Verb grammatical categories: Person and number

June 16th, 20122:25 am


Verb grammatical categories: Person and number

Number and person distinctions are found in verbs in many languages. This was the case in Old English where the verb was characterized by a devel­oped paradigm. In Modern English, verb forms have lost the vast majority of formal markers. As a result, the range of the two categories is very limited.

The categories of person and number are closely connected with each other. Their immediate connection is conditioned by the two factors: firstly, by their situational meaning, referring the process denoted by the verb to the subject in the situation; secondly, by their direct and immediate rela­tion to the syntactic unit expressing the subject as the functional part of the sentence. Both categories are different in principle from the other categories of the finite verb, in so far as they do not convey any inherently “verbal” semantics.

The expression of the category of person is essentially confined to the singular form of the verb in the present tense of the Indicative Mood and, in addition, it is very singularly presented in the future tense. As for the past tense, the person is alien to it except for a trace of person distinction in the archaic conjugation.

In the present tense the expression of the category of person is divided into three peculiar subsystems:

1. The first subsystem includes the modal verbs that have no personal inflec­tions: can, may, must, shall, will, ought, need, dare. So, in the formal sense, the category of person is wholly neutralized with these verbs.

2. The second subsystem is made up by the unique verbal lexeme be: the verb be has three different suppletive personal forms (am for the first person singular, is for the third person singular, and are for plural forms).

3. The third subsystem presents just the regular, normal expression of person. The mark is confined here to the third person singular -(e)s, the other two per­sons (the first and the second) remaining unmarked, e.g. comes come, etc.

In the future tense, the person finds quite another mode of expression. It marks not the third, but the first person in distinction to the remaining two and it also includes in its sphere the plural. The very principle of the person featuring is not in morphemic inflection (as it is the case with the present), but in the positional use of shall will specifically marking the first person.

Passing on to the expression of grammatical number by the English finite verb, we are faced with the interesting fact that it is hardly featured at all from the formally morphemic point of view. The more or less dis­tinct morphemic featuring of the category of number can be seen only with the archaic forms of the unique be, both in the present tense and in the past tense. As for the rest of the verbs, the blending of the morphemic expression of the categories of person and number is complete, for the only explicit morphemic opposition in the integral categorical sphere of person and number is reduced with these verbs to the third person singular (the present tense of the Indicative Mood) being contrasted against the unmarked finite form of the verb.

As soon as we take into consideration the functional side of the ana­lysed forms, we discover at once that these forms exist in unity with the person-numerical forms of the subject. This unity is of such a nature that the universal and true indicator of person and number of the subject of the verb will be the subject itself. The combination of the English finite verb with the subject is obligatory not only in the general syntactic sense, but also in the categorical sense of expressing the subject-person of the process.

An objection to this thesis can be made on the ground that in the text the actual occurrence of the subject with the finite verb is not always observed. Moreover, the absence of the subject in living colloquial English is, in gen­eral, not an unusual feature (e-mails and text messages may be taken as examples of omission of the first person pronoun: sent u e-mail but had no answer so far; leave tomorrow, can see u today? etc.). However, these ex­amples cannot be taken for a disproof of the obligatory connection between the verb and its subject, because the corresponding subject-nouns, possibly together with some other accompanying words, are zeroed on certain syntactico-stylistic principles (namely, brevity of expression in familiar style, concentration on the main informative parts of the communication, indi­vidual speech habits, etc.).

The bulk of the subject-verb relation cases have been treated by tradi­tional grammar in terms of agreement in sense”, or notional concord”. We refer to the grammatical agreement of the verb not with the categorical form of the subject expressed morphemically, but with the actual person-numerical interpretation of the denoted referent. Here belong combinations of the finite verb with collective nouns (government, audience, jury). With collective nouns, the use of a verb in plural or in singular depends on the speaker’s intention either to reflect the plural composition of the subject, or, on the contrary, to render its integral single-unit quality.

The concept of notional concord is also relevant of predicative construc­tions whose subject is made imperatively plural by a numeral attribute. Still, the corresponding verbal form is used to treat it both ways: either as an ordi­nary plural which fulfills its function in immediate keeping with its factual plural referent, or as an integrating name, whose plural grammatical form and constituent composition give only a measure to the subject-matter of denotation (cf. Three years have elapsed since they met. Three years is. a long time to wait).

It should be added that under the notional concord heading come con­structions whose subject is expressed by a coordinative group of nouns, the verb being given an option of treating it either as a plural or as a singular, e.g. My heart and soul belongs to this place. My emotional self and ra­tional self were at variance.

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