or attitudes toward actions which generally reside various layers of the past. These often involve subtle shadings of meaning which spread out fanwise from a central "Concept of Past", and must be treated with care.

1) The Past-Continuing Tense (generally called Imperfect, (an imperfect title indeed!) It really means "Not related to the completely past-and-done-with, or Perfect". so it is really "imperfect- ive".

       I was going

       you were going

       he was going... .etc.

This Imperfect tense has few complications, it denotes a past time as a past action which could have been terminated then, or could equally well continue into the present time.

       "I was going to Medical School in l972" could be stated by a head of Cardiology, or by a MD dropout, depending on whether the past action was terminated then or not. Only the context can tell the truth.

2) The Simple Perfect . (Greek grammar calls this the Aorist, too exotic a term for our use perhaps). The action took place in the past and was of a punctual or time-restricted nature, like this phrase:

       "He died". (with the understanding that we were speaking of a sudden massive heart attack, with the result that he "dropped dead".

But English does not make this perfectly clear, since with additional wording it could have been: "He died as the result of a long terminal illness..." as well as "He died while lifting a spoonful of soup to his lips... " The first is Continuative, the second Punctual, and both can be housed in the grammatical framework of the Simple English Perfect form.

Under this rubric lie the many irregular forms of the so-called "Strong English Verb" (implying that irregularity is a sign of strength?). We have several handfuls of "irregulars", including:

        go (present) --- went (past). This is suppleted by an entirely different verb.
        speak --- spoke
        ride --- rode
        think ---thought

These had best be put in a list and learned by rote, since there are few of these odd forms which aretechnically the result of an ancient Indo-European Ablaut, but they turn up everywhere in English. There can even be a fake neologism like "dove" created as a past to "dive" (often replacing "dived"). Catching them one at a time is a waste of time.

3) The Compound Perfect, formed with a "have" word and a past participle, has the notion of pastness joined with something also pertaining to the present world

       "I have completed my doctoral studies" refers to past work done, but by a person who is still among the living. So pastness verges into presentness, and we are actually looking back from NOW into THEN. So this is a continuative tense, like the "Imperfect" or Past-Continuing tense, but the focus-point is "now".

Had we this sentence: "I was completing my doctoral studies in l972" the focus of attention would have been back on l972, not now. These are indeed subtle shades of difference, which should be marked out with a fine pencil.

4) The Past Compound Perfect or PLUPERFECT

Perhaps the old Latin term Pluperfect, meaning "more than accomplished or past", is usable, as it shifts the time frame of this past-tense back one slot to a time before the "past focus-of- attention", removing us from the "now" by two echelons.

       "I had completed my doctoral studies in l972 (first focus), but then decided to go into the Navy (second focus)... "

We all recognize this usage and use it often, but students will often ignore in their writing the subtle time-shift this tense affords. Defining it will often make it much more accurate and usable.

THE CONDITIONAL: The world of Unreality

We have been looking at forms and uses of the Factual Functions of Verbs (ones that tell about reality in this world, as against sheer possibility). Now we are going to examine the Conditional Functions of the Verbs, a complex set of forms which deal with situations which are not perfectly real, and often involve terms like "if", "what if", "would" and other conditional markers.

Every language has formulae for "the Unreal". Latin has the Subjunctive, the Indian languages of the Pacific Northwest have as many as five levels of "unreality", which are of real and practical use in a hunting society. Knowing what is real as against what is possible is a basic part of human social behavior and intelligence.

1) The Present Conditional is almost gone from contemporary American usage. The few relics which remain are liable to be considered bookish or over-fussy. Perhaps an American preference for "hard thinking about facts" and aversion to dreaming may be responsible for disappearance of these forms, as well as a psychological distress in the face of many of the many mysteries which still confound our world.

       "If it is true.... "

This hardheaded phrase replaces the bookish:
"If it be true",

as well as the more common and still usable "If it were true". This grammatical loss is one of perception, not just a matter of a grammatical simplification.

2) In the Past Conditional realm, we find:

       "I would suspect... " with a somewhat Conditional tone, and

       "I would have suspected... ", much the same attitude but shifted backward into a past-time framework.

Beside these Conditionals, we have the hybrid form:

        "I should think that. .. ", which is actually a Conditional (not the same as a Hortative or Directing "should":

       "One should think that... ", which is quite a different thought based on the same auxiliary verb. These must be kept apart, this is an entirely different usage.

3) But in an entirely different vein, stands the Contrary to Fact Conditional, a cumbersome title for a very useful tool (equivalent to the Pluperfect Subjunctive in Latin).

       "I would have completed my doctoral studies, but... (to be frank, I didn't").

By Contrary to Fact, we merely mean that it didn't happen that way, although there was the possibility of it having turned out so. We must have Possibility, Past Time, and probably also some Disappointment in this very frequent witches' brew, as served up in many cups of human experience. This is a usage we know and use regularly in daily speech, only note here that it has a name and can be called up in a writing menu at will.


All of the functions we have been examining up to this point are in the ACTIVE mode, but for most of them there is available a PASSIVE form. Sense preclude some of the possibilities, for example you can say:

       "He goes"
but there is no passive for this kind of verb, which cannot take an Object (usually called the Intransitive Verbs). ("He is gone" is not the passive of the Present form, but quite another concept in a Compound Past form.) But most of the forms we have been speaking of can take a passive form:

        He beats
       He is beaten

        He was beating
       He was being beaten

        He will beat
He will be beaten

$He beat
       He was beaten

        He had beat
He had been beaten

.And just so the Conditionals will quite naturally have an Active and also a Passive form.

There is really nothing hard or odd about the passives in English, but since in hte Past Compound forms they use the Past Participle of verbs with an auxiliary verb "is/be", they will involve the irregular "be" verb forms:

       "He sings....... (the song) is sung"

This brings us back to the rote learning of the irregular verb forms of "is/be", which are learned early by non-native speakers to avoid a lot of trouble along the road. And then there are always the unforseeable details, like the difference between "sunk" and "sunken", and so forth. The standard English Grammar books are good for this kind of detail, but the final judgment must be made on the basis of the accepted usage of a given date.

Perhaps the worst problem which confronts students these days is the general matter of Agreement. With a little grammatical awareness, students can be persuaded to understand that:

        A singular noun must match with a singular form in the verb, and vice versa.

In recent years, a curious grammatical "mistake" has taken hold for a specific reason, and is likely to stay with English usage, at least in the US, permanently. An example:

"Every person who has the vote, has the right to voice their personal political opinion at the polls.".

Of course "their" should be "his/hers" as a singular agreeing with "every person" which is singular. But there is a catch to this. "Political Correctness" has taken hold, we can no longer use the tranditional "his" as understood for "his and hers".,and so nowadays one should say:

       "...has the right to voice his or her personal political opinion...."

In other words the use of "his" as a general word to express Humankind, is no longer felt acceptable. But by using the plural "their" which has no gender distinction, the correctness issue is avoided, while the incorrectness of the grammatical agreement is ignored. This has been used so often and without adverse comment (for Politically Correct reasons...) in the second half of the 20th century, that it has becoming a standard usage. This goes to show, again, that it is continued use that makes the rules of a language, eventually.

But in most situations it is best to stay with a given singular/plural pair, keep presents with presents, pasts with past, and not shift words around uncontrollably. But there is always the proper use of a tense-shift as an artistic device, use of the Historical Present, or an artistic time-shift as part of a story-line. But most inconcinnities occur through lack of attention or ignorance, and it is hard to explain Agreement of Number to someone who has never thought of such concepts as "singular/plural" or "noun/verb". Having available an "explanation" in rational terms is the sole reason for teaching Grammar, which should be forgotten and relegated to the unconscious processes of thought, as soon as mastered.

Associated with the Verb are two subordinate form classes of importance, the Infinitive and the Participle.

1) The Infinitive is easy to spot in English, since it has one form, it puts the word "to" before a verb, thus:

       "to go"
       "to be or not to be"
       to be beaten (a passive infinitive form)
       to have been... (Past Infinitive)

The odd thing about the infinitive is that there are two basic, and quite different uses:

       a) "He desires to go.. .". The Infinitive marker "to" stands in close association with the preceding verb, developing a secondary verbal notion which is dependent on the main verb, while it is virtually fused onto the verb which it proceeds.

        "What does he desire?"
        Well, it is "to go".

This basic use of the Infinitive is a familiar and entirely understandable notion.

b) But the simple Infinitive form (for example "to be") can be used as equivalent to a noun, Thus "to be" in the famous Shakespeare line, is exactly equivalent to "being", so he could just as well have said "Being or not being - - - that is the question", which is the way a philosopher would probably have put it.

       To succeed.... is sweet"
       "To love in vain.... is better than not to have loved at all"

This use of the Infinitive is sometimes called the Gerund in English grammars, which often copy the terminology of Latin grammar, where the Gerund is an entirely different form from the Infinitive. Better consider it in this English usage as "An Infinitive used as a Noun".

2) Participles words are formed from verbs, onto which is grafted the adjectival ending "-ing", so that verbal notions can be used in conjunction with nouns, modifying them to further expand their meaning. The word Participle comes from the Latin parti-ceps, meaning "sharers", and is an apt term since the Participles share verb roots with noun/adjectival functions, and thus stand between the two Noun and Verb camps.

Participles are useful for students to use in variegating their writing, since they provide an introduction to the idea of subordinate clauses as used to develop complex sentences. Americans have a bad tendency to construct sentences out of small phrases which are linked together by repeated use of "and....... and....... and.....". This structure is not only boring when used thoughtlessly, but it provides no sense of what is important and what is of lesswer importance. Thought implies a hierarchy of ideas, which are nested into each other and fall within a pattern of ranking by importance. Computer applications, folders and files are a good example of hierarchical thinking. The use of the Participle is a good first step into the world of Variegated Sentence Structure.

Introduction to the Participle is more than an introduction to new grammatical term, it is often the beginning of an introduction to the hierarchy of the use of subordinate clauses, which for the serious student is the first lesson in the process of developing an individual spoken or written style.

Classical English prose is written with liberal use of sub-clauses, which are organized under the hierarchy of a sentence-idea. To many modern English speakers this appears overly involved, and they get mired in sequences of "who....", "when..." "after..." and "that...." clauses which are so different from the usual English 'run- on" style which joins various pieces of information with the reiterated copulative "and". Behind this traditional Classical English Style lies the model drawn, since the days of the Renaissance, from Latin prose writing, which in turn modeled itself after the tradition of developed Classical Greek prose style. Latin was written as a language dominated by verbs, it is the verbs which carry the sentences and give them their thrust, their motion. To modern English speakers, the Ciceronian sub-clause style is overly heavy, but it was the fabric of Senatorial Debate in the l9th c. and still emerges in lightened form in American political speechmaking. On the other hand there is little artistry in short phrases strung together like beads on the thread of a string of "and"'s. Good writing and speaking can use both styles beside each other, providing good contrast in the flow of sentences..

In English we have developed a largely noun-based written style, which has become the standard formula for text-book writing, especially in the sciences and the social sciences. Well educated people often think of their language as primarily noun-based, and their writing tends to lack the motion and color which verbal expressions provide. On the other hand many people with limited education have a lively and vivid way of expressing themselves, and at the outer edge of literacy we find great story tellers whose intuitive sense of language verges toward action, motion and the Verbs.

For someone interested in developing his native English talents, or for learning English as a new language, one of the best pieces of advice available is:

Learn the Nouns, but attend carefully to the Verbs.

It is hard to explain in few words, but becoming aware of the basic differences in the way two languages are internally constructed, will help the student see that there is more to learning a new language than learning vocabulary and switching words from one side of the linguistic fence to the other. To translate from one language to another, one must be able to penetrate to the core-idea being dealt with, then de-construct the first language formulation, and finally re- construct it according to the rules of the second language. A truly bilingual person does this automatically, but those of us who have to learn a second or third language as adults have a harder row to hoe. Here conscious processing is the necessary tool, the more one learns the less on has to think about the details of the linguistic transfer process. There are always some things which convert easily and naturally, just as there are other things which are virtually impossible to render in another tongue.

Language qua language is a spoken activity, something we can easily forget in the book-based process of getting an education. The professional Linguist sees language primarily in the spoken form, and carefully distinguishes it from the written form which is ensconced in a "graphemic code" or one sort or another. Learning language and especially working with written texts, one should always think and speak the words aloud, both as a mnemonic aid to learning and as a natural feature of human speech. Written graphemic language is always secondary to the spoken tongue, just as a composer's score is secondary to the sound of music. The fact that the language you are working with is not being used for daily communication does not change this formula:

Treat your language as it is or can be spoken, which will be the best and most secure way to attain a deep level of understanding.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College