Meaning and the English Verb, Leech, Longman, 1987

meaning and the english verb

This is a real classic (although the contents of it do not date at all) must-read text in my view, and it’s sad that the author and great linguist, Geoffrey Leech, passed away a two or three years ago. Although the contents probably won’t help a huge amount with the Delta Module 1 test, it will certainly help with your confidence to explain awkward questions about tenses to your students, so is still worthwhile reading. Certainly, I am not the most confident person in deeper areas of grammar, and having read this text, which is accessible to readers at all levels of grammatical knowledge, I can see that it would have provided some answers to problem points that I had to research in the past.

Summary notes:

PRESENT

The English Present Tense can refer not just to present time, but to past and future time as well.

The unrestrictive use of the Simple Present is found with verbs expressing STATES: Honesty is the best policy. Limits to the duration of the state may be implied by an adverbial expression which underlines the ‘presentness’: Crime is the best policy these days.

The instantaneous use of the Simple Present occurs with verbs expressing EVENTS: Napier passes the ball to Adams.

A state is undifferentiated and lacking in defined limits. An event, on the other hand, has a beginning and an end.

The following verbs are normally used as ‘state verbs’: live, be, belong, last, like, stand, know, have, contain, seem, owe.

PROGRESSIVE ASPECT

Leech prefers to use the term progressive aspect as opposed to the term ‘continuous’ (e.g., ‘past continuous’).

The most important function of the Progressive Aspect is to refer to temporary situations and activities: Where’s Joan? She’s cooking the dinner. The Progressive Aspect indicates duration, limited time, and need not be complete.

In both past and present tense narrative, the Progressive often forms a ‘temporal frame’: When we arrived she made some fresh coffee. vs. When we arrived she was making some fresh coffee.

Two classes of verb typically accompanying the Progressive: Activity verbs (drink, eat, play, rain, read, work, write), Process verbs (change, grow, mature, slow down, widen, deteriorate).

Classes of verbs which are normally incompatible with the progressive: to be, verbs of inert perception (feel, hear, see, smell, taste); verbs of inert cognition (believe, forget, hope, imagine, know, suppose, understand); state verbs of having and being; a small class of verbs which when referring to a temporary state, can occur with or without the Progressive (ache, feel, hurt, itch, tingle).

PAST

The Past Tense (I worked) and the Perfect Aspect (I have worked – used for a past happening which is seen in relation to a later event or time). These two can be combined to form the Past Perfect (or ‘Pluperfect’), signifying ‘past in the past’.

‘Once’ with the meaning ‘on a certain occasion’ accompanies the Past Tense, despite its indefinite meaning: I was once an honest man. With the Present Perfect, it is a numerical adverb contrasting with ‘twice’, ‘three times’, etc.: I have visited Scotland only once.

‘Already’, ‘still’, ‘yet’, and ‘before’ occur with the Present Perfect in the sense ‘as early as now’, ‘as late as now’: I’ve seen him already. With the Past, they must have a meaning involving a past point of orientation: I was already very hungry.

[A common classroom point!] In some contexts, particularly following the conjunction ‘after’, the Simple Past and Past Perfect are interchangeable: I ate my lunch after my wife had come back from town. vs. I ate my lunch after my wife came back from town. ‘After’ places the wife’s arrival before the eating, so that Past Perfect is redundant.

Past Progressive forms or was/were going to + Infinitive with future reference are coloured by the notion of ‘intention’ (without guarantee): The beauty contest was taking place on the next day. vs. The beauty contest was going to take place on the next day.

‘Used to’ has no equivalent present construction, but it typically points to a contrast with a present state or habit.

FUTURE

Ways of expressing future time:

  • Will/Shall + Infinitive: The parcel will arrive tomorrow.
  • Be going to + Infinitive: The parcel is going to arrive tomorrow.
  • Present Progressive: The parcel is arriving tomorrow.
  • Simple Present: The parcel arrives tomorrow.
  • Will/Shall + Progressive Infinitive: The parcel will be arriving tomorrow.

MODAL AUXILIARIES

The ‘present’ and ‘past’ are misleading titles for ‘can’ and ‘could’. The Present Tense auxiliaries might more properly be called ‘non-past’ as they can refer to future as well as to present time.

The meanings of can are: possibility, ability, permission.

INDIRECT SPEECH

back-shift: The speaker can break the concord between reporting verb and reported verb: ‘I loathe cricket.’ -> John confessed that he loathes (instead of ‘loathed’) cricket.

Socrates said that virtue is knowledge. vs. Socrates said that virtue was knowledge. The statement ‘virtue is knowledge’ is of eternal application, and can therefore have reference to the present day (the time of report) as well as to the time of Socrates.

THEORETICAL AND HYPOTHETICAL MEANING

Modern English has a threefold distinction between factual, theoretical, and hypothetical meaning.

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