The growing consensus, particularly on YouTube, is that fluency in a language is measured by the number of words you know. Many books and YouTube vloggers have focused on knowing 2,000 words as definite proof that you are fluent. Should this be the definition of fluency?
If we were to memorise ten words per day in Greek, then within 200 days we could be considered fluent in Greek. On first consideration, this sounds like a wonderfully short time to master a language. However, what two thousand words should we learn and how should we connect them when making a sentence?
As an example, let’s say we memorised ten Japanese nouns per day for one year. That would mean we would have a staggering 3,560 words at our disposal. This idea of learning sounds too good to be true, and the reality is that it is too good to be true.
Using only nouns when communicating in Japanese would render your skills to pointing at things and trying to use body language to indicate what you want. You could have some success in a bar if you want a glass of beer, but telling people where you’ve been and when you’ve been somewhere would be impossible.
Modern languages cannot work without verbs. To describe the who, what, when, and where of a story requires the use of verbs. Fluency in any modern language is impossible without studying verbs, and then using them when communicating.
Verbs are not the easiest of words to use. They are as complicated as they are useful. Their behaviours as words are often irregular, baffling, and some of their more chaotic aspects must be committed to memory by rote learning.
With some hard work, and practice, you can tame verbs and make them work for you. If you can control and use the right verbs, then mastering a language, and using that language to make your life easier is a goal you can reach.
This article will be split into two pieces to make the subject more accessible. Do not rush into learning verbs by trying to cover too much of the subject at once. In this first part of the article: we will cover the infinitive, the person doing the action, and the present simple only.
Please feel free to read the first part of the article over and over again to ensure you have understood the basics of verbs clearly. You can then move on to the second part of the article, and come back to the first part when you need a refresher of the basics.
A verb at its simplest: the infinitive
The form of the infinitive verb never changes. Imagine the infinitive verb as a single ingredient in a complicated recipe. An orange, before being sliced or squeezed, in its original form is a piece of fruit which has not been altered or adjusted. The infinitive of the verb is similar in its scope to a basic ingredient.
The infinitive of the verb has no tense and no person with which to attach itself. If you use an English dictionary to find a particular verb, the dictionary will first list the infinitive verb. As an example, the verb used for ‘walks’, ‘walking’, and ‘walked’ will be placed first in the dictionary as ‘walk’.
The infinitive verb ‘walk’ cannot be broken down into a smaller part, ‘walk’ is the infinitive and purest form of the verb. To demonstrate that ‘walk’ is an infinitive verb, please look at the following two sentences:
- Yesterday, he walk home.
- As of this moment, she walk to Scotland.
Both of the above sentences are incorrect. You may be understood by native speakers of English if you use the sentence examples, but both are clearly wrong. This proves that the infinitive has no tense and no person with which to attach itself. The correct form for the two example sentences would be:
- Yesterday, he walked home.
- As of this moment, she is walking to Scotland.
Most infinitive verbs will have ‘to’ placed in front of them. With infinitives, ‘to’ is considered a part of the verb, and is not regarded as a preposition. As an example, the following are infinitive verbs:
- To go
- To walk
- To wake
- To sleep
- To think
Splitting infinitives like atoms
Many experts on the English language believe that splitting the infinitives is as dangerous as splitting atoms. They argue that adverbs should not be placed in the middle of infinitives. I once saw a book review on television where a literary critic gave harsh criticism of an author’s book as they had split many infinitives in their writing.
The television series ‘Star Trek’ was often criticised in England as its opening monologue contained the split infinitive ‘to boldly go’. Old prejudices are beginning to disappear, and it is now quite common to read and hear split infinitives used in the English language.
The tense of the verb
To know when an action is happening, the tense of the verb advises if the action is taking place in the past, present, or in the future.
Who is doing the action?
The verb will also need to change depending on who is carrying out the action. This can often cause even native English speakers problems when deciding on the form of the verb to use. There are also regional dialects in England where grammatical errors are part of the local accent.
In the North West of England, you will often hear the following sentences:
- We was walking our dog.
- We was first in the queue to buy concert tickets.
Both of the above sentences are incorrect. The correct form of the sentences would be:
- We were walking our dog.
- We were first in the queue to buy concert tickets.
The word ‘was’ is the singular past of the word ‘be’, and ‘were’ is the plural past of the word ‘be’. For four more examples, please consider the following:
- I was considered to be good at swimming.
- They were always the best at playing snooker.
- I was watching television at home last night.
- They were all dancing during the concert last night.
In English grammar, we need to know who the person is that is carrying out an action. If we are talking about ourselves, we would use the first person singular - this would be the word ‘I’.
The words ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’, ‘they’ and ‘you’ (plural form) will all affect our use of verbs. This is most easily seen in what is known as conjugation. This word means a change in the verb caused by the person doing the action, and when the action took place. Please see below for an example of these changes:
You talk (you in plural use)
The present simple
In English grammar there are four present tense forms. One of these is the simple present. If we take the English word ‘swim’, the present simple tense of the words is the following:
You (plural) swim
We can use the above examples to construct sentences in English, such as the following:
- I swim everyday.
- You swim twice a week?
- He/She/It swims in the pool everyday.
- We swim together every night after finishing work.
- You (plural) swim all at the same time?
- They swam in a pool near to the train station.
The verb in the simple present only changes when using he, she, or it. You probably noticed that ‘swim’ becomes ‘swims’ when using the pronouns he, she, or it.
You will most commonly use the simple present when expressing a feeling, or making a statement about a general topic. Another example would be:
- I hate playing soccer.
- You hate playing soccer?
- He/She/It hates playing soccer.
- We hate playing soccer.
- You (plural) hate playing soccer?
- They hate playing soccer.
Try to spend some time creating your own simple present sentences. Make sure you have a good English dictionary to hand, and a variety of topics to discuss. The simple present is good for stating an opinion when asked a direct question in English.
In the next part of this article we will cover the topic of inflection, examine the present tense further, then cover the past tense, and shed some light on irregular verbs. Stay posted on italki to see when the second part of the article will be posted!
Hero image by Seth Doyle (CC0 1.0)