Revising Methodically

It’s fair to say, I think, that most of us find verbs the most difficult part of speech to investigate. They are a complicated affair, no doubt, but much of the trouble we have in understanding how they work has to do with the way we approach them, whether we revise methodically in search of an answer, or haphazardly, hoping a correction will magically appear to our vision. Here is a quick review of the fundamentals.

Let’s say that we have written the sentence I was surprised she had not called earlier, and we suspect, rightly or wrongly, that something’s amiss in the second half of the statement. We know we can’t rely on our ear to settle matters of grammar, but we can let it raise a caution flag, heeding us to pause, confirm, and continue. We read the suspect sentence again to detain it for a moment, and then first look for one thing: the number of clauses it contains. Every clause, which means every pair of subject and verb, is an assertion, a declaration that something is or is not the case. That’s why we’re writing, after all, so knowing clearly what we’re saying in a sentence is in everybody’s interest.

Now right here is where confusion can first set it, because if we’re looking for pairs of subjects and verbs, we have to know what we mean by a verb. Look again at the sentence we’re examining, and we might conclude that there are four verbs: was, surprised, had, and called. Technically, we’re not incorrect; all those words are verbs in some way, but when we’re trying to identify the verbs in a sentence, we mean what are called finite verbs, those that have a subject and tense. And most importantly we can’t forget that some finite verb forms can be made up of more than a single verb.

So we conclude that this sentence has two clauses with these two verbs: was and had not called. Why not surprised? Because that word, although it looks and feels a lot like a verb, is here a participle, an adjective, built from a verb no doubt, but not a form that is acting here as a finite verb. One way to argue this conclusion (and this observation is important for very practical reasons) is to remember that a verb with more than one word, called a verb phrase, always puts its principal verb, the verb that carries the real meaning, last in the phrase. That means that surprised does not belong to the verb phrase, but is standing as a predicate participial adjective in the clause, working in the same way as any other predicate adjective might, happy or sad, for example. Now one could make the argument that surprised is indeed part of the verb phrase, working with was to create a passive construction, but this would be true in form only, not consistent with the usual intent of the expression I was surprised, which means to point to a subjective state that has arisen in the subject, not one that has been produced by an outside action. This is the difference grammarians make between a statal and actional passive voice.

But we got caught in the bramble of the first clause there for a moment. If we free ourselves and push on now to the second clause, the point of this excursion, we find the unambiguous verb phrase had not called. We want to examine this verb closely to see if our suspicions about it are justified. The last element of the phrase, called, is the principal verb; it communicates the idea we’re asserting. Recognizing that, we have a solid place to stand in our analysis, so now we work backwards in the phrase and next come to not, an adverb. Next, still moving backwards, we come to had, and we can now see that this word functions as an auxiliary verb, helping the principal verb form a certain tense. Taken in its own right, the word had is the past tense of the verb have, and when that verb in that tense is used as an auxiliary verb, it works to construct the past perfect tense. So all we have to do now to resolve our suspicions is determine whether that in fact is the tense we should be writing in this sentence. And, of course, it is, because the past perfect tense is meant to point to time prior to another past tense: the subject, I, was surprised because something did not happen earlier. And so our suspicions are not merited here, and we can go on happily with the rest of our revisions.

The lesson? Work methodically, particularly when tracking down verbs. First read the questionable sentence in its entirety. Then identify the clauses. Then examine the verb of each clause. And then, finally, see how one clause is working with another. Shortcuts can come later. For now, a clocklike procedure will yield both accuracy and confidence.


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