Verb: Morphological, combinatorial and semantic classifications

June 15th, 201212:25 pm


Verb: Morphological, combinatorial and semantic classifications

All English verbs are divided into two groups on the basis of their mor­phological peculiarities, i.e. on the basis of the forms of the Participle II and past tenses.

The most numerous group within this division is that of regular verbs: regular verbs form their main forms by means of adding a dental ending to their stems. The ending has three phonetic variants that depend on the final sound of a verb stem:

/d/ At after a voiced consonant or a vowel (e.g. saved, followed)

/t/ after a dental consonant (e.g. looked, stopped)

/Id/ after a dental consonant (e.g. loaded, spotted).

In writing the ending is delivered by the only form -ed. The ending -ed is a productive pattern, so verbs borrowed or coined in the Middle English pe­riod or later belong to the group of regular verbs almost without exceptions.

The second group is formed by irregular verbs. It may be further di­vided into smaller subclasses. The first subclass contains the verbs that dis­play ablaut, i.e. root vowel interchange, in their past forms (swim swam swum, sing sang sung, shrink shrank shrunk).

A separate group of irregular verbs is formed by verbs that remain un­changed throughout the paradigm: to put, to let, to hit, to cost, to cut.

In a so-called “mixed” subgroup of irregular verbs, the vowel inter­change is combined with the dental suffix: to keep kept kept, to weep wept wept, to sweep swept swept.

The fourth subgroup is formed by the only verb to be that is character­ized by suppletive forms in past tenses: to be was/were been.

Irregular verbs are formed with unproductive patterns. However, their forms are quite settled. Though some irregular verbs have acquired paral­lel regular forms, these forms may hardly be called grammatical doublets, since, as a rule, regular and irregular forms of a verb differ semantically (to speed sped sped, to speed speeded speeded; to learn learnt learnt, to learn learned — learned).

Verbs may be classified on the ground of their combinatorial characteris­tics. In Modern English, however, the notions transitivity and intransitivity have lost their relevance, since traditionally transitive verbs are defined as those followed by an object in the accusative case. As the English noun paradigm does not have the accusative case, the notion of transitivity has acquired a different meaning. Modern grammar interprets intransitive verbs as verbs followed by a prepositional object, whereas transitive verbs are followed by non-prepositional objects. However, this characteristic cannot be interpreted as important property of a part of speech, since adjectives are also capable of having non-prepositional objects (cf. to be worth the effort). Consequently, in modern English the notions “transitivity” and “intransitivity” have turned into combinatorial features of the verb. Some linguists be­lieve that this feature should be interpreted not so much as a combinatorial feature but as a lexico-semantic characteristic of the verb. In doing this, the scholars interpret the dichotomy “transitivity – intransitivity” as a lexical rather than grammatical notion.

Besides the groups mentioned above, verbs may also be divided into terminative and non-terminative. Terminative verbs contain in their mean­ing some indication of a completed action. Moreover, the state that will oc­cur after the action is completed is quite predictable. For example, the result that follows the completion of the action denoted by to catch, is that some­thing will be caught, there is no other result. Analogous are the verbs to fall, to die, to find, to arrive, to destroy, to overthrow, to bend, to subdue, etc.

Non-terminative verbs are those expressing an action as an endless proc­ess whose next stage is unpredictable. For example, to sit can be terminated by any other state, or to be, to exist, to know, to believe.

There are, however, verbs of dual nature. In different contexts they may denote either a terminative action or a non-terminative one. Here the inter­pretation depends mainly on the tense and the aspect of the verb.

Another semantic classification in modern linguistics is based on the ability of a verb to have a certain number of dependent sentence parts (sub­jects, objects). Clearly, the number of possible “places” depends on seman­tic characteristics of a verb. Thus, the verbs to rain, to snow are one-place predicates, since only one position (that of a subject) is possible in the sentences It rains, It snowed; to be is a two-place predicate, since it may have only two related elements (Jack is an actor); the verbs to give, to of­fer, to present describe actions of giving and presuppose three participants (James gave a book to Lesley), i.e. these verbs are three-place predicates. One may notice that the “valency” of a verb correlates with syntactic and morphological characteristics, in that one-place predicates are the nucleus of impersonal sentences, two-place predicates are intransitive, and three-place predicates belong to transitive ones.

This classification is grounded not only on the number of participants required for an action but also on the semantic relations that exist between a certain verb and a required participant. These relations are called “roles”, or semantic (“deep”) cases, discussed above.

The semantic approach to classification of verbs, based on participants to an action and their roles, makes it possible to distinguish so-called verbs-conversives. Conversives are defined as verbs describing the same situation from different angles. For example, the verbs to sell and to buy denote an action of “getting/giving something for money” involving both a buyer and a seller. The situation is the same for both but the role distribution is differ­ent. The verb to sell requires a seller as an agent, whereas the verb to buy correlates with a buyer as an agent.

Conversives enable speakers to construct sentences with different func­tional perspectives. In other words, conversives enable the speaker to posi­tion first either an agent or a recipient taking into account which of them represents the theme and the rheme of a sentence.

Semantic approach to verb classification also permits to distinguish one more specific group that used to escape notice. John Austin, an American philosopher, paid attention to a number of verbs that in certain syntactic conditions are quite peculiar: instead of conveying some information on an action, they are equal to actions, i.e. by naming an action, they are the action themselves (e.g. I promise, I swear, I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth, I bequeath my watch to my son, I declare you husband and wife).

There are certain so-called ‘felicitous conditions’ necessary for the per­formative verbs to perform actions. The verbs should be used in the present form of the first person singular by an authority, empowered to perform the action (for example, only a priest (or, on some special occasions, a captain of a ship, or an ambassador) has the right to marry a couple, otherwise the marriage is not legitimate).

Many modern Western linguists divide verbs into stative and active. The main peculiarity of active verbs is their use in the progressive tense: they are speaking, she is painting. Stative verbs, such as to know, to under­stand, to see, cannot be used in the progressive tense.

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