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7.3  Grammatical categories and verbs


Grammatical categories and verbs

Categories of verb morphology

What properties of the events described in the following sentences do the morphemes in bold tell us about?

  • Jimmy will graduate in June.
  • Jimmy would graduate if he studied.
  • Jimmy is sleeping.

In the last section we saw how grammatical morphology can specify one or another abstract category for the things that nouns refer to. In this section, we'll look at how grammatical morphology can do the same for verbs, focusing on one particular kind of verb morphology, morphemes that indicate general properties of the participants in the event or state that the verb designates.

Just as things divide naturally into a small number of categories on the basis of dimensions such as number, countability, and shape, events and states also divide naturally into a small number of categories on the basis of several basic dimensions.


The Grammies realized early on that when an event occurred or a state was true often mattered. An utterance like Clark eat berries wasn't much use if the hearer didn't know whether Clark had already eaten the berries, was eating them at that moment, or was going to eat them at some later time. The Grammies developed two kinds of expressions to help them talk about the time of an event or state, absolute and relative expressions. This is a distinction we've seen before, in the context of adjective meaning.

Absolute time expressions label specific points in time, such as January 20, 1203, or points within a repeating unit of time, such as 3:00 pm (which labels a time within the day) and Tuesday (which labels a day within the week). The second type of expression may be used for repeating events or states (I get up at 7:00) or for a single event or state, in which case the Hearer has to be able to figure out which unit of time the Speaker has in mind. That is, I got up at 7:00 is only meaningful if we know which day the Speaker is talking about.

Expressions like yesterday and ago express times relative to the utterance time.

Relative time expressions label points in time relative some other reference point. The most obvious reference point is the utterance time, which is one of the roles in the utterance context and is directly accessible to the Hearer. Thus referring to time in this way is an example of a deictic use of language. For an event or state that is going on at the time of speaking, we have a word like now. For a past or future event or state, we can mention the length of time that has elapsed or will elapse between the time it occurred or will occur and the utterance time (an hour ago, in an hour), or we can simply say that it happened before the utterance time or will happen after the utterance time (already, in the future). There are other possible reference points for relative time reference. We can say things like before that time and after the wedding.

Just as number ended up grammatical in languages such as English, we might expect reference to the time of events and states to end up grammatical too. In fact, many, if not most, modern languages have a system for this, called tense, built into their grammar. For example, we distinguish Clark fell asleep, Clark is falling asleep, and Clark is going to fall asleep. Tense morphology divides events and states into the general grammatical categories past, present, and future; or a smaller set such as past and non-past; or a larger set, depending on the language.

As with other grammatical morphology, tense marking is normally obligatory in languages that have it, even when it is redundant. Both of the following English sentences have the past morpheme, even though that morpheme is redundant in the second example because the phrase last night makes it clear that the event happened before the utterance time.

  1. I slept ten hours.
  2. I slept ten hours last night.

Duration, repetition, completion

Events may be viewed "from inside", as they are going on, or "from outside", before they begin or after they finish.

There are other ways of looking at the temporal properties of an event or state than when it occurred or was true. It could be viewed as ongoing or completed, for example. Consider the difference between these two English sentences.

  1. Clark was falling asleep.
  2. Clark had fallen asleep.

Both have an unspecified time in the past as a point of reference. In sentence 3 the event is seen as ongoing at that time, and in sentence 4 the event is seen as completed at that time.

The Speaker may also point out the repeated nature of an event or state. Consider the difference between these English sentences.

  1. Clark runs in the marathon.
  2. Clark is running in the marathon.

For both of these sentences, the point of reference is the utterance time ('now'). In sentence 5, the running is viewed as repeated around this reference time; in sentence 6 it is ongoing at the reference time.

The grammatical representation of duration, completion, and repetition of events and states is known as aspect. As with other grammatical morphology, aspect morphology is often obligatory. In English, for example, speakers have to commit themselves to the choice between ongoing, repeated, or completed for an event with present reference time. That is, it is impossible in English to talk about Clark running the marathon, as in sentences 5 and 6, without making such a commitment.

Possibility, hypothesis, desirability

Another set of properties that distinguishes some events and states from others is related to their truth: whether they are true or likely to be true, whether we are treating them as true just for the sake of argument, whether we would like them to be true. The grammatical represention of meanings like these is called modality. Here are two English examples where the verb morphology reflects these dimensions.

  1. If Jimmy spoke Spanish, he'd have a better chance with Lupe.
  2. Perry suggested that Clark spend less time on computer games.

In sentence 7, the Speaker knows that Jimmy doesn't speak Spanish; if he did or there were at least a possibility that he does, the verb would be speaks rather than spoke. And in the same sentence, would ('d) indicates the conditional nature of the state of "having a better chance"; it would be true if Jimmy spoke Spanish, but he doesn't, so it isn't. In sentence 8, spend is used rather than spends, indicating the tenative nature of the "spending less time"; this is only a suggestion, not yet reality.


Events and states are defined in part by their participants. The choice of a particular verb commits the Speaker not only to a category of state or event but to a set of semantic roles. But these semantic roles may often be filled by a variety of things. We can group events and states into a small set of abstract categories on the basis of some general properties of these participants. The next subsection focuses on verb morphology with this function.

Verb agreement

What makes the following sentences ungrammatical? What kind of rule can you specify for the verb morpheme -s?

  • Clark always arrive late.
  • Clark's colleagues likes him a lot.

In many languages verbs take inflectional morphemes that convey some information about one or more participants in the event or state that the sentence is about. One way to think about this is in terms of the agreement between the verb and those participants on a small number of abstract properties. On the one extreme are languages like Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, which have no morphology of this type (though sometimes the choice of a verb in Japanese is governed by some properties of the participants). In what follows, I'll briefly discuss verb agreement in four languages that have some form of it. Notice that since agreement morphology conveys abstract properties of participants, that is, things, this topic overlaps with the topic of the last section.


English is a language with limited verb agreement morphology, the vestiges of what was a full-blown agreement system in Old English. Consider these sentences.

  1. Clark plays golf.
  2. Lois and Clark play tennis.
  3. I play croquet.
  4. Clark played 18 holes yesterday.
  5. Clark likes team sports.
In English -s is plural when it appears on nouns but singular when it appears on verbs.

Notice that the form of the verb play differs in sentence 9 and 10. In sentence 9 the subject of the sentence, Clark, is 3rd person (that is, including neither the Speaker nor the Hearer) and singular, and the verb takes the suffix -s to indicate this. When the same verb is used with a subject that has any other combination of person and number, as in sentences 10 and 11, the verb takes no suffix. Notice also that an agreement suffix is only added to verbs in the simple present tense, that is, the tense category used in sentences 9, 10, and 11. Sentence 12 is in the simple past tense, and no distinction is made on the basis of person and number. Finally, notice that it is the participant in the syntactic role of subject, rather than any particular semantic role, that the verb agrees with. So in sentence 13, the verb again takes the -s even though the subject in this case refers to an experiencer rather than an agent, as in sentence 9.

With the verb be, there are three forms rather than two in the simple present, and rather than suffixes, completely unrelated forms are used: am (1st person singular), is (3rd person singular), and are (other person-number combinations). The verb be also has two forms in the simple past tense, was and were.

Thus English subject-verb agreement is limited both in terms of the number of different forms and the situations in which it must apply. However, it behaves just like the other examples of grammatical morphology we've been considering. It is often redundant, but it is obligatory even when it is. So in standard English dialects, at least, it is ungrammatical to say Clark like Lois, even though the missing -s would convey no new information.

So does the -s in play in sentences 9 and 13 mean anything? Yes, it means that the subject of that verb is 3rd person singular. In addition, because this suffix only occurs on verbs in the simple present tense, it also marks that tense category. Under most circumstances, this information would be obvious from the subject itself and from the context. But if the Hearer missed the subject for some reason, that -s could help sort things out. Also there are gray areas where Speakers may choose to use a verb in the 3rd person singular with a plural subject. Compare these two sentences.

  1. A hundred students are in this course.
  2. A hundred students is more than this room can hold.

In sentence 15, the subject is viewed as an individual quantity rather than a collection of individual things, so the verb is singular.

Spanish (and Japanese)

Spanish verbs agree with their subjects in all tenses, aspects, and modalities (TAM), and the number of different forms is at least four in each case, depending on the particular combination of TAM. The actual morphemes used vary with the TAM. In fact in most cases, the subject agreement morpheme also indicates the TAM. Let's look only at the past tense forms for one verb; remember that English makes no distinctions in this tense except for the verb be.

  1. habl-é 'I spoke'
  2. habl-aste 'you (singular, familiar) spoke'
  3. habl-ó 'he/she/it/you (singular, polite) spoke'
  4. habl-amos 'we spoke'
  5. habl-aron 'you (plural)/they spoke'
A Spanish or Japanese sentence can have a subject even when it contains no noun phrase.

The main thing to notice about these words is that they are also sentences. That is, Spanish is an example of a language that does not require explicit subjects. An explicit subject is a separate noun phrase functioning as subject. In these sentences there are no NPs, just verbs. But the verbs carry information about the subject, in this case, the agent of the speaking. In other words, these sentences do have a subject; it is just not expressed explicitly in an NP.

Of course Spanish sentences can have explicit subjects. If a 3rd person subject were not clear from the context, it would need to be spelled out, for example, Lois habló 'Lois spoke'. But what about cases where English would have a personal pronoun subject, such as I spoke, you spoke, and he spoke? Here Spanish can have an explicit subject as well, but it carries additional weight. Yo hablé or hablé yo, with the personal pronoun yo 'I', is more like an emphatic I spoke in English, for example, in a situation where the Hearer assumes somebody else was the one speaking.

But even without the pronoun that is required in the English sentence I spoke, the Hearer of the Spanish sentence can know who the subject is from the suffix on the verb. The extensive subject-verb agreement in Spanish probably has something to do with the fact that this language doesn't require explicit subjects.

Some languages, like English, have syntactic positions in a sentence that must be filled; others, like Japanese, aren't so rigid in this way.

But it is not quite that simple. Japanese is also a language that does not require explicit subjects, but Japanese has no subject-verb agreement. That is, the single verb hanashita 'spoke', with no indication of who (or what) the subject is, can function as a sentence on its own. Does this sentence have a subject? It does in the sense that the Speaker obviously had someone in mind who did the speaking, and if that person had been referred to in an NP, it would have been the subject of the verb hanashita.

This brings up another interesting difference between Japanese on the one hand and both English and Spanish on the other. Both English and Spanish have transitive verbs, verbs that have both a subject and a direct object, and for such verbs there must be an explicit direct object in both languages. That is, it is ungrammatical in English to say Clark put, even when it is clear what he put, and it is ungrammatical in Spanish to say the possibly corresponding "sentence", Clark puso. These verbs require an explicit direct object. In Japanese there are no such verbs. Just as subjects may be omitted if they are clear from context, direct objects of transitive verbs may be omitted if they are clear from context. Thus oita 'put (past)' is a perfectly good Japanese sentence. But just as it has an (implicit) subject, it has an (implicit) direct object.


Like Spanish, Amharic has obligatory subject-verb agreement in all of the different TAM possibilities, though there are even more different agreement morphemes for a given TAM types because Amharic verbs have to distinguish feminine from masculine subjects in 2nd and 3rd person singular. And like Spanish, Amharic allows subjects to be omitted when they are clear from context. Further, Amharic uses personal pronoun subjects, even when they are clear from the subject-verb agreement morphemes, to put emphasis on the subject, again just as Spanish does.

A verb in some languages may convey information about multiple particants in the event or state.

But Amharic goes beyond Spanish. As you have already seen from the Amharic examples in the section on morphemes, the language has direct-object-verb agreement. That is, a verb may have two agreement morphemes, one for the subject and one for the direct object. The circumstances in which the direct object morpheme is obligatory are complicated, but there are such circumstances. Here are a few examples in the past tense, similar to those you saw in the previous section. The root and past tense morphemes are not shown separated; they combine by template morphology. For the glosses of the agreement morphemes, both the syntactic role and an English pronoun are given.

21. mεssεl - ε - h
resemble:past subj=he dirobj=you:masc
'He resembled you (masculine).'
22. mεssεl - n- accεw
resemble:past subj=we dirobj=them
'We resembled them.'
23. mεssεl - u- n
resemble:past subj=they dirobj=us
'They resembled us.'

Just as personal pronouns can be used as subjects in Spanish (and Amharic) when emphasis needs to be placed on them, personal pronouns can be used as direct objects in Amharic when emphasis needs to be placed on them, even when they are clear from the verb. So to emphasize the "us" of sentence 23, an Amharic Speaker could say the following.

24. Inŋa- n mεssεl- u- n
us acc resemble:past subj=they dirobj=us
'They resembled us.'

In fact Amharic goes one step further. It even allows agreement with adjuncts, that is, objects of prepositions. There are only two possible "prepositions" that can appear within the verb. I'll just give examples of one of these, realized as the suffix -bb- followed by a suffix representing the object of the preposition. This morpheme agrees with a participant that is an instrument, a sufferer, a location, or a time. Here are two examples with this pair of morphemes used for a sufferer; in both cases the "pronoun" is 'us'. For -bb-, the gloss is just "B".

25. t'εffa- accIhu- bb- n
disappear:past subj=you:plur B us
'We lost you guys.'
26. bεlla- accIhu- bb- n
eat:past subj=you:plur B us
'You guys (went and) ate it on us. (You ate something to our disadvantage.)'

Notice the way Amharic expresses loss to someone; sentence 25 is literally 'you guys disappeared on us'.

In summary, all Amharic verbs agree with their subjects, and some agree in addition with either their direct objects or an object of a preposition.

American Sign Language

The grammars of sign languages may be just as complex as those of spoken languages.

Finally let's consider agreement morphology on verbs in a sign language. We have already seen one example of this in the discussion of mutation morphology. ASL has a category of verbs that sign linguists call "directional verbs". These are verbs designating transfer events, or information_transfer events, or other events viewed as having a direction. These verbs have a basic handshape and a position on the body, but their direction has to agree with the source and the goal (often the recipient) of the event. The agreement is with what corresponds to person in ASL, the position in signing space of the participants. 1st and 2nd person have the position of the signer and the sign interpreter, and other participants are "placed" in signing space by the signer as they come up.

For example, to produce the sign for 'give' in ASL when the source/agent is neither the signer nor the sign interpreter and the recipient is the signer, the signer uses the basic handshape for 'give', moving one hand from the position of the giver in signing space to the signer's own chest. The direction would be the opposite if the roles were reversed.

Another form of agreement in ASL makes use of classifiers. Classifiers in ASL take the form of particular handshapes that represent general properties of things. For example, an index finger pointing upward represents a standing person, a cupped hand represents a container, and the extended thumb and first two finger represents a vehicle One use of classifiers is as morphemes agreeing with the subjects of verbs designating move events and be_at states. In this case the agreement is the opposite of what happens with verbs of giving and telling. It is the handshape that represents the agreement morpheme and the movement of the hand(s) that represents the content of the verb. For example, to sign a sentence meaning 'the car is here', the signer would make the sign for 'car', then with the 'vehicle' classifier handshape sign 'be here', that is, move the hand downward in front of the body.

How is verb agreement in ASL like the verb agreement in the spoken languages we have considered? At least in many cases agreement in ASL is obligatory, as it is in spoken languages. It may also be redundant, as in the 'vehicle' example.

Agreement in ASL, in fact morphology in sign languages generally, is strikingly different from spoken language morphology in one way. It is invariably iconic; all of these examples we have seen "make sense". With respect to form alone, sign language grammatical morphology differs in another way from most spoken language grammatical morphology in that it occurs simultaneously with the root morpheme. Of course this derives from the potential in sign languages to maintain a particular handshape while a movement is executed.

One point of this section has been to show how much languages can vary in terms of what information gets represented on their verbs. It is on verbs that we see how different languages can get. Within our set of languages, we have seen a range of possibilities, but we still are not close to the extreme of some American Indian and Eskimo languages, like Inuktitut, where verbs frequently include more than ten morphemes. However, those words usually include morphemes that go beyond the functions we've discussed in this chapter. Such languages excel at creating new words from a small number of roots and extensive productive morphology. How this sort of process works is the topic of the next chapter.

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