Understanding Our English Grammar

A friend who was traveling in Japan in the days when hitch-hiking was still considered a friendly way of getting from here to there, got a ride from a Japanese couple, and with the aid of a little knowledge of the language and a pocket phrase-book, she asked "Where are you going to?"

The driver explained in great detail his family background back several generations, which greatly puzzled the young American who was merely asking how far she could go with them in what direction. Finally she understood that where you are going to is the other side of the coin of where you are coming from.

Going to another language, it is imperative to understand where linguistically you are coming from,. since the accumulated experience of your native language. This is your backpack on your shoulders as your go forward, and it is also an impediment when you proceed into the new language territory.

One of the most serious stumbling blocks to English speakers starting the study of a second language, is their intuitive and largely subliminal experience with their native speech. The complexities of Language are learned at an early period in the life cycle, when the brain can grasp and store enormous amount of information effectively, just as it will continue to absorb locutions and especially vocabulary throughout life.

This cumulative stockpile of linguistic information resides in what appear to be two separate databases, although they may actually be operative in the brain simultaneously, even if in different physical locations.

First, there is the library of operational procedures which we think of as the rules of grammar, although the conventional notion of Grammar as we use it in textbooks it totally inappropriate here. This is a Neural-Grammar, a set of automatically appearing and background-operating procedures, which knows how to put items into a correct functioning order in speaking and writing. It operates in the other direction simultaneously, deciphering into meaningful impressions spoken and written messages as decipherable code. There are cases in which the deciphering function of the brain is impaired through trauma or disease, and the set of deciphering operations becomes damaged. Calling such situations dysphonia or dyslexia is probably not helpful, since it puts a single term onto a situation which certainly has multiple aspects, many of which are still not well understood.

Second, there is stored a library of Words as items of sound orthographemic signature, which can be related to anything, which the mind of the individual or the society at large can conceptualize. If the infant learns the few words necessary for a child's living space, he will be exposed to thousands of new items before he reaches the age of twelve,with thousands more acquired in college or just plain living in a self-aware global society. IF two thousand of these "words" suffices for basic needs in living and getting around, the number may go up to 50,000for a college teacher, or several times that for a dedicated scholar who works in several languages.

But within the library of Vocabulary, there is another set of composites, words which like the Chinese radicals combine to make a significant character, which are used in Sets or Groupings with specialized meanings. We usually think of Idioms as a restricted list of specialized usages, like "kick the bucket" for dying, or "hanging one's head" for shame. But in a wider sense, all Contexts have a way of being used idiomatically, conferring specialized meaning outside of the core mean of their individual words. Context makes clear differentiations in phrases like "The lots next to my yard", and compared to "Lots of mail was spread around my yard" and further "the starving sailors drew lots". The mind surveys with speed faster than our faster computer brain, the possibilities and automatically selects the right meaning for the case at hand.

Linguists can draw on similar Groupings to make observations which can free-stand as the "Grammar" of a language. But since languages are always in flux with noticeably jagged edges of change, even at the decade mark, the final court of appeal is always what the Consensus of a sample number of native speakers says and understands. This is better put if we say that there is no other regulatory body than Usage, which is always a step or two ahead of even the most recent grammars and lexical collections.

The Structure of English

We are starting this examination from the point of view of persons who are native English speakers, with full and habitual use of English as their basic mode of communication. If they have studied "English Grammar", this is probably an encumbrance which they might well put aside for the present, since it is based on a more or less imitative recapitulation of Classical Latin Grammar, which is totally non-applicable to the English language as it now stands.

Lest this seem an arbitrary statement, let me note that English has no "Cases" of the noun, in fact is survives with nothing at all like the five Latin Cases. The English Verb does not match the six "Tenses" of the Latin verb at all, and the insistence on Person in English verbs, as compared to Latin, is virtually without meaning. The constant iteration of the word "Subjunctive" in English grammars is a weak and misleading term since the inherited subjunctive disappeared from the language centuries ago.

This does not mean that English Nouns are somehow incapacitated, or the Verbs shorn of their capability to denote time. They do this very well, but on their own terms and in their own way, which is different from the way many other languages follow. Until we actually see the differences, we are sure to stumble over them, like loose stones in our linguistic pathway. Using terminology drawn from Latin grammar for English will always becloud the situation, and the language learner, seeing that Case in English is nothing like "Case" in German or Greek will be quite properly confused. Best strip away the terminology, and use simple new terms as we cut back to describe the Basics of English.

How to Tell a Verb from a Noun

We have all been taught since childhood that "Nouns are Person, Places or Things", to which modern grammars have had to add ".... Ideas and Concepts". Plato had gone that far, and Donatus around 400 AD said much the same thing, but not noting "Case" as a structural component. Here is Donatus in the 4 th c. A.D. on Nouns

Nomen quid est? Pars orationis cum casu corpus aut rem proprie communiterve significans.

Let's assume for the moment that you want a more secure way to differentiate between nouns and verbs, a litmus or acid test as it were. Take a word, test it with each of the endings, " -s" " -'s", and see which one of these makes sense to you as a native English user.

[ -s] (two meanings: plural or verbal "he/she/it")[ -'s] (possessive, like English 'of..."

Now I am going to use this test with the word "get"

Test A: [ -s] giving "gets"

Test B: [ -'s] giving "get's"

Result: Since "get's" doesn't "make sense", when I try to say "Give the get's of it", the word "get" not usable as a noun in a typical English Subject Verb Object (SVO) order, it is a Verb

Now I am going to test with the word "tomato"

Test A: [ -s] giving "tomato"

Test B: [ -'s] giving "tomato's"

Result: Since "He tomatos very well" doesn't "make contextual sense", the word "tomato" is a noun. This is because there is no established context for a verb "tomatos /tomatoes", at least at the present time.

I suggest the word "hound"

Test A: [ -s] giving "hound/hounds" with two potential meanings, singular and plural.

Test B: [ -'s] giving "hound's"

Results: The word "hound" can be either a noun or a verb., as "the hound's tooth, many hounds", or as a verb "he hounds his enemy"

Now this is entirely different from Latin, where we can detect a noun by a finite set of endings, and a verb by another very different set of endings. But there may be overlaps like "-m" which is often the Object ending for a noun, but can also be a verbal "-m" meaning "I...." with a verb.

Likewise -s can be use for "you" as " read", but there is also a noun "legis......of the law". Here as in English context does straighten out the difficulties, but in Latin these are relatively rare, with perhaps a dozen common confusions.

English on the other hand has very few possible confusions of nouns with verbs on a formal, morphological basis. With only two possible noun-signifiers, (-s for the plural, -'s for the singular) and just one of these identical to a verbal -s- of the third singular, we don't have much reason to think about such grammatical dilemmas.

The Bare Noun of English

We have been speaking about the few endings which separate the Noun from the Verb class ("-s / -'s). So far as "forms" the English verb has almost nothing distinctive to work with, although the original OE (or Anglo-Saxon) language was fully inflected in the 9th c. A.D. Why this loss of the noun endings?

The Norman Invasion of the 11th century made French the court and official language of England for several centuries, during which time English as a language came under the influence of French, not only in terms of words and manners of speech, but also in the way French grammar functions. French and all the Latin-derived languages as well, do not have case forms for the noun. Latin had already lost its noun declension in popular speech by the fifth century, but it was preserved in the literary language as used by Church and State. A modified form of the Classical speech was required and continued asth International Language of Europe through the Medieval period and even for scientific writing into the early 18th c. AD.

In terms of its Grammar, English followed the French influence,. It absorbed a huge influx of French words by the time of Chaucer who chose for his poetry the Normandizing dialect of London, establishing it as the literary norm for the future. The basic vocabulary of English may appear Germanic at times with words like "house, mouse, man, brother, five and ten", but the French nominal and sentences structure is apparent in such expressions as these:

The quality of many cheap things is bad. La qualitè de plusieres choses economiques est mauvaise

But we find Latin and German with their carefully inflected Genitive cases for adjective and noun, in the same camp:

Qualitas multarum rerum bene emptarum saepe deficit. Die Qualitat mancher billiger Sachen ist Schlecht.

The Bare Verb of English

The English Verb is equally poor in tag-endings for grammatical classes of use. We have the "-s" for third person singular in the Simplex (present) verb, only "-ing" as a noun or an adjective, and the passivating "-ed" used either as an adjective, or part of a compound past time verbal form. Examples are:

    He walks (Simplex = Present tense)

    She has a giving heart (straight adjective)

    Giving is better than getting. (used as a noun)

    He walked the harder path (past time)

So far as the regular verbs go (called "weak" for no special reason by the grammarians) this " -ed" is the only participal ending But the older, inherited verbs (the "strong" ones) use the ancient Indo-European vowel-gradation system (Ablaut to the linguists) which adds another passive ending "-en". Most of these "strong" verbs are known well enough for their irregular or unexpected forms, because they are in constant use.

    The gift was given and he was much beholden

    Fruit lying in the sun quickly becomes rotted

    Rotten fruit is too rotten to eat (an type-variant)

Occasionally a regular verb will become "irregularized" incorrectly.The correct form is "dive / dived" which is often hyper-corrected to " dive /dove". Again use may ultimately confirm this form, unless the teachers outlaw it along with "ain't" which was normal in good writing in 1800, and"don't" for "doesn't" which is probably going to stay with us in colloquial or arched speech.

Contextual Interpretations of Virtual Idioms

We might think we have a lot of things to worry about, with confusions of the following type:

Sorry, I got late. He got a job. She got jilted. He got stone drunk. He got burned up. His house got burned down. The fruit got rotten. I got to go....... because someone is waiting....I got to go....(because when you gotta go, you gotta go).I got to get a drink of water. I gotta getta drinka wata

In these last two samples, the last may seem over-slurred, but that is pretty much what you will hear, whereas the previous one with word separation and no unmarking some of the words, is entirely too formal for a simple thirsty situation. Social levels often enter in this kind of wording, to the despair of teachers who love the idea of standardizing English, an evil hope indeed.

There are many more such situations, this is a big undifferentiated iceberg, which does not yield to any simple and convenient analysis. Linguists have a lot to say about such a situation, and much of their analysis is insightful about language at large, and it can be interesting as well.

But the "Analysis" is much longer and more complex than the examples,. The solutions which your mind uses instantaneously and automatically to find the right meaning for these phrases are so effective, that I suggest for our immediate purpose we try to avoid Analysis. Stick with the Examples, which are after all the significant linguistic data.

Examples drawn from actual usage, however widely divergent as their interpretation may be, are self-interpreting, something like the self-expanding archives of the computer files titled. sea. It is not the full form of the wording which needs expanding, but the structural messages which automatically explain themselves when dragged onto the icon of a Native Speaker's Icon, or brain.

Any fluent native speaker carries in his or her mind the full database of the language, the words comprising a Total Usable Vocabulary (TUV makes it sound more official), and a Complete Functional Repertory (CFR). These operate in tandem, moving at neuronal speed, which makes the retrieval of data and the operational rules work faster, with use-compiled pathways, as they are more used.

One of the best of the older American grammarians, George Lane,states:

The meanings of moods and tenses are best learned from reading. No satisfactory translation can be given in the paradigms,especially of the subjunctive, which requires a variety of translations for its various uses.

To put this into a more formal statement, I use the term "Contextual Exegesis" for the unwrapping and explanation of the grammar of a situation which can have multiple meanings, on the basis of the sense and the requirements of the context. We must remember that in the final analysis, it is the actual wording of the document which has the ultimate authority, while the "Rules" which are stated to cover the document, are merely observational statements from this and parallel documents. Just so in Scientific Studies it is the materials and not the generalized statements about them which has the greatest importance, which is exactly what the Greeks meant when they spoke of "sozein ta phainomena" or as we put it "preserving the actual evidence""

Word Order as a Grammatical Function

Languages which are richly endowed with tagging word-endings, used to organize words functionally into useful constructs, are in the fortunate position of being able to display words in sentences in a wide variety of ordering. Words can be "marked" by any special position at the start of a sentence or phrase, or equally well by reserving it for the concluding thrust. Adjectives can be separated from their nouns for artistic patterning, or for surprise effects, and inflected languages traditionally make full use of these resources.

Uninflected languages have to find new ways to establish the structure which a language needs, and English has opted for this fixed and regulatory word order:


This is so natural and intuitive to English speakers that most of us are not even aware of the ironclad rigidity of this arrangement. "Postman bites dog" can change without altering the actual words involved, into "Dog bites Postman". Or even potentially "Postman dogs bites", an unlike phrase, but one which could mean "The postman is following up on the dog-bite situation". Newspaper headlines have an grand repertory of just such grammatically amazing phraseology, which nobody has seen before but which everybody understands immediately.


The argument that arises from these various considerations is this:

    Form-poor languages can develop alternate strategies, one of which has been the highly successful Subject Verb Object (SVO).

    Marking words with changes of stress, intonation or spacing can be used to add a roster of additional differentiable features.

    Contextual Exegesis, or the determination of which factor in a packet of variables is the one the situation requires, is a technique of greatest importance in languages which lack formal morphological tag-distinctions for word functions. This can be more easily described as having the linguistic data-bank loaded with myriad Set-Phrases or Idioms, which are individually packaged with unequivocal semantic content.

These Contextual-Exegesis class functions have a double use. They define which of a multiple set of possibilities the context requires while they detach the others for use elsewhere.

But they also enable us to "guess-out" or divine the meanings of unknown words as items of vocabulary, which is the very process which enables us to learn a language in the first place. Nobody really learns english with a dictionary in hand, most of us use one rarely if at all.

It is this process which enables us to split and unload the"containers"which encapsulate some of our multi-functioning words, like "have" "get"and "be", so we can come away not only with "the right meaning". But we do it instantly and deftly without even noticing the problems which these words present, on which many a Linguist spends an anxious midnight hour.

Problems with the Nouns

In the face of the English nouns as "case-less Cases", we have the alternative of supplementary words to work with the nouns. This is of course just what French did, and it is no surprise to find English using the same method as a borrowing.

    If French can have "le grand duc d'Anjou", English can be quite satisfied with the same organization in "the worthy Senator from Mississippi".

    "Le restaurant devant lequel j'ai attendu mon ami est merveilleux." goes into English with hardly a squeak, as "The restaurant in front of which I was waiting for my friend, is remarkable.". However "where" would probably replace the underlined phrase which a stuffy college professor might use. But the sentence organization is virtually identical.

The first thing to note in the above sentences, is the performance of what we should can the "THE-word, otherwise known as the traditional "Article" in grammaticalese. Under this head we have:

The A-words are the short words preceding a noun and marking its individuality, or specificness, as in this example: In the general class of the THE-words we have these alternates:

"the" "this" "that" "these" "those", colloq. "them".

An Example : "The instructions are to give this box to the man on the corner of the street..."

Beside these we have the "A-words", which include a side variety of notions, but all of them point to a generalness or genericness, a possibility that this is "one of many" somehow. We have "a" "any" "some" --- and extending the range further. we can include with upgrading "many" "most". Or downgrading we get "a few".

These two classes, THE-words and A-words stand in an either/or relationship to their following nouns. That is you can use one of the other, but you can never say "the any people", or "a this man". I only mention this point to prove to you that these short words are different and cannot be classed together.

Look at the origin of the French parallel words, "le / la " which are the last syllable of Latin 'ille" Masculine and "illa" the Feminine. By constant use the Latin "ille" became as meaningless as our common English "this":

"I met this man and we went to this bar and had just these three bottle of been when this cop came in and....." which can be glossed at a less formal social level as "I met dis man and we went to da bar and had dese tree bottle a beer, when dat cop came in and....".

The fact that the English teacher excises all these demonstrative words from student papers as "unnecessary and meaningless" is beside the point, since they will appear again in colloquial parlance as a natural complement to the nouns they decorate.

A Latin speaker would never understand these (needless) repetitions. Lacking an Article completely Latin would put it (with some difficulty) in another way.

Interea obviam veni homini mihi noto nomine tantum, quicum ambulabam ad convivium quo vidimus centurionem quendam clamantem. Heus tu,quid hic agis?

Curiously the Greek language which Romans so admired and imitated, had a fully developed article and used it creatively in the most interesting "nested" structures, like

"the (of these people) most outstanding (of the ((at that time)) characteristics)....were".

The fact that Vulgar Latin searched the pronouns for an article replacement shows that there was use for such a word, but the traditionalist Romans were more always interested in preserving and standardizing than inventing.

Not a trace of an article in Classical Latin, nor any need of one, which is a prime example of a difference between Latin and any of its descendants or English. That something as natural as the THE-word in English, should be entirely absent from Latin may seem strange at first, but underlines the observation that absolutely nothing is indispensable in language.

There are other deep-rooted difference between the Roman and English ways of thinking and speaking. Latin does not require in every predicative sentence the word "be /.is", as the pivot on which the predication rests. But for us as we read Latin, many sentences will look incomplete at first, and that is the beginning student's perpetual quandary: "Where the heck is the verb?"

English writing, especially in the American sub-species, is heavily dependent on the "Equationary" Verb, which stands somewhere between the Subject of the sentence, and the "predicated" Noun or adjective on the other side of this connective signal. Textbooks galore and these days the hard-headed business report survive on this meager stylistic diet, in which a sentences can sound like this:

(Notion A = Notion B) + (Notion C = Notion D)

Market distrust (means) collapse of purchases AND Inflation (is) the natural result.

This very convenient for skim reading of texts which don't have to be read very carefully, but it inculcates the dangerous practice of putting much information on a more or less even playing field. But there are ranks and levels of importance in information, and losing that perception we lose a hierarchical sense of where the peak of the information pile stands.

The Latin speakers and writers invested their Main Clause with the lead-in information, and in a series of sub-clauses they added the subordinate and then the peripheral data in a nested format. We don't need to discuss which way is better, since society and its needs are obviously involved. But this points to a difference in the organization of ideas, which makes Latin difficult to understand from outside the Roman's perspective. Reading Latin, we cannot rearrange the Roman's thought sequences into the kind of sentence and thought format which we use in English. An additional block to the reading of Latin!

Then we have the English "WHO-words", which can be traced back on proper linguistic authority through the sound changes, to the Latin "qui, quo, quom/cum".. (It is curious that the English cognate "when" matches well with the similar meaning of Latin "cum /quom", while the much nearer cognate in German "wenn" means "if = Lat. si" although "wann" matches English"when".

The Relative "who" referring to something coming up in a who-clause, is distinguished by rising pitch from "who?" which leads into a question, in both English and Latin. But English "who" as a solitary form, seems bare and basic beside the fully inflected forms of the Latin pronominal declension,. This is an older class inherited from IE and with all its twenty forms the schoolboy's despair. All those forms for just our simple English "who" ?..... indeed!

We do have our pathetic relic "whom" which the teacher grammarians maintain as last trace of a Latinate declension so dear to their hearts. In fact this was a legitimate form in Old English, but it was "hwam" with a typical Dative ending, and not a Direct Object case at all. But with the final "-m" it looked like a Latin Accusative, so.......we co-opted it.

But use of "whom" in speech is probably a hyper-corrective social signal for higher education, upgrading from a normal "Who did you give it to?" to a pointed " Whom (marked as emphatic) did you give it to?" But since there is a predisposition against ending a sentence with a monosyllable, especially one with an open syllabic vowel like "who", we might even understand "whom" in "You say you gave it to whom?" as a phonetic variant on a pseudo-grammatical theme.

Hyper-correction is always at hand, as when Marilyn Monroe said (whether her idea or a clever script writer's) "It is I". Everyone laughed because we all know that in English "It is me" is the only expression in use, matching the French "C'est moi".

Speaking of Agreement of Singular and Plural, what about matching up a singular like "a person" with the plural "their ideas". This has clearly won its case in the last decades as a way of avoiding embarrassments, like a possibly macho "his" used for men and women together. Or the clumsy variants of "his or hers", "he/she" and the pseudo clever "s/he" inverting primacy. "Their" is in such sentences"ungrammatical",but is clearly "in" and to be lived with, even with a shudder.

Problems with the Verbs

We were just now discussing the WHO-words "when" and its cousin "where", leading to "whereas" and replacing an older "whenas". These lead us directly into verbal clauses, and a lot of trouble since they are time-connected, and the English verbs are very uncertain about their exact Time sequencing.

One of the worst mistakes which have been generated out of Latin grammar is the notion that English has the same six "Tenses" as the Latin series, which grammarians have been pressing onto the English language. for more than a century.

Even the time sequencing of the Latin verbs is out of kilter with a real-time depiction of events in a sequential chronological display. So by foisting these on the descriptions of English grammar, we have a doubly muddling procedure.

The Present

Let's start with the English so-called "Present Tense", which is not at present tense at all. I am going to replace its name with the term "Simplex" as the basic, least manipulated and most root-like core of a verb. Most languages have some sort of a stem-form for their verbs, which is the least tag-adorned "stem-form" of the word.

This "Simplex" is easy to see in Latin as the Present Tense where the stem is usually the word as a bare root. Consider "am-" 'love' to which a set of simple, short endings is appended to furbish out the Present Tense. But this is not actually a Present Tense at all.

The Latin Present tense, the "amo amas amat..." of the traditional schoolhouse, has a fairly wide range of meanings. It can point to a habitual situation, since its range of time span is "on-going" continuative and "imperfective".

But it can verge into a past time which the present situation is contemplating, as in a letter from Cicero "iam, pridem cupio te visere" which clearly says "I have been wanting to see you for a long time now".

When with the Present "Caesar mandat magnum numerum obsidum", reporting in a chronicle of a war completed at the time of the writing, we somewhat artificially call this a Historical Present, as something intending to vivify a dry historical account. But when the Present is a Subjunctive, most of the time-sequencing disappears as the Irrealis converts the statement into potentiality, which is clearly not time-based.

Checking back with Donatus, we find the notions of Active and Passive are the first thing he mentions about Verbs:

Verbum quid est? Pars orationis cum tempore et persona sine casu aut agere aliquid aut pati aut neutrum significans.

In Latin we have the simplest of all possibly arrangements. A set of final Endings characterized by the character -r, is tagged onto the Present (simplex) active verb form, and we have a nicely matched pair of active and passive forms. They are so similar in form and in meaning that very little comment is required in the standard grammars.

This brings us back to my note on Contextual-Exegesis, by which I mean the contextual situation must be the final decision making factor where there are variable behaviors.

We are in a good position to try Contextual Exegesis on Latin expressions like these::

Proca deinde regnat, is Numitorem procreat, Numitori regnum vetustum Silviae gentis legat " Proca rules, begets Numitor, assigns to him the ancient realm". This is clearly a series of event in the dim past, but the Present is used stylistically.
viri in uxores vitae necique habent potestatem. "The men have power of life and death over their wives". This is the customary use of the Germanic tribes, hence generalizing Present.
satis diu doc iam saxum vorso "I am rolling this rock for a sufficiently long time now", a Present tense but depending on anterior rolling of the rock uphill, hence in English it would have to be a past tense.

The use of the grammatical term "Present Tense" for the simplex verb-status, is not perfectly clear, but still acceptable for Latin, where the range of expressions is narrow.

SUMMARY: A Latin Present Tense form can this be any of the following:

    a) time-less and general, often habitual in many contexts.

    b) time-based, indicating the moment at which an action is performed, as "scribo......" at the actual time I am writing this note to you.

    c) stylistic as a variant in recounting a past situation as if present, like a stylistic "flashback" in modern writing or cinema.

This wide variance has to be interpreted in the light of the contextural requirements of the sentence, of course. In Latin as in English thee are many grammatical loose ends, which only the reader can tie into a meaningful linguistic fabric. If I may repeat the above quotation about interpretation from the context...:

"The meanings of moods and tenses are best learned from reading. No satisfactory translation can be given in the paradigms,especially of the subjunctive, which requires a variety of translations for its various use."

Now turning to the English "Present Tense", we find that it is even less of a Tense or time-based verbal class than the Latin Present. There is a remarkably wide range of variances, of which a few examples will help us here:

They do woodwork here" although the shop is closed, must mean that on normal working weekdays, when there are orders to be filled, men will regularly be doing woodwork in this shop.
"Bill plays the piano..." says Jeanette showing a guest the music room, although there is no sound and no Bill. So this must mean that Bill is able to play the piano, he knows how to play the piano.

But there is another twist: She didn't say "Bill used to play the piano......." but can't play anymore, so when she said "Bill plays..." there is a residual element of Presentness in the situation. Not at this moment, not exactly today, but in the framework of the present week, when you return some afternoon, you will see Bill "in the Present Tense" playing the piano.

Jane hears the whistle." This could be the fact that the factory whistle is sounding, and Jane hears it as the signal to quite work. Or it can mean that Jane can hear the whistle, that her hearing extends over the hi-frequency area of the whistle's acoustic range.
"Greyhounds run faster than any other dog", a generalized statement which is completely devoid of time-notation, i.e. exo-chronous in the linguist's terminology.

But there is something quite different between the following two statements:

"Dogs run over to trees, sniff and take a piss", a general statement about the nature of canine territoriality.
"The dog runs over to the tree, sniffs and takes a piss." But this is quite specific, I can see it in my mind as if recorded on my video camera, and I don't get the feeling that we are talking about canine territoriality.

It seems that use of the THE-word has narrowed the time spectrum and refocused the statement back into a true Present Tense. Is it the THE-word for the finiteness of the action of the verb "run" which makes this shift?Try again:

"The Chairman of the committee talks endlessly" is a comment on the longwindness of the Chair as a personal characteristic of the man. I have the impression of a fillibusterer, but not the actual scene of a specific filibustering occasion.
"The Chairman talks endlessly, pausing only for a sip of water". This is clearly a present situation, I am able to visualize it as actually happening. It seems the finite break and momentary pause for water "Presentizes" the situation. This is not something which we have grammatically been led to expect..

On the English side there are more special usages, with a set of special words including the "container words" which are "get, have be". As examples:

    "By seven I am getting to eat breakfast"

    "I am going to have to get going getting breakfast"

    "Breakfast is being prepared before I can get to eat."

    "I got to make the cook get the eggs made before they start getting cold."

However we stretch and strain these constructions into abnormal strings of words, we still have a basic idea how to get the meaning out of them. But when EE Cummings wants a foreign note for his international immigrant tailor, he goes back and writes with the otherwise unusable Simplex:

"    These hands they work,
    I never no vacation take"

....and we immediately recognize the intended social ambiance with the Simplex "Present" used incorrectly. But that is the one they teach in schools in other countries when the students are supposed to be learning English. And even worse, we use it at home.

For English the term "Present Tense", which Grammarians have traditionally configured on the model of the Latin "Master Plan" for general language use, is simply unacceptable, and for a good reason. It is not only misleading if you are trying to learn English, but it is also confusing if you are working with your native English in tandem with another language, where the term "Present" has different kinds of formation, and widely different meanings.

The Imperfect

As soon as we mention the Imperfect Tense, we raise the question of what the words "perfect" and "imperfect" actually mean,. Here is what it meant to the Roman grammarian Donates:

Tempora verborum quot sunt? Tria. Quae? praesens, ut lego, praeteritum, ut legi, futurum, ut legam. Quot sunt tempora in declinatione verborum? Quinque. Quae? Praesens, ut lego, praeteritum inperfectum, ut legebam, praeteritum perfectum, ut legi, praeteritum plusquamperfectum, ut legeram, futurum, ut legam.

It is interesting that we call these past tenses the Imperfect, Perfect and Pluperfect, whereas Donatus names them more accurately with two titles, as "Past Imperfect". "Past Perfect" and "Past Pluperfect". As it turns out these are terms used by modern teachers of English Grammar for English, for entirely different English constructions, while the Latin teachers ignore Donatus' well conceived differentiation between Time and Aspect.

This brings up the matter of ASPECT, a term used to describe situations which involve time-based considerations:

    IMPERFECT: Continuative, non-terminating, and only secondarily "past"

    PERFECT: Completed, terminated, over and done with, and generally associated with the "past", with some notable exceptions.

Many languages use Aspect more than the time-sequencing of what we call the Tenses (tempora). In the Semitic family of languages, Aspect is primary and tense a largely secondary consideration. Ancient Greek maintained a separate "aorist" perceptive tense for sharply perfected actions, while the Greek "Perfect" is often more aligned with the Present than with the past tenses. Many modern languages in the Slavonic family use Aspect regularly as a critical function of their verb usage.

From Donatus' statement, it is clear that he does understand Aspect perfectly well, and since he doesn't mention perfectiveness, he treats the Present and Future as non-perfective by default. Note that he does not mention the Latin Future Perfect, which he seems not to recognize as a needed tense for Roman (school) use. Yet that Fut. Perf.. "Tense" has stayed with English grammars right into the last decades, for no other reason than by imitation of Latin Grammar as a model for the grammar of the English language.

The Latin Imperfect is a late formation in the history of the Latin evolution, made by adding a syllable "-ba-" to the stem of the Simplex, with a regular set of generic endings. Its form is straightforward, and one would think that its use would be equally direct, but there are variations, as in this examples:

    multos per annos errabant fatis acti "driven by fate, for many years they were wandering around".

    noctu ambulabat in publico Themistocles "Themistocles used to walk around in the street at nighttime". This is the "past continuative" use, = English "used to..."

    nihil habebam quod scriberem" There was nothing that I could have written......". He is writing "now" but is projecting into the time-frame of the receipt of the letter


    ipsum erat oppidum Alesia in colle summo, "There was (and still is) a town called Alesia on the top of a hill". The town was built there and is still standing there, a past to present Continuum, so more of a Present than Past notion..

In English, there is a whole different set of formations. The Compound Imperfect is the only one we have for durative past time. By combining past forms of the verb "be" with a participle in "-ing" which has no tense signification other than what the AUX-verb gives it, we get expressions like these. As a direct Imperfect:

"    "The house was burning" and may not have been burned up by the time this statement was made.

"    He was going " seems similar, but as soon as we reinterpret it as an AUX-verb, it changes meaning into "He was going to go" which is something quite different.

Combining the above with "be" and a past participle, we get something like an Imperfect Passive, as here: "The house was being burned up" is not very dissimilar to Latin "domus comburebatur". There don't seem to be serious problems of mis-alignment in this area.

The Future

The Latin Future is fairly stable in its operation, with just a few variant usages which I should mention briefly:

It can be used for a command, as "Haec igitur tibi erunt curae!...... Your responsibility to get this done". Or by projecting the present into a future action a Plautine actor can say: "Haec erit bono genere nata She will (turn out to be) of good family".. Then there are minor oddities, like "Amabo, hoc facias......... Please, do this thing..." which became a formula in the world of manners.

English however paints an entirely different picture. The traditional Future of the grammars with the verb "will" is only used in the reduced-abbreviated form of "-'ll" as in "I'll" :

    "I'll do it tomorrow....", a normal conversational usage.

    "I will do it..." without marked accentuation, turns out to be the reply to a second requisition to get something done

    "I WILL do it..." with emphasis can be either a petulant response to the third request, but it can also be a personal reminder to oneself through gritted teeth to absolutely get this darn thing done and off ones mind.

For normal conversational interchange, there is a reasonable choice between the casual "I'll...." and a more pointed and personal statement like "I'm going to....."

This second choice has two pathways to follow, using an actual Present with a clear Future intention:

    It can hold to the base meaning of the verb: "I'm going to town" with the reduced form "I'm going downtown", just as the Roman said "adimus Roman/ urbem/ Siciliam"without a connector word (Preposition).

    Or it can use the verb "go" as a specifically Future agent, as in: "I am going to bake bread now", projecting off from a "now" to the future baking enterprise.

    "I am going to go downtown now" brings in a new use of the verb "go" which becomes effectual a sign for the Future tense. This will come out as "I'm gonna..." in a more or less modified form, since complete separation of the words means either stuffiness or non-native use of the language.

This use of the verb "go" is quite remarkable, and very reasonable since the slippery matter of what and where the Future actually is, cannot be handled easily without some contrivancy. French uses the same periphrasis with a "go" verb, for "j'irai" when one says "je vais aller". A trace of this can be found in some of the rarer uses of Latin "ire/iri" for futuristic time.

Even Greek has a parallel construction, with "erchomai" 'I go" followed by a future participle, and this same future meaning. There is something about "going" which implies the future, whereas "come" will be used for things which emanate from the past, like "I've come to understand that..."

The old school arguments about when to use "will" and "shall" are pretty much obsolete by now, although in political speech making an markedly emphatic "will" does tend to bring in votes, while "shall" with its religious overtones in "We Shall overcome" etc., belongs more to the pulpit.

The Perfect

Perhaps we should clear away the stage for Latin first and get that out of the way. The Perfect is normally seen as a tense dealing with past time (praeteritum) with an Aspectually "perfect" overlay. We see this decisively used in Caesar's famous "veni vidi vici", and the alliteration of the phrase is double reinforced by the three Perfect Actions in a row. More examples are...:

Vicini.......perii, interii "Folks, I am dead, I am a goner " Not much question about the terminating perfectiveness of this statement. It is all over!

But a Perfect form can move out of the past into the present, as : "apud Helvetios longe nobilissimus fuit Orgetorix...... Among the Helvettii Orgetorix was by far the highest ranking royalty". We would have to translate this "fuit" as "he became,. he had become", since he is still alive and king of his people.

English has an entirely different approach to a past-time Tense of this sort. By using in active verbal situation the verb "have" as an auxiliary verb (an AUX-word), we have developed a formula which suits a great many past-referring situations:

    a) "I have walked many a weary mile", using the Simplex (Present?) of "have" with a past participle in -ed from a normal (weak) verb. Or in the same fashion, with a part participle from a "strong" verb: "I have spoken my piece". The verb type won't make a difference except in special cases.

    b) But how does this compare with the "perfective" non-AUX aided verb? "I spoke my piece" "I trod a weary way".

The difference is purely a matter of Aspect. The example b) is Perfective in terms of Aspect, it is a single action, completed and done with, and can be relegated to the time span of the Past without further ado.

On the other hand, the example a) states that something was done, but the action was not conclusively completed, to the extent that it may still be going on. ("I may still have many a weary mile to walk..". "Even though I have spoken my piece, I am here today to tell you that I spoke it, and that I am probably ready to speak some more if I get the chance."

This is the great difference between Continuative Statements (imperfective) and those which are Perfected or Finished (which the Greeks called aoristic).. The words seem more complicated than the situation at hand, but the problem is that we as English speakers are not really aware of this perfective/imperfective split of meanings, which we use only incidentally in our language.

The Pluperfect

The Latin Pluperfect or "plus quam perfectum" of course this does not refer to the term Perfect as we are using in aspect situations, but to a special Perfect as more "past" than the grammatical Perfect tense had been. So if "duxit" means "he led" (perfective theoretically), then duxerat means "he had led", which is the same notion but moved one stage back in the temporal framework.

This tense like every other one can have affinities with present time, if the context requires. If someone "has done something", that could mean that he had instituted the doing of that thing, and therefore it could still be in effect.

    mortuus erat Agis rex. filium reliquerat Leotychidem. "The King had died previously, he HAD left a son " That was in on stage back, but as the history proceeds it turns out that the son is alive on the current historical scene. Hence the situation is Present in a sense...

Generally this tense gives little problem for English speakers, since the expression "he had done....etc." has niches in English and Latin users' minds which seem fairly parallel. Just as the Latin perfect can be equated at times with the English Perfect and our continuative Compound-Perfect, so the Latin Pluperfect runs the same course with two clear possibilities, of being understood as a simple Pluperfect Perfective, or a Pluperfect Imperfective if the situation requires..


It is always important in any discussion or analysis to make sure the terms are adequately defined and described. In the case of the Latin and English Tenses, we have a double problem.

First the Latin terms and names have been applied without regard to linguistic functioning to all of the European languages, in a grammatical en masse. This did give a certain sense of uniformity to the study of the European languages, and was strongly enforced by the use of Latin as the common language of the continent before 1800. Whether the terms fit the customer was of no more concern those of Procrustes who designed the original bed of conformity.

But as times moved on, especially in the twentieth century which was getting restless under the yoke of Latin grammar, two avenues of approach appeared. After WW II a new school of Linguistics appeared, expanding from the pioneer work of Sapir and others earlier in the century, and developing into a wide swath of what we might call Modern Linguistics. But there was no one school, and no one vocabulary for the new research, so new sets of complex terminology evolved to represent the many new threads of linguistics research which were becoming ever more active.

At the same time the English teachers, who were uninterested in the New Linguistics and probably in large part unable to follow the complex threads of the new research, decided to invent their own "new Grammar". From the source came a set of terms which received widespread use, and for students of non-English languages spread another layer of confusion over the academic scene. For students interested in Latin this was doubly confusing, because the old-fashioned and traditional schoolbooks clung to the Latin nomenclature stemming back to Donatus and the Renaissance, while their English instruction was beckoning them into a still different way of describing the Tenses.

As an example of this exfoliations of English meanings from the five Latin Tenses (remember Donatus had dropped the Future Perfect as un-needed, possibly because all forms but the 1 sg. are the same as the Perfect Subjunctive!):

Now consider the task of trying to match up the column names on the left, associated very roughly with the meanings in English in the center column, and then connect the whole of the middle column with the actual Tenses as evidenced by actual Latin forms in their five classes. This would take more juggling than a reader concentrating on getting the meaning of sentences and paragraphs would be able to perform. How could all this not be obfuscating?

Simple Present 'I write'--Simple past 'I wrote'

Future 'I will write'

Present Progressive 'I am writing'

Past Progressive 'I was writing'

Perfect 'I have written'

Past Perfect or Pluperfect 'I had written'

Present Perfect Progressive 'I have been writing'

Past Perfect Progressive 'I had been writing'

There is nothing wrong with the English side of this above display, except that it is rudimentary and hardly begins to cover the verbal database which a competent modern Linguist assembles while working with the tenses and aspects of English grammar. Are the descriptive terms on the left really enlightening in their own right, as against the short Latin words on the right, overlapping in meaning as they may. Again I must point to George Lane's cogent note on interpretation of the verbal forms:

"The meanings of moods and tenses are best learned from reading. No satisfactory translation can be given in the paradigms, especially of the subjunctive, which requires a variety of translations for its various uses."


English speakers have an especially hard time working with the Latin Subjunctives, because this class has virtually disappeared from English. In the time of Beowulf English had a full set of these "Modal" verb forms, which we call the Moods, somewhat strangely. There are now only a few vestigial forms left, for example "If it were true, If I were you, if it be so...." and these are now considered stuffy or obsolete and not really used at all.

The Latin subjunctives fall into four classes, which correspond loosely in meaning to their Present, Imperfect, Perfect and Pluperfect Tenses. Meanings range from "may, might, would" to the regretful "would have" of the Pluperfect Subj. A Subjunctive can be used as a Wish or polite Imperative, but the real use of these carriers of Irrealis notion is in the elaborate system of sub-clauses, which form the basis of developed Augustan prose style.

We need not go into the complexities of the Subjunctive in use here, since these are treated in detail with pertinent examples in the Syntax section of this study. But the question remains: How does English express ideas which verge off from the beaten track of complete Factuality, into the mists of the possible, the potential, and the grammatically Irreal?

There are important differences in the way the Roman and English speaker approach this area. For the Latin language, there is a soft line of demarcation between Fact and Irreal, and it turns up regularly as a part of the Roman way of thinking. English speakers, especially of the American variety, tend to be more pragmatic and matter of fact, as suits the harder edge of Western thought and society. We are after all still a Manufacturing Society, by no means very far progressed into our ideal of becoming an Information Society. We must deal first with what IS, and only secondarily with what MIGHT BE in this business-governed world of ours. This separation of the Factual and the Irreal is a broad generalization, but one which will come up regularly as one reads into what the Romans authors wrote.

Answering the question of "How do we handle the Irreal?", we come to the complex yet essential chapter on the Modal Verbs.

The Modal Verbs of English

MODAL VERB is the name assigned to a set of English verbs which work in ancillary relationship to another verb, defining an area of meaning which is in many cases similar to that of the Latin Subjunctive. The matches may not be perfect or in some cases even approximate, but these are the English constructions which will be used to translate Latin clauses which employ the Subjunctive "Mood".

But what is this word "Mood", which in English has a handful of emotional meanings? I go back to my ancient source for a word of enlightenment:

Modi qui sunt? Indicativus, ut lego, imperativus, ut lege, optativus, ut utinam legerem, coniunctivus, ut cum legam, infinitivus, ut legere, inpersonalis, ut legitur.

It is interesting that Donatus uses the word "coniunctivus" which is regularly used in Latin to mean "associated, connected, related". This seems a better word than "Sub-iunctus", which is taken to refer to the written format that the roman Magister has the student copy the forms onto their paper or wax tablet ---- subjoined to the Indicatives. Many would prefer to say Conditional for Subjunctive, but that runs into conflict with the Romance conditionals, which stem from the Latin Future Perfect.

There is no harm using the word Subjunctive so long as we understand what its core actually means. It is what European Linguists call "the Irrealis", for which the simpler Irreal can serve in English very well. Here we have a clear-cut grammatical dichotomy between the FACTUAL and IRREAL, or in Donatus' terms, the Indicative and Conjunctive (alias Subjunctive).

Modal Verb / The Irreal in Latin

The English "Modal Verbs" are these:

may / might / would / should / can /could / will / would /ought (to) /(and the now rare) shall

This remarkable and unusual set of verbs is never inflected with that vestigial "-s" ending of the third person singular. They point to situations involving to some degree a sense of the Irreal, whether an imaginary situation in the future, or an imaginary situation to be warned or forfended.

They are usually described as working in tandem with a following Infinitive, with the "to" suppressed in all of them except "ought to...". This practice is often called "the short infinitive" but it seems simpler to assume that Modals are followed by a bare Simplex of the verb (as described above) and no actual Infinitive was involved.

We can see the one example "ought to" as a special case which is better realigned with the semi-modals "need..." and "dare..." which always use the "to" before the (infinitival) Simplex.

These are structurally so different from the neatly tagged Subjunctive "Irreal of Latin", that a person reading Latin will have to make some serious readjustment in translating or (more important) understanding the subtler meanings of the Latin verbs. We can line up some of the more obvious parallels like this:


may							 Present Subj.		
might should (not gerundival)	Imperfect
Subj.would might have			Perfect Subj.
could have (but didn't)			Pluperfect Subj.

Now these are clearly not perfect matches, and a great deal will depend on the way both the English and also the Latin words stand in their contexts.

One serious problem with the Latin is that there are only four Subjunctival "quasi-Tenses", although there are dozens of special uses in subordinate clauses, those features of Latin stylistics which the literary Romans were so inordinately fond of. More of this is discussed in detail under the Syntax part of this treatise, with examples to demonstrate the wide range of effects which the Irreal can produce.

But we are speaking here of Latin from the English point of view here, and there will always be a temptation to disregard the use of the Subjunctive in the Latin, and make a quick and unthinking parallel to one of the English Modals. Of course this means taking apart and totally re-configuring the Latin, since a single syllabic portion of a word (the Subjunctive formant) will be represented in English by a modally introduced expandable clause.

Beside and in a sense beyond the above "Modal List", English has special combinatory modal statements, which make possible a wide range of commonly used expressions. Those which operate with the verbs "get - make - be" are not only much used and easily understandable, but they can be further extended as need arises.

Note examples like "get going" with the present participle of an action set in operation, beside "get lost" a passive formation with past participle. Then there is "got to go..." with an infinitive in various meanings. A sentence like "The car must have been really traveling to have been getting smashed up like this..." may not be ideal term-paper prose, but it gets its meaning across, and shows how some of these Modalities can be piled up atop each other, and yet be readable.

English has its own ways of being grammatically subtle, quite different from the operational technique of the Subjunctive on an inflected Language. The Latin subjunctive is a world away from all this! The remedy for many readers of Latin in ignoring the Subjunctive as purely "grammatical" or even peripheral, is to insist firmly on seeing it as an idea devoted to the "Irreal ".

And this is one of the best reasons for NOT translating Latin as you are reading it. Yet we still live in a day when many teachers insist that they don't know if the student understands the Latin unless it is translated out. Reading without translating will seem to many a new kind of irrational heresy. This is peculiar to the conservative and traditionalist Classics. Ask any teacher of a modern language about reading direct without even thinking of translating, and you will get a clear message. "One does Not translate!".

The use of the Irreal is essential to Latin thought, and should elicit in some almost subliminal way a shrug of the mind, a cautionary turn of the eyes, a slight hesitation as if something were being placed into a special set of brackets. Hearing people who have learned hand signing often say that they have two modes of thinking, with sound-words and also with signs, and the signing can be a subtle accompaniment to the spoken word. We all have some use of body language and especially the use of hand gestures, when we speak. Language is not all cut-and-dried acoustics, or black-and-white on the page.

One of the useful, in this case necessary, accompaniments to reading a foreign language, is finding a way to register the things which are not even thought of, in your native speech. The Latin use of the Subjunctives demands some such treatment, and this will be easier if you finally admit that word-to-word matches are often impossible, while the grammatical structures which cement together words into sentences, are put together in different languages with a different kind of mortar.

Special Latin Constructions

This is not the place to go into some of the other Special Constructions used in Latin which have no counterpart in a native English speaker's thought processes. There are many additional stumbling blocks which make reading Latin a difficult process. But there is a rationale to the linguistics differences between two languages, which are not the grammatical tricks or instruments of mental torture which schoolchildren throughout the ages have imagined. The human mind seeks conformity and always resists change, a homeostatic law in psychology as well as physics.

The following matters are treated in full detail in the Syntax Chapters, but I should mention them here as preface and reminder:

The Ablative Absolute is a special kind of encapsulated and limb-trimmed subclause, which states something that goes along with the main flow of what is being said. It requires special handling, and must not be jerked into English rephrasing, any more than you can make a foot do the work of a hand. The Ablative Absolute does the work it was intended to do, quite exactly.
The Roman is acutely aware, as lawyers always are, of Hearsay being different from a notarized statement, and the formula which we rather periphrastic ally call "Indirect Discourse" deals with this problem effectively. Statements which follow from other statements are marked in Latin as "unreliable" by stripping from the verb all endings, and from the noun the distinction between Subject and Object. This should be understood as a clever and intentional device, and it must be respected in the reading of the Latin.

Latin never learned from the Greeks how to construct complex and involved trains of thought with the use of a full handful of participial phrases. Latin wasn't originally set up that way and the mimetic Romans did have the sense to refrain in this formidable area..

But they did develop a conscious and highly consistent system of Sub-Clauses which were used in establish a hierarchical structure of meanings scaled relative importance, as a long sentence unrolled its full import. Americans who like short phraseology, especially in textbooks and in the hard-headed business world, have little patience or ability with sub-clauses. Cicero's lengthy sentences seem boring and intolerably long-winded, and they were long indeed. But within the folds of the clauses, there is a logical procession of ideas in a carefully pre-planned arrangement. This represents a very different approach to the listing and cataloging of ideas from the way we do it..

However in our developing computer "languages" we have found the establishment of hierarchical levels to be of critical importance. Structures which involve "if" and "else" must be located in the right places Arguments can be nested within arguments and still within other arguments, and these things only will work if the planning and nesting are done fastidiously.

The long Latin sentences with its nested sub-clauses is a fine example of this process, the importance of which can be seen in the Roman's supreme sense of the organization of Empire and of the Law. For us the test case is in the new world of Global Computing, but a great deal will depend on the way we use our daily English, because this is the training ground and the testing area for the development of coherent thinking, and the expression of thought in a web or words.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College