THE LINGUISTICS OF ENGLISH
PROLEGOMENA FOR LEARNING ANOTHER
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 RULE OF THREE
The English language "Rule of Three" distinguishes NOUNS and VERBS
by their location in the sentence...
NOUN FUNCTION #1: Subject and
In a "basic"
sentence, the first word is a noun.
The second word is a
The third word is
also a noun.
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
climbs the tree.
trees the cat
The man burns
Bandages cure the
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.
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".
Postulate: NOUNS CAN BE USED AS SUBJECT OR
(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"
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
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:
"boys" Plural Subject
"boys' " Plural
as well as:
Subject or Object
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
THE ACTIVE FUNCTIONS OF THE VERB
The VERBS are complex and can have many more functions than the
VERB FUNCTION #1: Who the active person
Verbs tell us who is doing the "action", if it is "I", or "you" or
We call these functions:
First person:..... I
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:
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.
you go (the singular
and plural are the same, which can be confusing)
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
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
"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
"Well, I am going
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
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
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
2) The Compound Future Tense
I am going to go.
you are going to
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
I am going to go to
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
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
THE PAST TENSES
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-
I was going
you were going
he was going...
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
"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
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
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
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
Beside these Conditionals, we have the hybrid form:
"I should think that.
.. ", which is actually a Conditional (not the same as a Hortative or
think that... ", which is quite a different thought based on the same
auxiliary verb. These must be kept apart, this is an entirely different
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.
THE PASSIVE FUNCTIONS OF THE VERB
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
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 is beaten
He was beating
He was being
He will beat
He will be beaten
He was beaten
He had beat
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,
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 be or not to
to be beaten (a
passive infinitive form)
to have been...
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
Well, it is "to go".
This basic use of the Infinitive is a familiar and entirely
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
"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
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
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
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.
Prof. Em. Middlebury College