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Syntactic Theory

The Verb: Problems with the Tests

  • semantic test:
    • Verbs refer to actions
      • nouns can also refer to actions (rodeo, arrival)
      • verbs can also refer to non-actions, such as know, feel
  • morphological test:
    • Verbs can combine with a 3rd singular inflection (-(e)s)
      Remark: The only verbs that violate this criterion are be and have, which have irregular forms, and the modal verbs, such as can which do not have a separate 3rd singular form. Since both types of 'verbs' differ from what we call a Verb here in many other aspects as well, they are part of a different, minor, syntactic category: Auxiliaries.
    • Verbs can combine with a past tense inflection (-ed)
      • not all verbs form their past tense with -ed (put, told, ...)
    • Verbs can combine with -ing (in the contexts: __-ing can be fun, Pat was __-ing)
      Remark: there is no problem here. The only 'verbs' that do not take -ing are the auxiliaries.
  • syntactic test
    • Verbs can occur directly after can:
      They can __ ...
    • Verbs can occur directly after wanted to
      Pat wanted to __ ...
      Problem for both tests:
      • If the sentence can continue, other items are also possible in this position: They can certainly get a better deal elsewhere.
        If the sentence has to end after the verb, only a small group of verbs is allowed her: ''They can breath/*divour
      • Impersonal verbs are not compatible with the subject they, so the diagnostic environment should be more permissive here: It/ *They can rain.

Back to the page on verbs, major parts of speech, or parts of speech