verbs

A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

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Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.

If I Were Any More Uncertain, I’d Be Subjunctive

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If English language elements are a collection of family members, the Subjunctive Mood is the sickly great-uncle, bed-ridden and lingering at death’s door for ages upon ages, and just when you think he’s finally kicked the bucket, BAM! He rears his hoary old head and demands a pudding cup.

(No offense intended to any sickly great-uncles out there. Please enjoy your pudding.)

The “was” vs. “were” debate is by no means of recent origin. It started to emerge sometime in the 1600-1700s, but the transition began gradually enough that it’s still happening to this day. And the thing is, no one uses one or the other consistently. No one.

The Subjunctive Mood

Moods, in language, refer to the speaker’s disposition towards the words they’re saying. The Indicative (AKA the Declarative) is the default mood; there’s also the Imperative (which only has a 2nd person form because it’s demanding action from someone else), the Interrogative (for asking questions), the Conditional (for that non-committal speaker), and the good ol’ Subjunctive.

The Subjunctive Mood expresses hypotheticals. Or, at least, it’s supposed to. But since it’s been dying out in English since the Dawn of the English Language (yes, really), it mostly gets trotted out when some pedant wants to put someone they don’t like in their place, grammatically speaking.

The identifying hallmark of the Subjunctive is that it carries no inflection. Present Subjunctive is the root verb; Past Subjunctive is its plural past-tense form; Future Subjunctive gets the modal “should” (recall that the “mod-” in “modal” is actually “mood” [OE mod] and that modals exist to convey the speaker’s grammatical Mood). So, the subjunctive forms for the verb to run would be as follows:

  • Present: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they run
  • Past: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they ran
  • Future: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they should run

Basically, in Modern English, the only place this mood could actually show up as different from the Indicative is in the 3rd person singular present expression (e.g., if he run, if she run, if it run).

Unless!

Unless we’re talking about a most irregular verb.

To Be or Not To Be

The etymology of our strangest and most common verb, to be, is a fascinating tangle. A hybrid of two Old English verbs, beon and wæron, its Indicative Mood displays inflection in every singular present tense, and a separate form for plural present, past singular, and past plural:

  • Present Singular: I am, you are, he/she/it is
  • Present Plural: we/you/they are
  • Past Singular: I/he/she/it was
  • Past Plural: we/you/they were

The Subjunctive forms are, again, the root for Present Subjunctive, the plural past tense for Past Subjunctive, and the modal “should” for Future Subjunctive:

  • Present: if I be
  • Past: if I were
  • Future: if I should be

That’s right. Proper use of the Subjunctive demands that you use “if I be” for present-tense hypotheticals.

  • “If I be late to the restaurant, order without me,” said no one within the past three hundred years.

Remnants of the Present Subjunctive survive in idiomatic usage (e.g., “be that as it may”) and colloquial speech (e.g., Yosemite Sam out lookin’ fer a fight), as well as more archaic references, such as the giant’s rhyme from Jack and the Beanstalk: “Be he alive or be he dead / I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

Past Subjunctive has proved a little more hardy: “if I were,” “I wish I were,” “as though he were,” etc. still survive in everyday speech, but was has steadily crept into that territory. One theory is that, because was gives more certainty to the sentence, it started being used for emphasis: “I’m not this, but if I was…”

Regardless of the cause, Subjunctive were has become marked as an oddity, yet it clings to its role with a death-grip. For every song lyric that starts “If I was,” there’s an armchair grammarian in the wings gnashing their teeth against the usage.

But, again, only if they dislike the band. We’re very quick to condemn those we wish to find fault with and to excuse the ones we love.

Final Thoughts

Whether the Subjunctive eventually dies its long-drawn death is anyone’s guess. At this point, it’s mostly personal preference that dictates whether someone uses it or not. And, frankly, calling someone out for their non-use is like criticizing them for not liking carrot cake: it’s pointless, fruitless, and—ultimately—counter-intuitive. It breeds hyper-correction and contempt, neither of which are good for cooperative communication.

In my estimation, where Subjunctive were is concerned, it’s best to live and let live. Or die, as the case may be.

 

*Fun Note: The song that’s linked on the words “If I was” above casts off the Past Subjunctive in its chorus but preserves the Present Subjunctive in the lyric “Be I a poor man or a king.”

Verbs, Part 6: Conclusion (for now)

Objectives:

  1. Describe major verb features and their functions.
  2. Classify specific verbs according to the theta-roles they assign.

Skill level: Advanced

As indicated by the title, this is the final post in my verb series, though not necessarily my final post on verbs. (Who knows what the future holds, yeah?) This is mostly an overview post, so it’s short, quick, and to the point.

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Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

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Verbs, Part 4: Theta-Roles, or How to Eliminate Passive Voice

My favorite syntax resource, Radford's English Syntax: An Introduction.

My favorite syntax resource, Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction.

The discussion in this post requires a different view of language structure. For a deeper understanding, I refer you to Andrew Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction (ISBN 0521542758), particularly pp. 190-193 . Much of this post draws from that source.

Objectives:

  1. Identify the theta-roles assigned to nouns by verbs.
  2. Revise Passive Voice from sentences by using verbs with alternate theta-role assignments.

Skill level: Advanced

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Verbs, Part 2: Tense, Mood, and Aspect

This post covers the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect. It’s boring, and I’ve put off writing it forever because it’s boring.

Objectives:

  1. Define the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect.
  2. Supply the correct form for a set of given verbs and features.

Skill level: intermediate

“The past and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

As grammar jokes go, this one is fairly awful. (But I laugh all the same, of course, because my sense of humor apparently sprouted in one of our local corn fields.) Of the verb features, Tense is probably the easiest to understand. Mood, and Aspect were once these nebulous terms to me, conditions that I understood existed but that I couldn’t pinpoint or keep track of. A fourth verb feature, Voice, merits its own post and will be discussed only minimally here.

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Verbs: Part 1 of Many

This post is the first in a series on Verbs. Dry, dry, horrifically essential stuff.

Objectives:

  1. Discuss the difference between finite and non-finite verbs.
  2. Extract all the verbs from a passage of prose; categorize them as finite or non-finite.

Skill Level: beginner

If the five lexical categories were Tolkien’s infamous rings, the Verb would be the One Ring to rule them all.  For writers, it can make or break a narrative. A wrong verb or a wrong tense on a verb can skew your intended meaning and instantly derail your reader’s focus. It can also summon grammar-wraiths to hammer their shrieking condemnation down upon your head. (Man, how I wish I were only kidding about that.)

Thus, as writers, it behooves us to be well acquainted—and perhaps even intimate—with our friend and sometimes friendly nemesis, the Verb.

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