The verbal area



AUXILIARY VERBS In present-day English the only auxiliary is have. But formerly English had be in this function with verbs expressing motion or change of state, much as does German to this day, e.g. He is come for He has come; She is turned back for She has turned back.

THE SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD Semantically the subjunctive is used to refer to a situation which is uncertain, unreal or conjectural. From the early modern period onwards there was no inflection for the subjunctive so that it is recognisable by a simple verb form without -s (in the third person singular). The verb be has a special form were which is still used in if-clauses in modern English: If it were necessary we would go.

UNSTRESSED ‘DO’ WITH LEXICAL VERBS One of the major changes of the later 16th and the 17th centuries concerns the disappeareance of unstressed do with full verbs in declarative sentences of the type I do like poetry (non-emphatic). This use has been retained for negative, interrogative and emphatic sentences but otherwise it has been lost. There are many views about the mechanics of the change. In general there is agreement that the unstressed do was afunctional and dropped out because of its superfluousness. It was retained longest in the west and south-west of England as is evidenced by writers like Shakespeare.
In many forms of English, particularly overseas, the unstressed do was re-functionalised, usually to express habitual aspect. In varieties as diverse as Irish English and Black English sentences like I do be working all the night have an habitual connotation.

DOUBLE NEGATION The use of two negators was common to heighten the negation. However with prescriptive notions in the 17th and 18th centuries this came to be frowned upon. The application of an inappropriate form of logic allowed only one negator because two were regarded as neutralising the negation, i.e. they represented a positive statement (He doesn't know nobody = He knows somebody). The same type of reasoning was used in German and led to the proscription of double negation here as well. However, many dialectal forms of English allow two or more negators, all of which serve to strengthen the negation, as in He don't take no money from nobody.

USE OF THE PERFECT AND THE PROGRESSIVE Throughout the entire early modern period up to the present-day the use of both the perfect tense (with have as auxiliary) and the progressive with the suffix -ing in the present became increasingly more common. For instance the simple past could be used with questions where nowadays only the perfect is permissible, e.g. Told you him the story? for Have you told him the story?
The perfect in declarative sentences gained more and more what is termed ‘relevance’ to the present, i.e. it signals an action or state which began in the past and either still continues or is still relevant to the present. I have been to Hamburg (recently) but I was in China (years ago as a child).

The progressive is used to express a continuing action. This essential durative character has meant that it is not used with verbs which express a state, hence *I am knowing is ungrammatical.

PHRASAL VERBS One of the consequences of the demise of inflections in English is that the system of verb prefixes also declined. There are only a handful left today, such as for- in forget, forbear; with- in withstand, withdraw; be- in beget. But in the course of the early modern period, English developed a system whereby semantic distinctions and extensions are expressed by the use of prepositions after the verb, often more than one. There may be even verbs which take more than one preposition in such cases. These verbs are termed collectively phrasal verbs. Note that these phrasal verbs frequently correspond to prefixed verbs in German, the number of these in modern English is very limited and prefixation is by no means productive.

put s.o. up

‘to offer accomodation’

put up with

‘to tolerate’

put off

‘to postpone’

put s.o. off

‘to dissuade’

put over

‘to convey’

put on

‘to pretend’

put down

‘to kill an animal’

put through

‘to connect’

put out

‘to inconvenience’

put in

‘to apply for’

USE OF PREPOSITIONS AS FULL VERBS This is in keeping with the typological profile of English which functionalised prepositions to indicate sentence relationships.

to up the prices to down a few beers

BACK FORMATION This is a process whereby a verb is derived from a noun, the reverse of the normal situation in English. The reason is nearly always because the noun appeared first in the language, usually through borrowing.

Verb Source noun
to opt option
to edit editor
to enthuse enthusiasm
to peddle peddlar

CONTRACTED FORMS IN THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH Spoken English has always shown contracted forms of auxiliary verbs with particles indicating negation or with pronouns found in verb phrases. In the Old English period these forms were written in the standard koiné, e.g. nis ‘not is’ nolde ‘not wanted’.

In Modern English there is a precarious balance between contracted and full forms which is maintained by the force of the standard, particularly in the orthography. Hence one has forms like won't, can't, don't but also the full forms will not, can not, do not, used above all in writing. Indeed in colloquial registers there can be even greater reduction as with I dunno [dʌnou] for ‘I do not know’. The restraining influence of the standard has meant, however, that such forms have not ousted the longer forms in the orthography.