Those Principal Parts

In my last post (The Verb Phrase), I referred to something called the principal parts of a verb. This concept is fundamental to the study and practice of grammar, and a few more words about it might serve us well.

Let’s begin by remembering that verbs lie at the heart of our everyday sentences. We are trying most of the time to say what’s happening in the world around us: who is doing what to whom, what did or could or might or will happen, how and why. Both the world and our thoughts about it have to do with action, and upon hearing the verb, the curtain goes up and the show begins.

All of that action occurs in time, and so the verbs we employ have to be able to depict their meaning fittingly in the past or present or future. They often do this by changing their form (their spelling) in certain ways—ways that are mostly predictable, but sometimes frustratingly not. What form of a verb we use and where we put it in a sentence will determine how accurately we convey the thoughts we have, and the system (or art or game) depends on everyone’s agreeing in the main to certain customary patterns. Doubts about all this can easily arise as we write or speak, and so, as is ever the case for us as thinking human beings, when we sense confusion, we look to get organized by sorting things out into categories and giving each group a name to identify and control it.

Hence it is we have the organizing principle of the principal parts of a verb. English verbs have three such parts (some languages have more), and they are: the simple present tense, the simple past tense, and the past participle. Regular verbs (which means most verbs) in English build their second and third parts by adding the suffix –ed to the first part, and that first principal part we just have to be given for the game to begin. So we have, for example, the regular verb walk, walked, walked. Irregular verbs (usually very common verbs) do not follow this predictable pattern; we either learn their parts by reading and listening to good writers and speakers, or we turn to the dictionary; some good grammar books, too, will give a list of common irregular verbs together with their principal parts. The verb go, for example, is irregular: go, went, gone.

The three principal parts represent, then, the minimum we need to put a verb into all the forms it can assume. And those forms can be legion: I go or might go, he went or should have gone, she will be going or will have gone, we had gone or could have gone. And on and on to the end of all the action and thinking we can do and say in the world. With this concept of the principal parts, we can confirm we’ve gotten certain tenses correct (she should have written, not she should have wrote), we can determine where best to place an adverb (he had often written or he often had written or he had written often), and we can determine which form of certain confusing pairs of verbs to use (he lies on the beach or he lays on the beach; he had set the book on the table or he had sat the book on the table).

Unfashionable at the moment, perhaps, and not particularly glamorous (though remember that the word glamor takes it origin, in fact, from the word grammar), the scheme of the principal parts is an expedient, a ready means for us to efficiently and confidently build our sentences and make our meaning known—something that should always hold a charm.


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