• In English, it’s the helping verb that takes the tense

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    THIS rant about bad English grammar was posted in the Facebook page of Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by visitor Zzyggy Zubiri:

    “Pardon my grammar and punctuation, for I wasn’t a very good student then. My English may not be that good but still, I find from reading Internet forums that unlike people in India and in other nations that use English as a second language, Filipinos have a very irritating, if not confounding, way of using the past tense with words like ‘did’ or ‘would,’ as in ‘did helped’ or ‘would cared.’ Now I’m starting to think that by sheer force of numbers, they may be correct.

    “Is this what our teachers are teaching in school nowadays or should the teachers themselves be taught? Or, more disturbing is—am I wrong?”

    My reply to Zzyggy Zubiri:

    Even by sheer force of numbers, not by a long stretch are those Filipinos correct when they use the past tense of the verb with words like “did” or “would,” and I’m absolutely sure that their English teachers aren’t teaching them that terribly wrong usage either. It’s just that being nonnative English speakers, many Filipinos can’t seem to grasp the fact that in English, it’s the helping verb—not the main verb—that takes the tense.

    I’ve taken up this grammar quirk every now and then in this column and in the Forum over the years (http://tinyurl.com/olyxuw5). However, as I had pointed out to an incredulous lawyer puzzled by the cluelessness of some people about that usage, it does need some brainwork to grasp the difference between the tensed main verb and the non-tensed bare infinitive in English sentences.

    The thing to keep in mind is that in English, the auxiliary or helping verb “do” works in two basic ways: (1) as an intensifier to emphasize or to insist on something, (2) to indicate that a question is being asked and to give an emphatic answer, whether positively or negatively. But mark this rule: in both usages, it’s not the main verb but the helping verb “do” that takes the tense.

    1. “Do” functions as an intensifier. It emphasizes a response to a probing question in the present tense or past tense, taking the position right before the main verb of the response.

    For instance, to the question “Do you really know this woman?” or “Did you really know this woman?”, the typical emphatic positive response is “Yes, I do know this woman” or “Yes, I did know this woman.” In such responses, it’s the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb remains in its base form (the infinitive stripped of the function word “to”), which we shouldn’t confuse with its present-tense form. Thus, in the examples presented above, “know” is a bare infinitive and doesn’t take any tense at all.

    2. “Do” indicates that a question is being asked. As we all know, “do” takes the front-end position in present-tense and past-tense questions, as in “Does she take unsolicited advice?” and “Did she take unsolicited advice?” In future-tense questions, the auxiliary verb “will” or “would” takes the place of “do,” as in “Will she take unsolicited advice?” or “Would she take unsolicited advice?”

    Take note that in positive answers to such questions, it’s not the main verb but the helping verb “do” or “would” that takes the tense: “Yes, she does take unsolicited advice.” “Yes, she did take unsolicited advice.” “Yes, she would take unsolicited advice.” When the answer is negative, the helping verb must be positioned before the word that negates the main verb: “No, she does not take unsolicited advice.” “No, she did not take unsolicited advice.” “No, she would not take unsolicited advice.”

    Always, it is not the main verb but the helping verb that takes the tense.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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