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.


The Verb Phrase

Lessons abound. I was standing by my car the other day, waiting for a friend to finish shopping. Someone parks in the space next to mine, walks toward the store, and then turns around abruptly to retrieve his pandemic mask. As he passes me again, he points to the mask and says, we’re going to realize one day we should have did this. A consultant being interviewed on the news laments, he could have ran a good campaign, and an avid runner after a disappointing race confesses, I should have ate better. Each of these statements evinces the same grammatical lapse, and a brief explanation here might help prevent a relapse.

There are, you may remember, six tenses in English, four of which are compound in form, meaning that more than one verb is needed to compose the tense. In, for example, the statement I have traveled to Europe quite often, the verb comprises the two words have traveled, not merely the word traveled, and when such is the case, the compound verb makes up what is called a verb phrase. This terminology can be helpful in sorting out the structure of more involved clauses, particularly when they include other verbs not strictly part of the verb phrase. The statement I have wanted to travel to Europe for years includes three verbs (have, wanted, and travel), but only two, have and wanted, comprise the verb phrase; the infinitive phrase to want stands outside that verb phrase and serves as its object.

The last verb in a verb phrase is called the principal verb, and any other verbs in the phrase are called auxiliary; auxiliary verbs must precede the principal verb. Some auxiliaries help to build the tense; others serve to construct what is called the voice or mood of the verb. Three of the four compound tenses (called the perfect tenses) use some form of the auxiliary have in their construction, and here is where we come to the problem at hand: the principal verb that follows the auxiliary have must always be in its participial form. Almost all verbs have three parts (drink, drank, drunk; go, went gone), and the last of these three is called the past participle. This is the form that must always follow the auxiliary have in the construction of a perfect tense: I have drunk, I could have drunk; she has gone, she should have gone.

So, if now we analyze the statement we should have did this, the verb phrase comprises two auxiliaries, should and have, but the form of the principal verb following have is not correct. The three parts of the verb do are do, did, done, and the speaker chose the second part, did, instead of the third part, done; correctly, then, the grammar should be: we should have done this. Likewise with the other two examples. The three parts of the verb run are run, ran, run, and so: he could have run a good campaign. And the three parts of the verb eat are eat, ate, eaten, so standard grammar dictates: I should have eaten better. If you’re in doubt about what the parts of a particular verb are, a quick look at the dictionary will give you the information you need.

As we can see, grammar can accelerate quickly, even in statements as common and familiar as the three in question here. As ever, though, if your analysis proceeds methodically and patiently, the system of grammar reveals itself, and its requirements serve (as in all the arts) as limits or boundaries within which new thoughts and clear ideas can take shape. The rules of grammar are better thought of as the rules of a game: arbitrary in the grand scheme of things, but necessary for the communication of creativity and meaning.


Adjectives, Before and After

For the first time in a long time, I sat down for a meal in a restaurant the other day, and when I happened to look around, I saw this sign posted for the staff at the wait station: Needed to Be Cleaned Menus. Curious, I thought. It’s referring, of course, to all the extra precautions that have to be taken now in the middle of a pandemic, but what makes that grammatical construction so unusual?

We know that adjectives modify nouns. The word modify means to moderate or restrict, and so when we say that an adjective modifies a noun, we mean that it is bringing the reader’s attention to some characteristic or feature of its noun which is more relevant than others at the moment. An inexpensive restaurant, for example, certainly possesses many other characteristics (perhaps large or popular or loud), but the adjectives we choose to use name the features that have something to do with what else we are saying in a particular context. And, important too, we usually first expect the adjective to precede its noun: an inexpensive restaurant, a friendly staff. When an adjective precedes its noun, it is said to be in the attributive adjective, because there it is naming an attribute, or essential characteristic, of its noun.

There are times, though, when an adjective will follow its noun. We will say, for example, that the servers at that restaurant are friendly. The adjective friendly is identifying a characteristic of the servers at a particular restaurant, and it appears in the predicate of the statement, which begins here with the verb are. (A predicate, remember, is that part of a clause that contains the verb and any other complementing words.) When an adjective follows its noun like this and takes up a position in a predicate, it is called, appropriately enough, a predicate adjective. In this statement, the predicate adjective friendly modifies the noun servers.

Now here is where things get curious. Predicate adjectives themselves are sometimes modified. If I receive a solicitation in the mail, for example, and I am told, Please use the envelope enclosed for your convenience, the adverbial phrase for your convenience is modifying the predicate adjective enclosed by saying why the envelope is enclosed—and enclosed is a predicate adjective modifying envelope because it appears in the predicate of the clause, which begins here with the verb use.

Or, if I say that I have ordered the materials required for the presentation, the phrase for the presentation modifies the predicate adjective required by specifying the purpose of the materials—and required is a predicate adjective because it appears in the predicate of the clause, which begins with the verb have ordered. (And if the full truth be told, these predicate adjectives actually belong to what is called an implied predicate and are called predicative, but we will, thankfully, say no more about that.)

Predicate adjectives, then, which are themselves modified in some way should stay in the predicate of a clause. We would not write, for example (though I’ve seen it), Please use the enclosed for your convenience envelope, or I have ordered the required for the presentation materials. Doing so transposes what are properly predicate adjectival phrases into attributive ones, and creates unwieldily long and logically cumbersome descriptions. Concision is a virtue, but too much concision becomes density.

And this is why our original example, Needed to be Cleaned Menus, appears unusual. The phrase to be cleaned is modifying the adjective needed, and that adjective, which should therefore properly be in the predicate position, is standing here as an attributive adjective before the noun it modifies, menus. We can revise the phrase, then, to read Menus Needed to be Cleaned, or better, simply, Menus to be Cleaned. Clarity in writing means the right words in the right number in the right place, and the slightest jostling can quickly make an otherwise clear path tortuous.


The Theory of Lie and Lay

One of the persisting confusions for writers is the difference between the verbs lie and lay. If it’s been a long day, do I lie down or lay down to rest for a few minutes? There is nothing intrinsically difficult about using these two words if—and it’s an unfashionable condition, I know—we apply a little grammatical theory. Let’s see where it leads.

Verbs in English can be organized into two large groups: transitive and intransitive. The term transitive derives from the Latin meaning goes across; we can see our word transit in the grammatical term, and we call a system of trains and buses public transit because they go across the city. When the notion of going across, or transitivity, is applied to grammar, it points to the idea that in certain verbs, the subject is understood to be doing something that directly affects something other than the subject. That something else, called the direct object, is thought (somewhat imaginatively) to be changed in some way because an action left the subject and went across to the direct object. Thus, a defeated militia lays down its arms, where lays is the transitive verb and arms its direct object.

Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, do not have a direct object (the prefix in– often means, as it does here, not). The action of an intransitive verb is thought to remain within the subject itself, and therefore to change only the subject in some way. If the day’s work has so worn me out that I want to recline, or rest in a horizontal position, for a while, then I lie down for a rest, and the only thing that has moved from a vertical to a horizontal position is I myself, the subject.

So far, so good. Lay is a transitive verb and lie is an intransitive verb. The problem comes in when we change the tense. Both examples we’ve just looked at (a defeated militia lays down its arms and I lie down for a rest) are in the present tense. But what happens if all this took place yesterday? Well, then, the defeated militia laid down its arms and I lay down for a rest. The simple past tense of the transitive verb lay is laid, and the simple past of the intransitive lie is lay. Or, to say it another way, lay is the simple present of the transitive and simple past of the intransitive. Whence the common confusion.

And hence the importance of a little theory. We have grown weary and suspicious as a people (I say this only half facetiously) of understanding the principles that underlie a practice, be it gardening or governing or grammar. We want results, we want to get it done, and so we often rely on what sounds right or seems correct. The problem with that intensely individualistic approach, of course, is that we are relying only on our own experience: I laid down for a rest is correct, we conclude, because that sounds right. But appearing correct is not necessarily being correct. And as dry and unnecessary as the principles can seem, theory objectifies, and thereby gets us free of our own assumptions, to test them and change them if need be. Practice and theory always go hand in hand, theory to guide and practice to accomplish accordingly.



Order something online, and soon thereafter you receive an email like this: Your order has shipped. You understand the sentence, but what does the grammar mean? Taking a look at this construction will give us a chance to review some of the basics and add—guardedly—a new design to our repertoire.

We know that sentences are composed of clauses, and that a clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate (the predicate comprising the verb and all the other words it needs to complete its meaning). If the subject of a clause is acting on something else (We have shipped your order), then the verb is said to be transitive. Transitive verbs train their action on a direct object (your order), and if the subject of a transitive verb is actually what is undertaking the action (We), then the subject is said to be an agent, and the verb is said to be in the active voice. Being aware of these few technicalities can have a marked effect on our writing, because a transitive verb in the active voice is the most energetic and full-blooded shape our sentences can take on.

Verbs that do not fix their action on a direct object are called intransitive, and here is where our original sentence (Your order has shipped) turns curious. The verb has shipped is clearly intransitive, because there is no direct object, and order has assumed the responsibility of an agent, the subject that is doing something. But who expected the order to do anything in the first place? As the customer, we are expecting just the opposite: someone to do something to our order, namely, ship it. So what logically and grammatically (and ethically) should take on the form of a subject doing something actively with a transitive verb to a direct object (We have shipped your order), has reorganized itself in an unexpected way: what logically is the direct object (your order) has now become the agent, and what logically was a transitive verb (has shipped) has now become an intransitive verb. We seem to be in the vicinity of Alice’s wonderland.

When transitive verbs twist themselves into intransitives like this, transforming their direct objects into subjects, they are called ergative verbs. The term derives (there’s another instance of it!) from the classical Greek meaning work, perhaps alluding to the fact that something that was at first passively acted upon (the direct object) now takes on the work of acting as an agent doing something (the subject). The construction is increasingly common, particularly in commercial contexts; some other examples are: five copies sold last week and test scores increased. And although it is true that we regularly attribute agency to inanimate objects (The documents revealed the extent of his corruption), it seems to be all the twisting and turning of the ergative construction—particularly the elimination of a real subject—that rings the alarm for some.

And this last point, the absence of an actual subject, is why we should, I think, employ the construction guardedly. Subjects, by acting, take on responsibility, and when we get in the habit of writing (and therefore thinking) in such a way that we transfer responsibility implicitly to inanimate objects, then we might just come to believe that all circumstances are inevitable, and that no one is really responsible for anything. And that would be a very curious world, indeed.