June 7, 2007

Noun Phrase, Adjective Phrase and Adverb Phrase

Posted in Grammar Material at 5:37 am by gcuelt

The Noun Phrase

Full References

The discussion of the choice of language noted that a single concept is often signaled by a variety of words, each word possessing slightly different connotations. We can indicate that people are less than content by saying they are angry , irate , incensed , perturbed , upset , furious , or mad. The broader our vocabulary, the greater our options and the more precisely we can convey our meaning. And yet no matter how wide our vocabulary may be, a single word is often insufficient. A single word, by itself, can appear somewhat vague, no matter how specific that word might seem. The term “dog” may be specific compared to “mammal,” but it is general compared to “collie.” And “collie” is general compared to “Lassie.” Then again, many different dogs played Lassie!

Suppose you want to indicate a female person across the room. If you don’t know her name, what do you say?

That girl.

If there were more than one, this alone would be too general. It lacks specificity.

The girl in the blue Hawaiian shirt…

The taller of the two cheerleaders by the water cooler…

When a single term will not supply the reference we need, we add terms to focus or limit a more general term. Instead of referring to drugs in a discussion, we might refer to hallucinogenic drugs. We might distinguish between hard drugs and prescription drugs . In so doing we modify the notion of a drug to describe the specific one, or ones, we have in mind. (Then again, at times we are forced to use many words when we cannot recall the one that will really do, as when we refer to that funny device doctors pump up on your arm to measure blood pressure instead of a sphygmomanometer ).

This section examines how we construct full and specific references using noun phrases. An ability to recognize complete noun phrases is essential to reading ideas rather than words. A knowledge of the various possibilities for constructing extended noun pharses is essential for crafting precise and specific references.


To begin our discussion, we must first establish the notion of a noun.

English teachers commonly identify nouns by their content. They describe nouns as words that “identify people, places, or things,” as well as feelings or ideas—words like salesman , farm , balcony , bicycle , and trust. If you can usually put the word a or the before a word, it’s a noun. If you can make the word plural or singular, it’s a noun. But don’t worry…all that is needed at the moment is a sense of what a noun might be.

Noun Pre-Modifiers

What if a single noun isn’t specific enough for our purposes? How then do we modify a noun to construct a more specific reference?

English places modifiers before a noun. Here we indicate the noun that is at the center of a noun phrase by an asterisk (*) and modifiers by arrows pointed toward the noun they modify.

white house


large man


Modification is a somewhat technical term in linguistics. It does not mean to change something, as when we “modify” a car or dress. To modify means to limit, restrict, characterize, or otherwise focus meaning. We use this meaning throughout the discussion here.

Modifiers before the noun are called pre-modifiers. All of the pre-modifiers that are present and the noun together form a noun phrase .


pre-modifiers noun


By contrast, languages such as Spanish and French place modifiers after the noun

casa blanca white house


homme grand big man


The most common pre-modifiers are adjectives, such as red , long , hot . Other types of words often play this same role. Not only articles

the water


but also verbs

running water


and possessive pronouns

her thoughts


Premodifiers limit the reference in a wide variety of ways.

Order: second, last

Location: kitchen, westerly

Source or Origin: Canadian

Color: red, dark

Smell: acrid, scented

Material: metal, oak

Size: large, 5-inch

Weight: heavy

Luster: shiny, dull

A number of pre-modifiers must appear first if they appear at all.

Specification: a, the, every

Designation: this, that, those, these

Ownership/Possessive: my, your, its, their, Mary’s

Number: one, many

These words typically signal the beginning of a noun phrase.

Some noun phrases are short:

the table

® *

Some are long:

the second shiny red Swedish touring sedan


a large smelly red Irish setter


my carved green Venetian glass salad bowl


the three old Democratic legislators


Notice that each construction would function as a single unit within a sentence. (We offer a test for this below,)

The noun phrase is the most common unit in English sentences. That prevalence can be seen in the following excerpt from an example from the section on the choice of language:

The stock market’s summer swoon turned into a dramatic rout
Monday as the Dow Jones industrial average plunged.
The stock market’s summer swoon turned into a dramatic rout * *

Monday as the Dow Jones industrial average plunged.
* *

To appreciate the rich possibilities of pre-modifiers, you have only to see how much you can expand a premodifier in a noun phrase:

the book
the history book
the American history book
the illustrated American history book
the recent illustrated American history book
the recent controversial illustrated American history book
the recent controversial illustrated leather bound American history book

Noun Post-Modifiers

We were all taught about pre -modifiers: adjectives appearing before a noun in school. Teachers rarely speak as much about adding words after the initial reference. Just as we find pre -modifiers, we also find post -modifiers—modifiers coming after a noun.

The most common post-modifier is prepositional phrases:

the book on the table


civil conflict in Africa


the Senate of the United States


Post-modifiers can be short

a dream deferred


or long, as in Martin Luther King Jr.’s reference to

a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves


and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together

at a table of brotherhood.

What does King have? A dream? No. He has a specific dream. Once we are sensitive to the existence of noun phrases, we recognize a relatively simple structure to the sentence. Here we recognize a noun phrase with a very long post-modifier—thirty-two words to be exact.

We do not get lost in the flow of words, but recognize structure. At the point that we recognize structure within the sentence, we recognize meaning. (Notice also that post-modifiers often include clauses which themselves include complete sentences, as in the last example above.)

Post-modifiers commonly answer the traditional news reporting questions of who , what , where , when , how , or why . Noun post-modifiers commonly take the following forms:

prepositional phrase the dog in the store


_ing phrase the girl running to the store


_ed past tense the man wanted by the police


wh – clauses the house where I was born


that/which clauses the thought that I had yesterday


If you see a preposition, wh – word ( which, who, when where ), -ing verb form, or that or which after a noun, you can suspect a post-modifier and the completion of a noun phrase.

The noun together with all pre- and post-modifiers constitutes a single unit, a noun phrase that indicates the complete reference. Any agreement in terms of singular/plural is with the noun at the center.

The boys on top of the house are ………….


Here the noun at the center of the noun phrase is plural, so a plural form of the verb is called for (not a singular form to agree with the singular house) .

The Pronoun Test

In school, we were taught that pronouns replaced nouns . Not so. Pronouns replace complete noun phrases . Pronoun replacement thus offers a test of a complete noun phrase. Consider:

The boy ate the apple in the pie.

What did he eat?

The boy ate the apple in the pie.


Want proof? Introduce the pronoun “it” into the sentence. If a pronoun truly replaces a noun, we’d get

*The boy ate the it in the pie.

No native speaker would say that! They’d say

The boy ate it.

The pronoun replaces the complete noun phrase, the apple in the pie .

This pronoun substitution test can be particualrly useful. Not all prepositional phrases after a noun are necessarily part of the noun phrase – they could be later predicate or sentence modifiers. In other words, we must not only identify noun phrases, we must parse out other material, and in that act recognize broader aspects of sentence structure. The web page on distinguishing sentence and predicate modifiers (www.criticalreading.com/sentence_predicate_modifiers.htm) discusses the three sentences:

  1. 1. The boy ate the apple in the pie.
  2. 2. The boy ate the apple in the summer.
  3. 3. The boy ate the apple in a hurry.

Only the first includes a noun phrase longer than two words: the apple in the pie.

Boxes Within Boxes: Testing for a Complete Noun Phrase

The goal of reading, we noted above, is not to recognize grammatical features, but to find meaning. The goal is not to break a sentence or part of a sentence into as small pieces as possible, but to break it into chunks in such a way that fosters the discovery of meaning.

Consider one of the examples above of a prepositional phrase as a post-modifier:

the book on the table

Book is a noun at the center of the noun phrase. But table is also a noun. If we analyze the noun phrase completely, on all levels, we find:

the book on the table


on the table

® *

We can have prepositional phrase within prepositional phrase within prepositional phrases:

…the book on the table in the kitchen…


on the table in the kitchen…


in the kitchen


We don’t want to recognize every little noun phrase. We want to recognize the larger ones that shape the meaning. The book is not “on the table.” The book is “on the table in the kitchen.”

The Senate of the United States is composed of two legislators from each State.

Question: Who is in the Senate?

a) two legislators

b) two legislators from each State?

The answer is b). The full Senate consists of two from each state (100 people), not simply two! We read the sentence as

The Senate of the United States is composed of

two legislators from each State.


If we read the sentence as

The Senate of the United States

is composed of two legislators

from each State.

we miss the meaning.

Earlier we noted that pre -modifiers in noun phrase can be expanded to significant length. For the most part, we increased the length of the pre-modifier by adding additional adjectives, a word or two at a time. Noun phrase post -modifiers can be expanded to much greater lengths. We can add long phrases which themselves contain complete sentences.

the park where I hit a home run when I was in the ninth grade .


The sentence within the post-modifier is printed in boldface.

The following sentence indicates something was lost. What was lost?

He lost the book by Mark Twain about the Mississippi that he took out of the library on Sunday before the game so that he could study during half time when his brother was getting popcorn.

The answer is the complete phrase

……… the book by Mark Twain about the Mississippi that he took out of the library on Sunday before the game so that he could study during half time when his brother was getting popcorn.

The base term book is modified as to author (Mark Twain), topic (about the Mississippi), as well as intent or purpose (that he took out of the library on Sunday before the game so that he could study during half time when his brother was getting popcorn.) We assume that he has another book by Twain about the Mississippi that he did not lose. Want proof? What would be replaced by “it”?

The full reference of a noun phrase is often “conveniently” ignored in movie advertisements. Janet Maslin, movie critic for The New York Times , complained when an advertisement for the video tape of John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker” quoted her as describing the movie as director Francis Ford Coppola’s “best and sharpest film,” when, in fact, her review stated:

John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker” is Mr. Coppola’s best and sharpest film in years. (1)

The original quotation does not refer to the “best and sharpest film” of Coppola’s career, but to his “best and sharpest film in years.”

Noun Phrases: The Dominant Construction

Finally, the degree to which noun phrases are the dominant construction within texts can be seen in the opening paragraph of the Text for Discussion: Annotation – Needle Exchange Programs and the Law – Time for a Change. The complete noun phrases appear within square brackets and appear in red. (1) In [ his social history of venereal disease ], [ No Magic Bullet ], [ Allan M. Brandt ]describes[ the controversy in the US military about preventing venereal disease among soldiers during World War I ]. Should there be [ a disease prevention effort that recognized that many young American men would succumb to the charms of French prostitutes ], or should there be [ a more punitive approach to discourage sexual contact ]? Unlike[ the New Zealand Expeditionary forces ], which gave[ condoms ]to[ their soldiers ],[ the United States ]decided to give [ American soldiers ][after-the-fact, and largely ineffective, chemical prophylaxis ]. [ American soldiers ]also were subject to [ court martial ] if they contracted[ a venereal disease ]. [ These measures ] failed. [ More than 383,000 soldiers ]were diagnosed with[ venereal diseases ]between April 1917 and December 1919 and lost [ seven million days of active duty ]. [ Only influenza ], which struck in [ an epidemic ], was [ a more common illness among servicemen ].









his friend’s



this size








foreign affairs



two weeks



three inches



a mile


the sea














his trip




the size of a giant

















for the part







suitable for the part







































Longman Grammar pp. 188-192, 197-204 deals with adjectives (formation, syntactic roles and meanings of adjectives). Characteristics of adjectives as a word class are given on p. 22 and p. 188.

Here, you can find a concise presentation of (A) the structure of adjective phrases with the types of pre- and postmodifiers that can precede or follow adjectives, and (B) the most common syntactic functions/roles of adjective phrases. Under (C) you can find some other roles of adjectives and adjective phrases.





adverb (intensifying the adjective), e.g. very / perfectly / extremely

good, nice, rich, happy, wide, bright, uncertain, possible, glad, busy, easier, worse, better

prepositional phrase, e.g. at maths, about this

adverb (degree), e.g. so, as, too

adverb, enough / indeed

that-clause, e.g. that you’re careful

adverb (viewpoint), e.g. technically / theoretically

to-infinitive clause, e.g. to hear from you

noun, e.g. sixteen feet / two kilometres

ing-clause, e.g. handing out letters

comparative clause, e.g. than they say

Examples of preadjectival modification:

I was pretty upset. That’s an extremely good camera. It is a theoretically important argument.

Examples of postadjectival modification:

  • by a prepositional phrase: e.g. conscious of, fond of, happy about, good at, sorry for, different from, due to, happy with, etc. (for lists of prepositions following adjectives, see grammar books; dictionaries also give structural information on the use of adjectives)
  • by a finite that-clause:

We were confident that Karen was still alive. Many adjectives expressing certainty or confidence, such as aware, certain, confident, sure can be used in this way.

I am anxious that he be/should be/?is permitted to resign. Many adjectives expressing volition, like anxious, eager, willing are used with a subjunctive or putative should in the that-clause.

  • by a to-infinitive clause: Bob is slow to react. Bob is sorry to hear it. Bob is hard to convince. Those darts are awkward for a beginner to use.
  • by an ing-clause: I’m busy (with) getting the house redecorated. We’re fortunate (in) having Aunt Agatha as a baby-sitter.
  • by a comparative clause: It was easier than they say.

Comparative and degree complements of adjectives often occur in certain patterns (see Longman Grammar p. 219), with items preceding and following the adjective: as deep as ever before, so foolhardy as to pass by the shrine, too numerous to be countable.


On a broad level, adjectives have two main “slots” in the sentence structure, these are the attributive function and the predicative function. The most central adjectives can occur in both functions.

Attributive: a/the ___ NOUN

  • Premodifier of a noun: Well, he’s [a perfectly nice lad].
  • Postmodifier of a pronoun: Was there [anything nice]?
  • Postmodifier of a noun: London is [a city bright with lights].

Predicative: S V ___ or S V DO ___

  • Subject Predicative: John was extremely rich indeed / most greatful for your help / busy handing out letters / uncertain what to do / glad to hear from you / better than they say.
  • Object Predicative: He’s opening his mouth very wide.


Adjectives are used as exclamations: Great! Good! Excellent! Bloody brilliant! Amazing! Ridiculous! Hilarious!

Adjectives can be used as noun phrase heads (the poor, the very rich). These usually refer to a group of people with the characteristic described by the adjective and are preceded with the definite article the.

Exercise on adjective phrases

The following text comes from an advertisement for Adjustamatic beds:

Go to sleep on an Adjustamatic bed and

Wake up refreshed and ready the day ahead

YES! Go to sleep on an Adjustamatic bed and you’ll wake up feeling great and ready for the day ahead.
How come? Simple; the Adjustamatic bed will mould itself perfectly to your body shape. No ordinary bed can do this. Infinitely adjustable, this unique bed ensures that the pressure points at the neck, shoulders and hips are taken away. The result is evenly distributed body weight and less tossing and turning. This gives you a deeper, more beneficial sleep. So you will wake up feeling refreshed from the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had.

1. Find adjective phrases in the text. Are there any modifiers or just the adjective?

2. Are the adjectives in the attributive or predicative function? Any other ways of using adjectives?

3. What is the communicative meaning of adjectives in this kind of a text? Are adjectives, for example, positive or negative or neutral?

Longman Grammar pp. 193-196, 204-208, and 218 discusses the formation and syntactic roles of adverbs. You can find the characteristics of adverbs as a word class summarized briefly on pp. 22-23 and those of adverb phrases on p. 44.

Here, you can find a concise presentation of (A) the structure of adverb phrases with the types of pre- and postmodifiers that can precede or follow adverbs, and (B) the most common syntactic functions/roles of adverb phrases.


Adverb phrases are like adjective phrases in their structure, except that the head is an adverb!




adverb (intensifier)

very / really / pretty / perfectly / fairly / virtually / quite

well / systematically /

badly / ahead


enough / indeed




unhappily / luckily

prepositional phrase

for Tanya / for us



comparative clause

than I am


The most usual syntactic functions of adverb phrases are the following:

(1) On a sentence or clause level adverb phrases can have the following syntactic function:

  • Adverbial: They did it systematically.

(2) You can also find adverbs or adverb phrases within other phrases, most often modifying an adjective or an adverb:

  • Premodifier of an adjective: We’re [very good].
  • Premodifier of an adverb: We did it [very well].
  • Premodifier of a preposition: They were standing [(right by) the door].
  • Premodifier of a pronoun: [(Virtually all) of my friends] were there.
  • Premodifier of a determiner: The results have [(virtually no) meaning].
  • Premodifier of a numeral: [The chaps around forty to forty-five] are all…
  • Premodifier of a noun: [The then managing editor]…
  • Postmodifier of a noun: So you arrived [the day before].
  • Postmodifier of an adjective: That’s [fair enough] then.
  • Postmodifier of an adverb: [Oddly enough], it’s not raining.

Complement of a preposition: You should’ve completed that [by now].

Verb phrase structure


1. The structure of the verb phrase (a VP contains verbs only)

SIMPLE VP=main/lexical verb only

COMPLEX VP=auxiliary/-ies+main/lexical verb

→ Which of the verb phrases in the text are simple? Which are complex?

2. Verbs in a verb phrase can be divided into


These can be the main verb of a VP.

These can be divided into intransitive, transitive, ditransitive, complex transitive and copular verbs according to the type of complement structures they take.

(b) PRIMARY VERBS = be, have, do

These three verbs can be

– main verbs (She is witty / He did his duty / She has a job)
– auxiliary verbs:

be progressive aspect (e.g. am/is/was/were reading)

passive (e.g. is read)

have perfective aspect (e.g. has read)

do negation (e.g. don’t read)

questions (e.g. do you read?)

emphatic use (e.g. Do read! I did read!)


can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must;

[need, dare, ought to, used to, have to, be going to]

Auxiliary verbs usually occur before a lexical/main verb. They ‘help’ other verbs to form verb phrases.

The auxiliary verbs are negated by adding not after them (You mustn’t come / She will not come).

The auxiliary verbs can function as the operator in interrogative clauses, i.e. they come before the subject (Will she come? Does she come? Mustn’t you come?)

The primary auxiliary verbs have the 3rd person singular –s form (is, has, does), past tense (was/were, had, did) and past participle (been, had, done).

The modal auxiliary verbs are not inflected (musts, musting, to must), and other verbs follow them in the base form.

The first auxiliary of the VP is the operator: Have you been surfing again!

→ Find examples of lexical and auxiliary verbs in the text.

3. A verb phrase is either finite or non-finite:


– can occur as the VP of an independent clause: He does it easily.

– have tense (past and present)

– person and number concord between the S and the finite VP

– the first element of the VP is finite (either an operator or a simple present or past form)

– have mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive)

Indicative: see the Table

Imperative: Consider yourself lucky! Be good!

Subjunctive: Present The employers demanded that he resign.

God save the Queen. Suffice it to say that…

Past If I were rich, I would….

I wish the journey were over…

– show aspect (simple, perfective, progressive) and voice (active, passive)

Table. TENSE and ASPECT in English. The mood in the table is indicative and the voice active.

ASPECT (Non-progr.) Progressive



Simple presentHe sees

Simple past

He saw

Present progressiveHe is seeing

Past progressive

He was seeing




Present perfectHe has seen

Past perfect

He had seen

Present perfect progressiveHe has been seeing

Past perfect progressive

He had been seeing

-> Add the equivalent passive forms in the Table above.


– cannot occur as the VP of an independent clause: *He doing it easily.

– no tense or mood distinctions

Simple forms:

  1. infinitive: (to) call
  2. -ing form: calling
  3. ed participle: called

Complex forms:

Inf.+progressive to be writing
Inf.+perfective to have written
Inf.+progr.+perf. to have been writing
Pass.inf. to be written
Pass.inf.+progr. to be being written?
Pass.inf.+perf. to have been written
Pass.inf.+perf.+progr. to have been being written?
Ptcple act.+perf. having written
Ptcple act.+perf.+progr. having been writing
Ptcpl pass+progr. being written
Ptcpl pass+ perf. having been written

Ptcpl pass+ perf.+progr. having been being written?



He smokes. To smoke like that must be dangerous.

Mary is having a smoke. I regret having started to smoke.

He must smoke 40 a day. The cigars smoked here tend to be expensive.

You have been smoking all day. That was the last cigarette to have been smoked by me.

-> Find examples of finite and non-finite verb phrases in the text. What is the tense, aspect, mood and voice of the finite verb phrases?

Examples of non-finite clauses

Non-finite clauses are subordinate clauses containing a non-finite verb phrase. Therefore, they cannot stand alone as the main clause. Non-finite clauses are typical of written English. Since non-finite clauses do not show tense or mood distinctions and there is usually no subordinating conjunction and even the subject of the verb is usually missing, the relationship of non-finite clauses to the rest of the clause may need some interpretation. Pay attention to non-finite clauses when you translate from English into Finnish! A corresponding “lauseenvastike” seldom works in Finnish.

The Longman Grammar discusses non-finite subordinate/dependent clauses on. pp. 259-261.

(1) to-infinitive

without S: The best thing would be to tell everybody.

with S: The best thing would be for you to tell everybody.

(2) bare infinitive

without S: All I did was hit him on the head.

with S: Rather than you do the job, I’d prefer to finish it myself.

(3) –ing form = present participle

without S: Leaving the room, he tripped over the mat.

with S: Her aunt having left the room, I asked Ann for some help.

(4) –ed participle = past participle

without S: Covered with confusion, she hurriedly left the room.

with S: The discussion completed, the chairman adjourned the meeting for half an hour.

The meaning of tense and aspect

This presentation aims at explaining some basic concepts that may help you in understanding what the English tense and aspect are about. The Longman Grammar also deals with tense (pp. 150-156) and aspect (pp. 156-166).

If you would like to know more about the use of tense and aspect in English, you can consult, for instance, the following books:

Geoffrey N. Leech, Meaning and the English Verb (2nd edition), Longman.

George Yule, Explaining English Grammar, OUP (Chapter 3 ‘Tense and Aspect’, this is particularly recommended for (future) teachers of English as it contains ideas and exercises for teaching).


1. Present and past tense

The English verbs are inflected for two tenses: present (walk(s)) and past (walked). In other words, tense is indicated by morphological marking: zero/-s for present tense and –ed for regular past tense. Tense is not necessarily straightforwardly related to what TIME the event represented by the verb takes place. For instance, the simple present tense can be used to refer to various times, as it is used for

· events which happen regularly or habitually: He smokes, drinks, betrays people and has no guilt whatsoever.

· timeless truths: The sun rises in the east.

· present events: I declare the meeting open. Bremner passes the ball to Lorimer.

· historic present, especially in literary English but also in oral narrative. It recalls or recounts the past as vivivdly as if it were present: He just walks into the room and sits down in front of the fire without saying a word to anyone.

· events that are expected to happen in the future: When he returns to Manhattan 1000 years later, it has been destroyed and rebuilt three times.

2. What about time then?

We can, of course, situate events in time, but this is not only done by means of grammatical tense. The two tenses, past and present, combine with the aspects discussed below to indicate how the event is viewed in relation to time.

In the time-line perspective, we can talk about the past, present and future time. To take an example, English, unlike many other languages, does not have a separate verb form for the future. Consequently, there is no future tense in English, even though there are, of course, many different ways in which we can talk about the future time:

  • The parcel will arrive tomorrow. (modal auxiliary will)
  • The parcel is going to arrive tomorrow. (be going to)
  • The parcel is arriving tomorrow. (present progressive)
  • The parcel arrives tomorrow. (simple present)
  • The parcel will be arriving tomorrow. (modal auxiliary will + progressive aspect)


1. Grammatical aspect

There are two grammatically marked aspects in English:

  • progressive aspect (be+-ing)
  • perfective aspect (have+past participle).

The situation may be represented as fixed or changing, it may be treated as lasting for only a moment or having duration, and it can be viewed as complete or as ongoing. These are aspectual distinctions.

Consider the meaning of the following sentences with the simple forms as opposed to the progressive ones:

  • I raise my arm! (event) / I’m raising my arm. (duration)
  • My watch works perfectly. (permanent state) / My watch is working perfectly. (temporary state)
  • The man drowned. (complete) / The man was drowning (but I jumped into the water and saved him.) (incomplete)
  • When we arrived she made some coffee. (two events following one another) / When we arrived she was making some coffee. (ongoing action at the time when something else happened)

Consider the meaning of the following sentences with the simple form as opposed to the perfect(ive) form:

  • We lived in London for two months in 1986. (complete) / We have lived in London since last September (and still do.)

2. Lexical aspect

In addition to the grammatical marking of the aspect, the lexical meaning of the verb may convey aspectual meaning. This is called lexical aspect. The verbs can be divided as follows according to their aspectual meaning:

I. Stative verbs

  • Cognition verbs: believe, hate, know, like, enjoy, understand, want
  • Relations verbs: be, belong, contain, have, own, resemble

II. Dynamic verbs

  • Punctual verbs Acts: hit, jump, eat, kick, stab, strike, throw, cough
  • Durative verbs Activities: eat, run, swim, walk, work, write / Processes: become, change, flow, grow, harden, learn

The verbs denoting stative concepts tend not to be used with progressive forms. After buying a house, English speakers are not likely to tell people, I’m having a house now, because that would suggest a process rather than a fixed state. The progressive aspect used with a stative verb often signifies a temporary state: You’re being foolish. I’m having a bad day.

The verbs that typically signify punctual concepts, describing momentary acts, have a slightly different meaning in the progressive form: He’s kicking the box, She’s coughing. These are interpreted as repeated acts, not as single acts. Dynamic verbs used in the progressive aspect typically signify ongoing activity.

The perfective aspect used with stative verbs typically signify pre-existing states (that may continue): He has believed in Allah all his life. We have known Fred for many years. I have been ill. The perfective aspect used with dynamic verbs, on the other hand, often indicate completed actions: We have baked the cake (would you like to taste it). I have written some notes (you can read them here).

Statistically, verb phrases marked for aspect are in the minority (only 10% of all the verbs in the corpus used for the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English); in the same corpus perfect(ive) aspect was slightly more common than the progressive aspect.

Exercises on tense and aspect

Task 1. Progressive aspect and stative verbs. First discuss and decide on a meaning for each of the (1) sentences below. Then decide what the other (2) sentences might mean and why they might sound odd.

i) (1) I’m having a bad hair day. (2) I’m having a car.

ii) (1) He’s being a jerk. (2) He’s being a student.

iii) (1) I’m hating this! (2) I’m hating fish!

iv) (1) She’s not believing a word he says. (2) She’s believing in God.

Task 2. Past tense vs. present perfect. Complete the following text first with past tense forms and then with present perfect forms. What are the different impressions resulting from the choice of past tense vs. present perfect?

My name is Sirpa. I’m from Finland. I ______ (live) in America for two years. I _____ (be) an exchange student. I ______ (be) studying modern art. I _______ (see) a lot of the country in that time. My host family ________ (help) me travel all over. I ________ (enjoy) my stay. And I hope to return one day for another visit.

Task 3. Present and past tense. Read the following examples from academic writing. Identify the tenses used in the VPs in italics and discuss what the meaning of the present and past tense might be.

a) Maidment (1976, 1983) and Ohala and Gilbert (1978) also found that listeners can in some circumstances recognize languages by their prosody alone.

b) In one of the experiments carried out bly Cochrane (1980), Japanese children scored higher than adults.

c) There are often considerable differences in judgement between one native judge and another (see de Bot 1979; Strain 1963).

d) That some ontogenetic neurological change limits the ability of adults to learn a new sound system is not proven (see, e.g., Flege 1988; Leather 1988).



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