Sunday, December 4, 2011

Exploring grammar - verb types

A recent discussion at GrammarGirl (link below) about the active voice talked a lot about unaccusative verbs and semantic patients in its explanation. I'm not convinced of the wisdom of using these specialist linguistic terms on a website read by a general audience of native speakers and learners. I have a slight suspicion that more than a few will have been more confused at the end than they were at the beginning.
But in the interests of understanding, I've tried to put these terms into some sort of scheme, while at the same time looking at different terms used for types of verbs, both by linguists and by more general grammar books. I hope this will be interesting, but I'm not suggesting that there is any need for the general reader or learner to learn these specialist terms.
Disclaimer - Please don't take this as any kind of gospel. As usual, I make no claims to be either a grammarian or a linguist. This is simply my way of trying to work it all out. Any linguists who might happen to stumble on this are welcome to let me know if I've gone wrong.
We'll be looking briefly at the following:
  • Main (lexical) verbs and auxiliary (helping) verbs
  • Transitive, intransitive verbs and linking verbs
  • Subjects and objects, agents and targets (patients)
  • Ambitransitive and ergative verbs
  • Unaccusative verbs and unergative verbs
  • Empty verbs and inchoative verbs
  • Dynamic and stative verbs
  • Finite and non finite verbs forms

1. Basic verb patterns

You already know about transitive and intransitive verbs, linking verbs and auxiliaries, but here's just a quick reminder:

1a - Main verbs, aka lexical verbs

  • Transitive verbs - these take at least one object, the direct object. Sometimes they take a second object, either an indirect object or an object complement. See 7.
    • Peter loves Jane
    • David got a new bike for his birthday
    • Amanda has read three books this week
    • The sun has melted all the snow
    • Would you like to taste this soup?
  • Intransitive verbs - don't take an object
    • He has resigned from his job
    • He fell and broke his leg
    • Don't interrupt Amanda. She is reading
    • The snow has completely melted in the hot sun
  • Linking verbs - take a subject complement
    • She is a doctor
    • She became a doctor when she finished her studies
    • He seems older than I remember
    • This soup tastes delicious
    • It's getting a bit cold

1b - Auxiliary verbs, aka helping verbs

  • Primary auxiliaries - do, be, have - used with main verbs to construct tenses
    • He doesn't smoke
    • She is coming now
    • Have you eaten?
  • Modal auxiliaries - can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, ought to - used with main verbs to show modality
    • He can't drive
    • She might be late
    • You ought to book later
  • Semi-modals - need, dare - can be used like ordinary verbs with a primary auxiliary, or like a modal
    • He doesn't need to come.
    • He needn't come.
    • She doesn't dare ask him.
    • She daren't ask him. (British English)
In this post I'll be mainly talking about transitive and intransitive verbs, and verbs which can be both. I'll say just a little bit about linking verbs, as I've already dealt with them in some detail here.
I won't be saying anything more about auxiliaries here, as this post is concerned only with main verbs. Neither will I be discussing phrasal verbs, which I've discussed elsewhere.

2. Verbs can follow more than one pattern

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I have used some verbs more than once:

Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive

  • Amanda has read three books this week
  • Don't interrupt Amanda. She is reading
  • The sun has melted all the snow
  • The snow has completely melted in the hot sun

Some verbs can be both transitive and linking

  • Would you like to taste this soup?
  • This soup tastes delicious
  • David got a new bike for his birthday
  • It's getting a bit cold
I've already written about linking verbs in another post, so I won't say any more about them here. Verbs which can be both transitive and intransitive are known as ambitransitive verbs, and I'll be saying a little more about them in a minute.

3. Subjects and objects, agents and targets (patients)

You are of course familiar with subjects and objects, and you will have heard a bit about agents when talking about the passive; but you probably haven't come across the idea of targets or patients before.

3a Agents and targets with transitive verbs

Look at this sentence:
  • Mark read the book from cover to cover
Mark, the subject, is the doer, he does the reading. The doer is known as the the agent (in red), So here the subject and the doer are the same.
The object of his reading, the book, is sometimes called the target (in green), or (especially by linguists) the patient, or undergoer. I'll stick with target, as I think it's easier to understand. Here the object and the target are the same thing.
But look what happens when we turn it into a passive:
  • The book has been read by millions of people
  • The book has been read all over the world
The subject is now the target, and the agent may follow the passive verb, linked to it with by, or more commonly, not be mentioned at all.
In linguistics things get a little more complicated. Linguists call agent and patient (target) semantic roles, but they don't think that these two cover all possibilities, so they have a couple of other semantic roles as well. But I think these two are enough for our purposes.

3b Agents and targets with intransitive verbs

Look at these four sentences from the opening section
  • Mike has resigned from his job
  • Don't interrupt Amanda. She is reading
  • Pete fell and broke his leg
  • The snow has completely melted in the hot sun
While Mike and Amanda have obviously chosen to do what they do, Pete and the snow had no choice in the matter. So Mike and She (Amanda) are seen by linguists as agents, but Pete and the snow are seen as targets. When this happens the verbs are known by linguists as unaccusative verbs
From now on I'll colour-code subjects and objects according to whether they are agents or targets

4. Unaccusative verbs

As we have just seen, unaccusative verbs are intransitive verbs where the subject has no choice in the matter, has no volition. The most commonly quoted examples are die, fall and suffer ; and the intransitive forms of ergative verbs such as melt and break. We'll be looking at ergative verbs in a minute.
  • He died at a young age
  • She fell from the horse
  • He is suffering from a severe hangover
  • My ice-cream has melted all over my clothes
  • The window broke in the storm
  • The vase fell and broke.

Unaccusative verbs cannot be passive

Unaccusative verbs, being intransitive, cannot of course be passive. However, because of their apparent passivity, their lack of action, they are sometimes mistakenly identified as grammatically passive. They are not. But as we'll see in the next section, ergative verbs like break also have a transitive form which can be used in the passive form - The window was / got broken in the storm

5. Ambitransitive verbs

Ambitransitive verbs are verbs which can be used both transitively and intransitively. They fall into two types. Let's look at those sentences again:
  • Amanda has read three books this week
  • Don't interrupt Amanda. She is reading
  • The sun has melted all the snow
  • The snow has completely melted in the hot sun

5a. Ergative verbs

If you look at the second pair, with the verb melt, you will notice that the object of the transitive verb in the first sentence, snow, has become the subject of the intransitive verb in the second sentence. There are quite a few verbs that can be used this way, and they are known as ergative verbs. I've already written a post on ergative verbs, so I'll just give a few examples here.
  • Little Jimmy broke the window - transitive
  • The window broke when little Jimmy threw a stone at it - unaccusative
  • The publishers have sold 10,000 copies of her new book - transitive
  • Her new book is selling really well - unaccusative
  • The pilot landed the damaged plane and taxied it over to the terminal - transitive
  • The damaged plane landed safely and taxied over to the terminal - unaccusative

5b. Unergative verbs

We can't do this with other ambitransitive verbs like read, understand, eat, follow, win. When used intransitively, these are known by linguists as unergative verbs
  • He understood her very well - transitive
  • That's fine then; I completely understand - unergative
  • What are you eating? - transitive
  • Leave Sally alone; she's eating - unergative
  • We'll follow you later - transitive
  • You go now and we'll follow later - unergative
  • We're winning this match easily - transitive
  • Hooray! We've won again - unergative

5c. Passive with ambitransitive verbs

Remember that we can only make passive constructions with transitive verbs. We can make passives from the transitive forms of both types of ambitransitive verbs:
  • Amanda has read three books this week
  • His book has been read by people all over the world
  • The sun has melted all the snow
  • The snow has been completely melted by the hot sun

6. Intransitive verbs

To recap a little, intransitive verbs are divided by linguists into two types: unergative and unaccustive. These terms are really only used in linguistics, and there is absolutely no need for EFL students to learn them. I put them in for reference (and interest's sake) only:
  • Unergative
    • She ran to the window
    • We talked all night
  • Unaccusative
    • He fell down the stairs
    • A bee dies when it uses its sting

Intransitive verbs cannot be passive

Remember that intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive. But some intransitive verbs have transitive forms or similar looking transitive forms, which can be used in the passive:
  • The race was run in record time
  • Several trees were felled in the storm

7. Transitive verbs

Transitive verbs can work in several ways:
  • Standard transitive - takes a direct object
    • I 've made a bit of a mess
    • He kissed her tenderly on the cheek.
  • Ditransitive - the verb takes a direct object and an indirect object (in orange)
    • He made her a cup of coffee
    • She gave him the book
  • Factitive - the verb takes two objects, the first being the direct object and the second being the complement (in blue) of the first, and known as the object complement
    • They made him head boy of the school
    • She called her son Mike
  • Causative - the verb takes an object plus another verb phrase in the infinitive (in navy)
    • He made me do it
    • She told me to do it
    • We can also have passive-like causative constructions:
    • He is having his hair cut tomorrow
    • They are getting their new TV delivered tomorrow
Notice that some verbs can be used in more than one way: make, for example, can be used in several different ways
I've written a post on causative verbs, which you can find here.

Transitive verbs and the passive

Where it makes sense, transitive verbs can of course be used in the passive:
  • A lot of smartphones are made in China
  • She had never been kissed like that before
  • The prize was given by a local store
  • The doing word is called a verb
  • He has been told not to do that I don't know how many times

8. Empty verbs

We often use common verbs like do, give, have, make or take with nouns instead of using an action verb to talk about everyday actions
  • do
    • I'll go and do the shopping
    • I'll do the cleaning while you're out
  • give
    • Give me a call / ring today
    • Come and give me a hug
  • have
    • We'll have breakfast at eight
    • She's having a bath
  • make
    • I'm afraid I've made a mistake
    • I'm glad we had that little chat
  • take
    • We'll take a break now
    • Let's take a look at that shop over there
We could often use a verb instead:
  • We shopped till we dropped
  • He's cleaning the bathroom
  • She hugged the child
  • We chatted all night
In American English take is often used where in British English we use have.
  • Have a bath (UK) - Take a bath (US)
I'll probably do a post on these sometime, but meanwhile there's a link to an exercise below.

9. Inchoative verbs

Inchoative verbs describe a change of state
  • The snow melted
  • The apples have ripened
  • This wine ages well
  • My socks have shrunk
  • This milk has turned sour
  • The sky darkened
They can often also be ergative verbs, and some are linking verbs. See the links for a comprehensive list (PDF).

10. Stative and dynamic verbs

Dynamic verbs - also called action verbs, they indicate an action, process or sensation
  • She walked up the path
  • She's having a bath
  • I've been thinking about that plan of yours
  • She hasn't been feeling well lately
Stative verbs - describe a state, situation or condition
  • She lives in an enormous house
  • She has a large bathroom in her house
  • I think that plan of yours is rather good
  • It appears to be rather a good plan
Note that some verbs can be used as both dynamic and stative verbs
Remember that stative verbs are not normally used in continuous (progressive) tenses.

11. Finite and non-finite verb forms

Finite verb forms

Look at this definition of finite verb from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:
a finite verb form or clause shows a particular tense, person and number.
  • He walked into the room. - past simple, 3rd person singular
  • I've bought a new car. - present perfect, 1st person singular
  • Are you two getting married next year? - present contimnuous, 2nd person plural

Non-finite verb forms (aka verbals)

Non-finite verb forms are are those forms of the verb that do not have a tense, person, or number. There are three types:
  • Infinitives
  • Gerunds
  • Participles
You can read about participles and participle clauses here, and gerund and gerund phrases here.
Now go and read the post on the active voice at GrammarGirl




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