features in the description of the English verb in some 18th and 19th century
Universidad de Granada
There is general agreement in qualifying English grammars of the 18th and
19th century as Latin-oriented, prescriptive and relying too much on meaning.
Our position, however, is closer to Algeo's than to these former approaches.
Algeo thinks that:
dependence of early English grammars on Latin models has been somewhat
exaggerated. Most of the first English grammars recognized the considerable
structural differences between Latin and English and accounted for them, often
in innovative and perceptive ways, albeit within the overarching requirement
that English be described with the general categories of Latin. (Algeo,
In general, 18th and 19th century grammarians sought to describe English grammar on its own terms, and, although meaning is quite often the basis of their analysis, they also consider form and function more extensively than has traditionally been recognized. In relation to the analysis of the verb, which is our topic here, we want to point out that one of the most important theoretical problems, widely discussed both by these 18th and 19th century grammarians and by those modern grammarians who have analysed their work, has been the definition of the real position which inflected endings and auxiliary verbs occupy within the verbal system to form what has traditionally been called the different modes and tenses. Most modern descriptions of English accept that the structure of the English verb phrase is that of auxiliary + main verb. But, as far as we are aware, no serious attempt has yet been made to define and limit the scope of this auxiliary element. Most people mistakenly identify the auxiliary element with auxiliary verbs. However, Quereda (1993) has proved that the auxiliary element in the English verb phrase is not only formed by auxiliary verbs (have, be, do, may, etc.), but also by semi-auxiliary verbs (is to, is going to, have to, etc.), inflections (-s, -ed1, -ed2, -ing) and by some free morphemes such as to and not, besides phonological features such as intonation, emphasis, etc. We shall study in this paper the position of these grammarians in relation to this problem and attempt to show that, in some way, their position was not as inaccurate and Latinist as many critics want us to believe.
In these grammars we find two radical positions. In the first place, there were grammarians, a small minority, who thought that inflection was the only possibility in the English verbal paradigm: to recognize a "tense" or a "mode" in English, the verb needs to suffer some change by means of the addition or dropping of some kind of inflection. In the second place, there were other grammarians, the great majority, who considered that the English language required the help of some auxiliaries to form such "tenses" and "modes". These two positions, surprisingly, have always been presented as contradictory, when, as we shall see, those who accepted tenses and modes realized by auxiliaries never rejected the idea of "tenses" realized by means of inflections. And probably, what is less understandable, grammarians who have defended the second position have always been accused of trying to impose Latin moulds on the English language. We shall now analyse both positions and the problems related to them.
Some grammarians saw inflectional variation as a prerequisite for the
consideration of tenses and modes. One of the first grammarians to defend this
theory is Wallis. He
is followed, among others, by Priestley. Priestley is the most emphatic advocate
of the view that English had only two tenses. Unlike all the earlier grammarians
except Wallis he sees that the fundamental question is how the term tense
is to be interpreted:
The only natural rule for the use of technical terms to express time,
&c. is to apply them to distinguish the different modifications of words;
and it seems wrong to confound the account of inflections, either with
the grammatical uses of the combinations of words, of the order in
which they are placed, or of the words which express relations, and which
are equivalent to inflections in other languages ... A little reflection may, I
think, suffice to convince any person, that we have no more business with a
future tense in our language, than we have with the whole system of Latin
moods and tenses; because we have no modification of our verbs to correspond
with it. (Priestley, 1762), added in the 2nd ed. 1768, pp vii and viii).
In America, it is Brown (1823), although perhaps in a more timid way, who defended this position.
The first explicit repudiation of moodis made by James Greenwood, in 1711. Greenwood is followed by Loughton (1734), Collyer (1735) and the New English Accidence (1735). Lynch is of the same opinion since he admits:
No more modes should be admitted in a language than there are different
inflexions of the verb for expressing the various manners of mental affirmation.
(Patrick Lynch, 1796:39).
Priestley would have liked to deny English any moods but was too honest
to do so. In 1762 he goes so far as to say:
English has none ... except if I be. (Priestley, 1762:98).
Grammarians opposed to the consideration of periphrastic forms (ie.,
"uninflected forms") as modes and tenses argued that meaning was not a
good criterion to follow. Priestley, for example, claims that:
It is easy to see that, upon these principles, moods might have been
increased almost ad infinitum: since the ways a sentence may be modified,
or vary from a direct assertion, are innumerable: for instance, for the same
reason that a wish constitutes a mood, an interrogation might
constitute one, a permission another, and so on without end. (Priestley,
These authors, however, found themselves in an awkward position when having to classify all the other verb_forms. By restricting English tenses to two, they had to classify those parts formed by auxiliaries not in terms of tense or mood, but in terms of the 'rest' of the verb. This, indeed, is not theoretically tenable. Thus, for example, Wallis, at the end of his study of the English verb, gives, without any further explanation, a list of the forms which English had to render Latin moods. The problem of such a list is twofold. In the first place, we do not know what the real relation between the two English tenses and all the other forms is. And secondly, since these forms are neither tenses nor modes, we do not really know their role within the system.
This, and not the Latin influence, was probably the reason why most of
the 18th and 19th century grammarians considered that there was nothing wrong
with accepting the combination of auxiliaries and main verb as real English
"tenses" or "modes", and that, therefore, both inflectional
variation and combinations with auxiliary verbs should be considered as possible
English tenses or moods. Although none of them overtly declares his position in
relation to this point, most of the 18th and 19th century grammarians follow
this line in some way or another. Greene, for example, says:
Mode is indicated chiefly by auxiliary verbs. (Greene, 1874:59).
Ash clearly distinguishes between "tenses" realized by means of
inflections and those by means of auxiliaries:
verb itself has but two terminations respecting time: as, love, and loved;
which last may be called the Inflexion of the preter or past tense. (Ash,
tenses, as well as modes, are formed with the auxiliaries to, do, did, have,
had, shall, will, may, can, must, might, would, could and should. (Ash,
Most of us would agree with the following argument offered by Bullions in
relation with all this controversy, which we cannot refrain from quoting,
despite its length. Bullions says:
Some Grammarians are of the opinion that no more moods or tenses ought to be assigned to the verb in English, than are distinguished by difference of form in the simple verb. This principle rejects at once the whole passive voice; and in the active, retains only the present and past tense of the indicative mood, and the present of the subjunctive. To carry out this principle to its full extent, we should reject also the plural number of the tenses that are left; for this is always in the same form with the first person singular. This certainly reduces the English verb to very narrow limits, and renders it a very simple thing; so simple, indeed, as to be of little use, being capable of expressing an action or state only in two relations of time. This simplification of the verb, however, tends only to perplex the language; for though it reduces the number of moods and tenses, it does not, and can not, reduce the number of the forms of speech by which the different times or modes of action are expressed. It is certain, for example, that we have such forms of speech as, "I have loved", "shall loved", "might love," &c. ... This theory has its foundation in the supposition, that a tense, or mood must necessarily mean a distinct form of the simple. This supposition, however, is entirely gratuitous. There is nothing in the meaning of the word mood or tense, which countenances it. A verb is a word which expresses action; tense expresses the action connected with certain relations of time; mood, represents it as farther modified by circumstances of contingency, conditionality, &c.; but whether these modifications are expressed by a change in the form of the simple verb, or by its combination with certain auxiliaries seems to be a matter perfectly indifferent. Indeed, the generally received opinion is, that the different forms of the verb, denominated mood and tense, in Latin and Greek, are nothing more than the incorporation of the auxiliary with the root of the simple verb. If so, why should not the uniform juxtaposition of the auxiliary with the verb, to answer the same purpose, be called by the same name? If a certain auxiliary, connected with a verb, express a certain relation of time, properly denominated the future tense: what essential difference can it make, whether the two words combine into one, or merely stand together? On the whole, then, there is nothing gained by the proposed simplification: Indeed, on the contrary, much, even of simplicity, is lost; and it moreover deprives our language of the analogy which it has in mood and tense with other languages, modern as well as ancient; and if adopted, instead of smoothing the path of the learner, it would tend only to perplex and obscure it. (Bullions, 1846:37-38).
This approach is sounder than that of the defenders of inflectional variation, since the position of both forms within the system is clearly stated: a "principal" verb can be modified not only by inflections but also by auxiliary verbs. This position, nevertheless, entails another difficult problem in English grammar, one which is crucial for an accurate description of the English verb: that of clearly defining those elements which can be considered auxiliary verbs in English and those which cannot, or in other words, that of establishing the principles controlling the delimitation of the forms that constitute the auxiliary element in English, those principles underlying the decision to consider may go and should go as mood forms (grammatical modifications), but be able to go and advise someone to go as modal expressions (semantic or lexical modifications), or is working and have worked as tenses, and begin to work and finish working as aspectual catenative structures.
Therefore, the problem in English grammar is not whether or not to accept
moods and tenses by periphrases. The problem is to decide which of the many
periphrases that we find in English can be given grammatical status and which
cannot. Once this question is solved, the possibility suggested by Priestley
(1762:100) of increasing the number of moods and tenses ad
infinitum would no longer be feasible. The consideration of these problems
will, of course, take us to the famous discussion, quite in vogue in
transformational literature in the seventies, about the definition of auxiliary
verbs as main or as auxiliary verb. It is in fact this problem what Bullions had
in mind when he said:
It is certain, for example, that we have such forms of speech as, "I
have loved", "shall love", "might love," &c. Now
since these and similar forms of speech only express different relations of time
and manner of the one act, "to love," it certainly does seem more easy
and simple to regard them as different moods and tenses of the verb to love,
than to elevate the auxiliary to the rank of a principal verb and then to
combine them syntactically with the verb to love. Indeed, to dispose of
them in this way satisfactorily, is not a quite easy or simple matter. For
example, in the sentence, "I have written a letter," it is easy enough
to say that have is a verb transitive &c. and written a
perfect participle; but when we inquire, what does have govern? what does
written agree with? A correct and satisfactory answer will not be so
easily found. This example will perhaps show that it is much easier, and quite
as satisfactory, to rank the expression as a certain mood and tense of the verb
In this respect, the position of most of the 18th and 19th century
grammarians should be considered in a way as descriptively correct. The
"tenses" and "modes" which they proposed, whether
intuitively or not, were formed with what they thought grammatical, and not
semantic or lexical, elements. The auxiliary verbs which they suggested are, in
fact, those which we normally accept nowadays as pure auxiliaries. None of the
grammarians here studied suggested any optative mode formed with wish or want
+ to infinitive or any perfective tense formed by the combination of verb
The tenses and modes which most of them suggested were all combinations
of the main verb with the auxiliary verbs have, be, will, shall,
can, may, must, would, should, might,
or could and the inflections -ed1, -ed2, -ing
and -s (as, I write; I am writing; I wrote; I have
written; I had written; I will write; I was writing, I have
been writing, I had been writing, I will be writing, etc.).
Auxiliaries were neither chosen at random nor as an attempt to pay service to
Latin. Lowth is clear in this respect:
As far as grammar is concerned, there are no more modes in any language,
than there are forms of the verb appropriated to the denoting of such
different manners of representation. (Lowth, 2nd ed. 1763:48n). (Our emphasis).
Murray also seems to have in mind a syntactic criterion for the consideration of auxiliary verbs, affirming that auxiliary verbs, in contrast to full verbs, are always dependent verbs which can never be used by themselves.As a final piece of evidence, it is also worth pointing out the controversial position of let as an auxiliary verb in these grammars. Although some grammarians accept it as "a sign of the imperative", most of them reject such a possibility. This is a clear indication that there was some discussion about "auxiliaryhood" at that time.
Furthermore, most of these grammarians were concerned to give a formal
description of the different tenses and modes. In this way, it was the normal
practice to identify moods and tenses with a formal marker. Bullions is a good
example of this attitude:
The indicative mood may be known by the sense, or by its having
no sign except in asking a question ... The potential mood has for
its signs the auxiliaries may, can, must, might, could, would and should
... The subjunctive mood has usually for its signs the conjunctions if,
though, unless, except, whether and lest ... The infinitive
mood has usually for its signs the word to ... The imperative
mood may be distinguished by its always being in the second person ...
The present tense has for its sign the first form of the verb ... excepting
the occasional use of do. The imperfect tense has no auxiliary for a
sign, except did, which is sometimes used ...
The perfect tense has for its sign the word have ... The
pluperfect tense has for its sign had ... The first future has for
its sign shall or will ... The second future has for its
sign shall have or will have. (Bullions, 1846:73). (Our
The recognition by many of the 18th and 19th century grammarians of a
potential mode has also been considered as a sign of the Latin influence in
English grammar.However, in our opinion, the decision to include
the potential mode is not necessarily a point which has to be related to Latin.
The inclusion of modal verbs - which were the "signs" of the potential
- in the English verb system may contribute to a better understanding of the way
English expresses modality. We do not mean, of course, that we agree with the
way they presented it. But that modal verbs constitute a grammatical system,
which covers the semantic sphere of non-factuality, and which can be opposed to
those other forms with no modal verb, and which express factuality. In this
respect, we entirely agree with Alexander when he clearly establishes a
distinction between verb phrases with modal verbs and verb phrases without them: This mode [the potential], or form of the verb,
does not, I think, in any case coincide with the indicative. It always has some
respect to the power, will, &c. of the agent, by which, even when
conditionality is out of the question, it is distinguished from the merely
"The one declares the action done, or to be done, without
any further consideration; the other declares not the action done, or to be
done, but the ability, inability, &c. of the agent to perform that
action, and is therefore properly styled the potential mode". (Alexander,
Murray is of the same opinion as Alexander:
Some grammarians have supposed that the Potential Mood, as distinguished
above from the Subjunctive, coincides with the Indicative. But as the latter
"simply indicates or declares a thing," it is manifest that the former,
which modifies the declaration, and introduces an idea materially distinct from
it, must be considerably different. 'I can walk', 'I should walk,' appear to be
so essentially distinct from the simplicity of 'I walk,' 'I walked,' as to
warrant a correspondent distinction of moods. (Murray, 1824:71).
This position is clearer than that of many modern grammarians whose treatment of modal verbs within the English system is ambiguous, because, despite classifying them as pure auxiliaries, they do not consider modal verbs within the category of mood.
Just to finish we would like to say something about the subjunctive. As happens nowadays, the 18th and 19th century grammarians differed in opinion respecting the form and extent of the subjunctive mood. Some deny the existence of a subjunctive form altogether, and consider what is called the subjunctive as only an elliptical form of the future or potential. Ash is the best representative of this line of thought. These writers rightly assert that the verb shows no formal distinction from the indicative, and that a conjunction added to the verb gives it no title to become a distinct mood. However, most grammarians do not agree with this, and accept a subjunctive mood in which one can find a combination of proper subjunctive forms together with both indicative and potential forms.
The acceptance of a subjunctive mood cannot be disputed as long as there
is some formal distinction. In this sense, we have to say that in the 18th
century, the subjunctive was less questioned than in the 19th century. This can
be easily explained if we take into account that formal distinctions were
greater than in the 19th century or in present-day English.
And as Murray himself says we have to accept that "so much difference in
the form of the verb, would warrant a correspondent distinction of mood, though
the remaining parts of the subjunctive were, in all respects, similar to those
of the indicative". But in the
19th century the normal position was closer to that of Greene. Greene gives for
the subjunctive two different forms: one called the subjunctive mode,
which is formally identical to the indicative, and another one which he also
calls the subjunctive mode but qualified in parentheses with the label (subjunctive
form). So most grammarians recognized that the subjunctive had only a
distinct form in the present and past, but they accepted it for semantic reasons.
For most of them meaning, and not form, was the most important distinguishing
factor. It is meaning that makes Murray accept the possibility that the same
form could be understood as indicative, subjunctive or potential:
As the indicative mood is converted into the subjunctive, by the
expression of a condition, motive, wish, supposition, &c. being superadded
to it; so the potential mood may, in like manner, be turned into the subjunctive;
as will be seen in the following examples: "If I could deceive him, I
should abhor it," "Though he should increase in wealth, he
would not be charitable." (Murray, 1824:84).
As can be seen the situation is quite similar to the one we have nowadays, since we have grammarians who defend the subjunctive, whereas others reject it. The preserving of a subjunctive mood in present-day English that is not formally distinguished from the indicative represents, in our opinion, a much more Latinist attitude than the acceptance of a potential mood, marked by modal verbs. The position of the subjunctive in present-day English is quite marginal, and can only be explained as a reof the older inflectional system, whose place has clearly been taken by the only productive system which the English verb has to express the idea of non-factuality: modal verbs.
Considering everything we have said, we think that it is not difficult to
conclude firstly that 19th and 18th century grammars frequently took
morphosyntactic criteria into account; secondly that although no one can deny
some Latin influence, these grammars paid more attention to English structure
than has normally been suggested, and finally that some of the descriptive
problems 18th and 19th century grammarians had are still unsolved in many modern
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The effect of such an approach [that in which Latin grammar represented the "grammar"] can best be seen in the various treatments of ... verbal tense, a category in which the surface structures of Latin and English were so obviously unlike ... (Robins, 1986:300).
category of mood illustrates ... how closely the English grammarians had
tied themselves to the Latin tradition. (Michael, 1970:426).
might be equally claimed that there is no need to distinguish form from
function in the verb phrase: that auxiliary verb and main verb will satisfy
both requirements. (Quirk et al., 1985:64 §2.29).
 "Verbs have only two tenses - present,
and imperfect past." (In Kemp, 1972:331).
 "The verb has two tenses; namely,
present; as, write, past perfect as wrote." (Brown,
 cf. Michael (1970:426).
English there are no moods, because the verb has no diversity of endings."
this way we easily dispense with all the various moods and tenses which are
found in Latin. I love, I do love (Latin present indicative), I
loved, I did love (Latin imperfect indicative), I have loved (Latin
perfect indicative), I had loved (Latin pluperfect indicative), I
shall / will loved (Latin future indicative),
love thou (Latin present imperative), I may / can love
(Latin present subjunctive), I might / could / should / would love (Latin
imperfect subjunctive), I should / will have loved (Latin perfect
subjunctive and future perfect indicative), I should / would / could /
might have loved (Latin pluperfect subjunctive), to love (Latin
present infinitive), to have loved (Latin perfect infinitive), of
loving (Latin genitive of gerund), in loving (Latin ablative of
gerund), to love (Latin accusative (p349) of gerund), to love
(Latin supine in _um), to be loved (Latin supine in _u),
loving (Latin present participle), being to love (Latin future participle), loved
(Latin passive past participle), being
to be loved (Latin gerundive). The same is true of the passive voice, in
forming which the auxiliary am, be is used together with the passive
participle. (In Kemp, 1972:345).
moods and tenses are formed partly by inflections, or changes made in the
verb itself, and partly by the combination of the verb or its participle,
with a few short verbs called auxiliaries, or helping verbs.
 see p. 3, above.
Formations of the several Tenses seem to have Respect both to the Time
and State of the Action signified by the Verb. The present
Tense denotes the Time that now is, and the Action unfinished:
as, I write; or, I am now writing the Letter. The Imperfect
denotes the Time past indeterminately, and the Action to have been
completed at any past Time that may be specified: as, I wrote
the Letter; or, I began or finished the Writing of the
Letter, this Morning, Yesterday, a Week ago, &c. The Perfect
denotes the Time just past, and the Action fully completed:
as, I have written the Letter; or, I have just now finished the
Writing of the Letter. The Pluperfect denotes the Time
past, and the Action to have been completed prior to some other
Circumstance specified in the Sentence: as, I had written the
Letter; or, I had finished the Writing of the Letter before you came
in. The Future denotes the Time to come and the Action
to be completed at any future Time that may be mentioned: as, I will
write the Letter; or, I will begin and finish the Writing
of the Letter, to-night, to-morrow, &c. (Ash, 1785:39-40, Note 42).
are not sure here if Ash is simply paraphrasing the verb form to make its
meaning clearer or if he is suggesting that forms such as I began or
finished the Writing of the Letter, I have just now finished the Writing of
the Letter, I had finished the Writing of the Letter, or I will begin
and finish the Writing of the Letter are alternative tenses. Since this
type of paraphrases never appears in the typical conjugation tables, we
prefer to think that they are just paraphrases.
learner will perceive that the preceding auxiliary verbs, to have and
be, could not be conjugated through all the moods and tenses, without
the help of other auxiliary verbs; namely, may, can, will, shall, and
their variations. That auxiliary verbs in their simple state, and
unassisted by others, are of a very limited extent; and that they are
chiefly useful, in the aid which they afford in conjugating the principal
verbs: will clearly appear to the scholar, by a distinct conjugation of
each of them, uncombined with any other. (Murray, 1824:87). (Our emphasis).
 Lowth, Dilworth and Murray are some
of the grammarians who accept let as a sign for the imperative. In
contrast, Bullions, Ash, Alexander, Greene, or Smith do not accept it. Ash
gives the following explanation:
commonly called a Sign of the imperative Mode, is properly a Verb
in that Mode, as, in the Example, let him love, the Meaning is, permit
or suffer him to love, Let, therefore seems to be a Verb of
the imperative and love of the infinitive Mode, the
Sign, to, being understood, though not expressed. (Ash, 1785:45).
and have make the present time; ... did, had, the past; ... shall,
will the future: ... let is employed in forming the imperative
mode; ... may, might, could, would, should in forming the subjunctive
... the preposition to, placed before the verb, makes the infinitive
mode ... (Lowth, 1775:42-44).
 Although most of the grammarians here
studied accept the potential mode, there are some who reject it. Webster,
for example, was not convinced
that English verbs have a potential mode. In the Preface to his Dissertation
on the English language, he disagrees with those who say there is such a
the use of the term modality is intended to suggest, these do not
correspond to any clear grammatical distinction. Indeed, some uses of the
modal verbs, e.g. can to express ability (He can run a mile in
four minutes) or will for willingness (He won't do as I ask),
are not really expressions of modality at all. (Palmer, 1976:149)
position of Quirk et al. is, as usual, ambiguous:
phrases introduced by modal auxiliaries are normally classified as
but it is worth pointing that not only semantically, but syntactically, they
resemble imperatives and subjunctive. They lack person and number contrast
and also (to some extent) tense contrast. (Quirk et al. 1985:150) (our
verb phrases have mood, which indicates the factual, nonfactual, or
counterfactual status of the predication. In contrast to the 'unmarked'
INDICATIVE, we distinguish the 'marked' moods IMPERATIVE (used to express
commands and other directive speech acts, and SUBJUNCTIVE (used to express a
wish, recommendation, etc.). (Quirk et al., 1985:149)
et al. also, when studying the different meanings of modals,
distinguish some special uses of would and should. In these
uses "these modals have nothing to do with the cognate modals will
and shall, but are instead used to mark the MOOD of the clause".
(Quirk et al., 1985:234 §4.64). It is therefore only in these
special cases of should and would that they consider these
modals as Mood markers.
on the other hand, Quirk et al. consider modal verbs when explaining
the combinatory possibilities in the verb phrase in the following way:
are four basic types of construction in a complex verb phrase:
Type A (MODAL):
... must examine
Type B (PERFECTIVE): ...
Type C (PROGRESSIVE): ... is examining
Type D (PASSIVE):
... is examined
four basic constructions also enter into combination with each other.
 The formal variations normally found
in 18th century conjugation tables can be summarized in the following way:
present tense of the principal verbs [Ind. I love, Thou lovest, he
loveth, We/ye/they love vs. Subj. If I / thou / he / we/ye/they love],
present and imperfect tenses of the verb to be [If I, thou, he, we,
ye, they be; if I were, you wert, he were, we/ye/they were
vs. Ind I was, Thou wast, He was, we/ye/they were], and the second
and the third of those forms which had a modal verb (wilt, shalt).
 For a more detailed explanation of
the position of subjunctive in present-day English, see Quereda (1990) and