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1.4: The Indispensables Nouns and Verbs

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    Nouns and verbs are two of the most basic and important concepts in grammar.

    SUBJECTS AND NOUNS

    In the sentences we’ve seen, the simple subjects are all nouns. This traditional definition of nouns will serve our purpose:

    A noun is a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea.

    Nouns name persons: man, woman, child, children, student, teacher, Mr. Morton, Oscar Hammerstein.

    They name places: kitchen, home, Main Street, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A., North America, Earth, solar system, the Milky Way.

    They name things: pen, ink, paper, printing press, telegraph, linotype, typewriter, computer, smart phone, internet.

    Nouns also name ideas—that, is, abstractions: science, mathematics, truth, beauty, democracy, Platonism, Catholicism, Calvinism.

    Most simple subjects are nouns.

    PREDICATES AND VERBS

    In any sentence, the simple predicate is a verb—an indispensable part of English sentences. For our purposes, this definition will do:

    A verb is a word or group of words that names an action or indicates a state of being.

    There are two general classes of verb. One kind of verb—an action verb—names actions:

    Hammerstein composed.
    George loves Ethel.
    Pearl painted Mr. Morton’s porch.

    Another kind of verb names “states of being”—that is, they appear in predicates that describe the subject. These verbs are called linking verbs.

    Gershwin was a composer. George became thoughtful. Pearl seems busy.

    There are thousands of verbs in English, and the great majority of them are action verbs: sit, stand, hit, run, hide, seek, say, sing, create, declare, denounce, pontificate, shout, cry, laugh, and all the rest.

    Some action verbs name activities that are not actions in the usual sense: have, pause, think, consider, wait.

    There are relatively few linking verbs in English. The most common are the eight forms of the verb be:

    be are been is being was am were

    It’s helpful to commit all the forms of be to memory, because you’ll need to recognize them again and again in this book and in other works about English grammar.

    Here are some of the other linking verbs: seem, become, remain. Many linking verbs are related to our senses: look, feel, smell, sound, taste, appear:

    Bill looked angry.
    Bill sounded angry.
    Bill felt angry.
    The kitchen smelled wonderful. The soup tasted good.

    The examples of linking verbs may seem confusing because some verbs can be used as action verbs (Bob appeared suddenly) or as linking verbs (Bob appeared ill).

    To clarify the differences, consider the following pairs of sentences. The first sentence in each pair contains a linking verb; the second contains an action verb:

    Frank felt well.
    Frank felt the cold air.

    Marsha looked wonderful. Marsha looked out the window.

    The tomatoes tasted sweet. We tasted the tomatoes.

    Ed remained stubborn. Ed remained in his room.

    In each pair, the first sentence with the linking verb describes the subject in some way. The second sentence with the action verb tells us what the subject did. Many of the words that follow the verbs are not modifiers but other kinds of words that we’ll learn about soon.

    AUXILIARY VERBS AND MAIN VERBS

    Compare the verbs in these pairs of sentences:

    Mr. Morton broke the vase.
    Mr. Morton has broken another vase.

    Jeff sang an old Irish song.
    Jeff should have sung an old Lithuanian song.

    Martha won the race.
    Martha should have been winning all along.

    In the second sentence of each pair, the simple predicate consists of more than one verb. In any sentence, the verb can be one to four words long:

    Mr. Morton broke the vase.
    Mr. Morton has broken another vase.
    Mr. Morton has been breaking vases all afternoon. Mr. Morton should not have been juggling vases.

    In any sentence with two or more words in the verb, the rightmost verb is called the main verb. In the four sentences just above, broke, broken, breaking, and juggling are the main verbs.

    All the other words in the underlined verb are auxiliary verbs (sometimes called helping verbs). Together the auxiliary verbs and the main verb make the simple predicate, which is the entire verb of the sentence. The simple predicate can be one to four words long and includes only the main verb (which is always present) and its auxiliary verbs (if any).

    It is the main verb that determines if the simple predicate is an action verb or linking verb.

    Here’s a list of the auxiliary verbs in English:

    am have are has is had was

    were be been being

    do does did

    can may could might shall must should

    will would

    There are eight forms of be, three forms of have, three forms of do, three rhyming pairs (can/could; shall/should; will/would), and three m- verbs. Sometimes words like ought to and have to are included among the auxiliaries. We’ll discuss those later in Chapter 20.

    You don’t have to memorize the entire list, but you should refer to it often until you can recognize auxiliary verbs when you see them. You should also learn all the forms of the verb be in the first column.

    Remember that auxiliary verbs always come before the main verb. Also notice that some auxiliaries can be used as main verbs:

    Rhianna was planning the party. [Was is the auxiliary.] Rhianna was early. [Was is the main verb.]

    The Browns have purchased the gift. The Browns have the receipt.

    The Greens do like reading.
    The Greens do the dishes every day.

    [Have is the auxiliary.] [Have is the main verb.]

    [Do is the auxiliary.] [Do is the main verb.]

    The Indispensables: Nouns and Verbs | 11

    Still other auxiliaries in the list are used only as auxiliaries, as in these examples:

    Al can go.
    Al could go.
    Al will go.
    Al would go.
    Al shall go.
    Al should just go.

    Hal may go.
    Hal might tango. No, Hal must go.

    Notice that many of the auxiliaries are present or past forms: Could, should, and would are the past forms of can, shall, and will. We see this usage in sentences like this:

    My uncle can play the harmonica well.
    My late uncle could play the harmonica well.

    In Chapter 20, we’ll see some of these same words used as modal auxiliaries, which often indicate a future possible action:

    If you practiced, you could play the harmonica well.

    The verb do is also worth a bit of attention, because we use it in English as an auxiliary for questions and for emphasis:

    Does Paula write well? Did Paula arrive early? Yes, Paula does write well. Yes, Paula did arrive early.

    When you’re learning another language and want to translate an English sentence that uses do for a question or for emphasis, you’ll probably find that other languages don’t use their equivalent of do in this way.

    Sometimes the complete verb is interrupted by another word or two. These usually appear after the first auxiliary verb:

    Mr. Morton has actually broken another vase.
    Mr. Morton should probably not have been juggling vases. We will definitely not be inviting Mr. Morton back.

    The words that interrupt the verb are adverbs, which we’ll learn about shortly.

    POINTS FOR WRITERS

    1. Subject-verb agreement.

    One of the most basic features of English is that the form of the verb sometimes changes to match a change in the subject. If the subject is singular, the verb will have one form:

    Pam sings. Mom drives. Ed listens.

    But if the subject is plural, the verb may take another form:

    Pam and Jim sing. Mom and Dad drive. Ed and Alice listen.

    The change in the verb for singular and plural subjects is called subject-verb agreement. The verb must agree with the subject.

    The Indispensables: Nouns and Verbs | 13

    Agreement doesn’t make the verb change in every case. For instance, the verb doesn’t change form when the sentence is about something that happened in the past:

    Pam sang.
    Pam and Jim sang.

    Mom drove.
    Mom and Dad drove.

    Ed listened.
    Ed and Alice listened.

    If you’ve spoken English since you were young, you probably make the verb agree without even being aware of it because it’s second nature to you. We’ll look more closely at agreement in Chapter 9.

    2. May and can.

    As you may already know, there is an important difference between the auxiliary verbs may and can. May is often used to ask or grant permission or to indicate possibility:

    May Jim leave the room?
    Yes, Jim may.
    Jim may leave, but he hasn’t decided.

    Can is used to discuss ability: Can Jim reach the top shelf?

    I think he can.

    In everyday conversation, we often confuse can and may, and it seldom matters because our listeners can understand us in

    14 | Brehe’s Grammar Anatomy

    the immediate context. In careful writing, the distinction may be important, and failing to observe it is sometimes seen as a mark of a careless writer.

    EXERCISES

    2a. In the sentences below, underline the complete predicates. Then enclose the simple subjects and simple predicates in brackets, like this:

    [Sue] [did call] yesterday.

    1. The family was having coffee.

    2. The family was content.

    3. Without warning, John entered the room.

    4. John made an announcement.

    5. The vases are gone.

    6. The family became furious.

    7. Mr. Morton had struck again.

    8. Mr. Morton had some nerve.

    9. Someday that man will regret his actions.

    10. Mr. Morton’s reputation has been damaged by these allegations.

    11. Everywhere people are hiding their vases.

    The Indispensables: Nouns and Verbs | 15

    12. Mr. Morton seems a little strange.
    2b. Now, in the sentences that you just examined, identify action

    verbs (with A) and linking verbs (with L), as in this example: [Sue] [did call] yesterday. (A)

    2c. Finally, identify the auxiliary verbs and the main verb in each sentence you’ve examined. Remember, if there’s only one verb, it must be the main verb.


    1.4: The Indispensables Nouns and Verbs is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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