Grammar: At The Beginning Was The Verb. At The end Too.

What Are Verbs For Anyway?

No verb, no sentence? A bit of a push, but still. The proof? Well, this entire line.

But no verb, no action. A static world. No jumping, smiling, rushing, driving, working, eating. Just you, on this sofa, no movement. A photograph. Bye bye.

So yes, you can find sentence without verbs. But these sentences were either written by very talented authors, or were very poorly written. We need verbs to explain our actions and to describe the world around us. That’s how we identify verbs in sentences: ‘say, describe, look like, need’…

Is that it? A verb is so important and yet only one word is enough to say it all? No, indeed it isn’t enough. Even better: even though different languages will have different ways to express the nuances of our actions, several words will be needed.

So… A Verb is Many Words?

Indeed, verbs are not on their own. They are too important for that. Instead, they are the heart of the Verb System. ‘Verb System’ is the grammar expression for ‘Everything you want to say about what’s going on’.

But what is going on? What are these precisions I talk about? What information can you possibly add?

The main four are the tense, the aspect, the mode and the voice.

The tense of a verb tells us when the action occurred. Conceptually, there are three tenses: the present, the past and the future. This being said, each languages developed its own way to place actions on the arrow of time, so you may end up having to learn more than 3. But still, as long as you are able to create the difference between ‘I eat the pasta’ (now, present), ‘I ate pasta’ (e.g. last night, past) and ‘I will eat pasta’ (e.g. tomorrow evening, future), you will likely be understood.

The aspect of a verb tells us about the duration or the status of the action. It allows to distinguish between actions that are finished and those that are still on-going. For example, they give the difference between ‘he has looked for his keys in this drawer’ (but we don’t know if he found them there, and we don’t know if he finished searching for his keys) and ‘he is looking for his keys’ (right now).

Aspect helps us building relationships between all our actions on the arrow of time. Thanks to the aspect of the verb, our narration has a continuity, just like our lives flow from one moment to the next. Granted, it doesn’t make it any easier to learn if your language doesn’t refer to aspect explicitly.

Modality gives the degree of (un-)certainty, obligation or permission. Like me and you, verbs can have moods. Not good or bad, but indicative (certainty), subjunctive (uncertainty), imperative (order), conditional… Moods are expressed through the conjugation of the verb (we’ll come back to that) or with the use of modal verbs. In English they are the well know ‘may, might, can, could, will, would, should, shall’.

Finally, the voice reflects the decision to emphasize whether the action is performed by the subject or on it. They are usually called ‘active’ and ‘passive’ voices, referring to the level of active involvement of the subject. Nothing better than a stupid example to get a better idea, so here it is: ‘I peeled the banana’ is the active voice (the subject ‘I’ is also the active one), whereas ‘The banana is peeled by me’ is the passive equivalent (the banana is the grammatical subject of the sentence, but it doesn’t ‘do’ anything).

Did We Say That Verbs Are Important?

Verbs are the beating heart of a sentence, they bring life to the page and light up your imagination. They are able to do so thanks to the multiple and fluid ways we can use them. The verb system may be a little difficult to approach, but once you understand the variations above, you are already half-way through your learning, because they will be relevant in almost any language you will learn.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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