Which tests correctly identify English verbs?
This is the second of five lessons About Verbs. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Discuss the importance of correct word-class identification
– Provide five tests that can be used to correctly identify verbs
– Include examples of each of the five tests to guide the reader
This second lesson about verbs now focusses specifically on the accurate identification of this particular word class. In addition to recognising and using the five functions of verbs as previously described in Lesson 1, any speaker of English that wishes to improve their language to the level required for academia must also be able to quickly and confidently determine a words class (whether adverb, verb or adjective, for example) for the purposes of editing and proofreading, essay writing and seminar discussions.
To assist with confident verb identification, it’s important to first realise that any word in the English language may have multiple word classes depending on its form, function, and syntax. The word ‘swimming’, for example, might function as a verb in the expression ‘He’s swimming well’, but appear more like a noun in the phrase ‘Swimming is easy for him’. Because it’s not always clear to the speaker which word belongs to which word class and when, we’ve outlined five tests for you below that should help to more easily and consistently identify verbs.
Test 1: Collocation
One of the most efficient tests of a word’s class is usually made by simply looking at the classes surrounding that suspected word – the words it collocates with. However, as can be seen in the table below, because verbs may often be preceded or followed by many of the key word classes, such as adjectives, adverbs, nouns, prepositions, and even other verbs, this test alone may not be enough:
Test 2: Function
As was explained in Lesson 1, there are five common functions which verbs can perform in the English language that students should watch out for, such as the communication of actions or the inclusion of tense and aspect. Academics that wish to increase their chances of accurate verb identification should therefore remember and recognise the five functions outlined in the following table. If the word that you suspect to be a verb is indeed able to perform a number of these functions, then that word is most likely a verb:
Test 3: Morphology
The third test is one of morphology, which is the study of how words are formed through processes of affixation. While verbs in English don’t change their form through prefixation and suffixation to indicate tense, gender or number anywhere near as often as some languages, there are still seven basic verb forms that can help greatly when identifying this word class:
As can be seen in the above table (which uses the verbs ‘study’ and ‘eat’ as examples), a particular verb may have more or less variation in how these seven forms are represented. A brief explanation of each of the seven verb forms is therefore provided for students below:
(1) Base form: the default, uninflected form of a verb – most commonly used when expressing the present tense and simple aspect
(2) Third-person present: a verb form that most commonly uses the ‘-s’ suffix to show agreement between third-person subjects (such as ‘he/she/it’) and the lexical verb
(3) Infinitive: a non-finite verb form that cannot be inflected for tense, agreement, etc.
(4) Past tense: an inflected verb form used to demonstrate past tense, often with the suffix ‘-ed’
(5) Past participle: an inflected verb form used to demonstrate the perfect aspect or passive voice
(6) Present participle: an inflected verb form used to demonstrate the progressive aspect
(7) Gerund: a nominalised verb form using the ‘-ing’ suffix which may be a subject or object
Test 4: Syntax
In addition to the previous three tests, another useful indicator of whether a word is a verb or not is to test its valency – which is how many arguments a particular verb can grammatically take. Arguments are generally classified as being the subjects, direct objects, indirect objects and oblique (prepositional) objects of a clause, and only verbs can take them. Therefore, if the word in question can be grammatical in one of the following four structures, it is likely a verb:
What you may have noticed from these four examples about verb valency is that (a) some verbs such as ‘melt’ or ‘teach’ may be grammatical when intransitive or transitive depending on their use, and (b) there are very few verbs such as ‘give’ or ‘pay’ that are able to take three (ditransitive) or four (tritransitive) arguments.
Test 5: Exceptions
Of course, there are always exceptions in grammar that simply need to be memorised if you wish to identify verbs correctly every time. As has already been explored (and will be explained further in Lessons 3 and 4), there is some variation and irregularity with regards to how the tense, aspect and agreement of verbs is demonstrated, and how verbs are formed (conjugated) in general. Because in some instances it may not be enough to rely on collocation, function, morphology and syntax to confidently determine whether or not a word is a verb, students should also consider learning about the many types (Lesson 3) and rules (Lesson 4) that govern the grammar of this word class.
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