01 August 2008

Grammar: Verbs

Remember Schoolhouse Rock Verbs? (You can see the video here --) Verbs: action words. Easy, right?

Those pesky grammar terms get really muddled when you start talking about verbs. This is where the word 'pluperfect' pops up, and 'preterite' and all those other latin terms. -- and at this point we should be happy we're not studying Latin, which multiples these to the extreme!

Verbs are inflected for four different attributes - person, number, mood, and tense. Person and number are easy - how many things/people are going the action, and am I talking about myself, about you, about those people over there, etc. In English, we do have some changes here - I run and you run, but he runs. Most verbs (all?) do not change for number. Irish does have a distinction between one person and more than one person for verbs, as well as different forms of the verbs for whether I am talking about myself, about you, about her, about them.

It's the 'moods' and 'tenses' that start to freak me out. (Well, not quite yet, I only really know how to tak in the present tense - 'I am a manager', 'She is eating rice' -- but it's coming, I can feel it hanging ominous just over the horizon.). What I've discovered is that it's impossible to really understand how this all works in a foreign language if you don't really understand it in English.

And it's quite likely that you don't -- teaching grammer terms seems to have disappeared from English classes (at least, it did from mine!). In English, it's actually a tidy system.

Simple Progressive Perfect Perfect progressive
Future I will write I will be writing I will have written I will have been writing
Present I write I am writing I have written I have been writing
Past I wrote I was writing I had written I had been writing

In this case, 'pluperfect' translates to 'past perfect', since I know you were wondering.

The 'progressive' here means ongoing or continual action. 'I write' might mean 'I am sitting here with a pen in my hand, scribbling' or 'I know how to write' or even 'I write -at some other time'. Enter the 'progressive' or 'habitual' tense and you can tell that I'm doing it right now or regularly or predicibly.

The terminology changes quite a bit, dependong in what source you are looking at - sometimes the simple past is termed the imperfect, for example. 'Progressive' is often habitual or continuous. It can be confusing. Most texts I've seen for Irish use the terms 'habitual'.

Irish simplifies think a bit in terms of how words are used, though (as does english -- even though the matrix expresses twelve different concepts, the forms of the verbs are common: write, writing, written. The same occurs in Irish.

Irish distinguishes the following tenses:
  • habitual past - 'imperfect'
  • past -'simple past'
  • present
  • habitual present (same form as present, with few exceptions)
  • future
But that nice little tidy box isn't quite as simple as all that -- there is also mood to contend with. Irish has four moods - imperative, indicative, conditional, subjunctive. (eek!). Actually, these are pretty simple:
  • Imperative - giving orders. Sit! Speak! Run!
  • Indicative - the most common use of the verb, making statements, asking questions. 'He runs', 'I write', 'Do you write?'
  • Conditional - what if? sorts of constructs. 'If i write....'
  • Subjunctive - expressing wishes, or situtations that are not observably true, 'Were I eating, I would sit' - well, you're not eating now, but we understand that if you did happen to have a sandwich you would be planted over there at the table.
The cross reference between the two - mood and tense -- adds a third dimension to the little matrix. You only have imperative verbs in the present tense, for example. It's impossible to order someone to eat in the past! The subjunction has only prsent and past, conditional has present, past, and future. Of course, the indicative mode can manage all of them.

There are some other tenses that don't quite fit into the nice matrix very well - they are expressed as phrases, usuallly with the helping verb 'is' - the 'continuous tense' (I am eating), 'perfect tense' (I have eaten), or--and this is a good word --'periphrastic tenses' which express what is about to happen. TO be honest, these are gobbledegook to me, and while I'm sure I produce sentences in English that would be diagrammed with these tenses, I am unaware of it!

I'm not going to talk about verb conjugations or verb forms at this point. LIke I said, I'm pretty much in the present tense right now with a very small ability to say that I did something yesterday.

But, knowledge is power (isn't that another Schoolhouse Rock slogan?), so here are some interesting references for English grammar:
Glossary of Terms
Verb Tense tutorial
There are hundreds of others - a thriving community of ESL (English as a Second Language) learners on line have put together many resources. Or, like me, you could pick up the Oxford English Grammar book. You, know, just for light reading.


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