Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 2 February 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


B. Syamalakumari


The in presentia and in absentia relations that exist between words of a sentence and between words across sentences, semantic notions, logical relations, affixations processes, and other factors have led Linguists, Rhetoricians, Philosophers, Logicians. and others to group words of a language into 'Parts of Speech'. One of the parts of speech dealt with in all periods of the history of linguistic research is the grammatical category Verb.


There have been innumerable attempts to define what Verb is. There are, thus, many and varied definitions of Verb. While recognition of an item as belonging to Verb category is done rather easily, rigorous definition of the category Verb, which would distinguish Verb fully and comprehensively from other categories, has been found difficult. This is due partly to the difficulties faced in conceptualizing what Verb is in Universal terms (as applicable to all human languages) and in particular terms (accounting for the variations/characteristics/forms/processes specific to a given particular language).

It was due partly to the differences among scholars who tended to focus on one aspect/aspects to the exclusion of others. Thus some definitions of Verb focus on one characteristic to the exclusion of others, some definitions aim at including everything, and in the process lose their descriptive sharpness and fail to contrast verb clearly against other categories, some do take the category granted, some bring in linguistic facts assumed to be valid for all languages, some bring in facts that are relevant and valid only for particular languages, and some focus on non-linguistic facts only. In any case, although the category Verb has received attention in all scholarly pursuits from early times, and the distinction between Verb and other categories such as noun had been noticed, the Verb always remained elusive, when attempts were made to define it vigorously.


A review of the definitions of Verb indicates that their definitions can be classified into the following types:

  1. Definition of Verb as a positional class
  2. Definition of Verb based on the formal characteristics of Verb.
  3. Definition of Verb as a substitutional class
  4. A distributional definition of Verb
  5. A functional definition of Verb
  6. . A psychological definition of Verb
  7. A logical definition of Verb
  8. Definition of Verb based on meaning
  9. A Universal definition of Verb applicable to all languages.
  10. A definition of Verb applicable only to specific languages/particular languages.
  11. Definition of Verb, playing a central role in sentences.
  12. Definition of Verb, considering it a non-central peripheral category.
  13. Definition of Verb, considering it substantive and axiomatic.
  14. A philosophical definition of Verb
  15. A metaphorical definition of Verb
  16. Definition of Verb based on how it reacts to other categories.
  17. Definition of Verb as something not connected with reality and to be defined only within syntax.
  18. Definition of Verb as having unique syntactic properties to portray events.

Perhaps a much larger survey would reveal some more categories. In general, it should be noted that the types given above are of an overlapping nature. A definition given by a scholar may incorporate characteristics of more than one type but not cover, all and thus his definition may fall into several and different types.


The definitions of Verb (1) based on its formal characteristics, (2) as a substitutional class, (3) on the basis of distribution, and (4) based on how it reacts to other linguistic categories require Verb to be defined within syntax.


Modern structural linguists have tended to define Verb more in terms of its formal characteristics than by the meaning it exhibits. They have tended to define Verb as a positional class in the sense that it occupies a particular slot in various sentences of language and whatever occurs in that particular slot has the categorical function of Verb. Structural Linguists have also defined Verb taking into account the differences in the distribution of various grammatical categories. Substitutability in a particular position in a sentence also constitutes an important variable for defining an item as a Verb or not. Affixation processes also mark the Verbs distinct from other categories in their definitions. In general, their definitions are conceived to be valid for the particular languages under investigation, and not to all the languages, although several of them did notice that Verb as a category is found in a large number of languages.

Bloomfield (1926) considered that all forms having the same functions constitute a form class. The functional meanings in which the forms of a form class appear constitute the class meaning. The functional meanings and class meanings of a language are the categories of the language. A form class of words is a word-class. The maximum word-classes of a language are the parts of speech of that language.


One of the criteria for establishing a class of words is the substitutability of one by other. Harris (1946) reports that 'the first step in a procedure is to form substitution classes of single morphemes. We list, for the language concerned, all single morphemes, which replace each other in the substitution test, i.e., which occur in the same environments have the same selection. 'We set up the classes on the basis of the criterion that for each class there are particular sentence positions which can be filled by any member of that class and by there alone where we find many morphemes whose positions and range of combinations is same, we group them into a major form class; and where we find that some of this will continue only with particular members of the other classes, we group them into sub-classes (Harris 1970). Thus, Verb is defined as any form that occurs before -ed past or its alternates; before -ing; after should, will, might. etc., go, gain, take, will ('desire), have, do, etc.


Bloch (1946) defines Verb (in Japanese) as a member of an inflectional paradigm containing ten members, thus emphasizing the formal features of a Verb. In similar manner, as regards English, Bloch (1947) reports that a verbal base, in English, is used without any suffix in several different functions, as an infinitive, as an imperative, as a finite present with subject in the First or Second person singular or in the plural, and in some other ways.


The class of Verbs can be defined, according to Dinneen (1967), as made up of terms that can be combined with the bound forms identifiable as third person singular, present participle, past participle, and past tense, as in grow, grows, growing, grown and grew. Joos (1968) defines (finite) Verb as one that requires a subject or one that can take a subject chosen from the list I, we, he, she, they or else a Verb that is in all other aspects similar but has it instead.

Friend (1974), commenting that most contemporary grammarians regard syntactic and morphological criteria as more reliable than semantic criteria, defines Verb as a word that typically forms its past tense by adding -d, -ed, or -t, or by changing its internal vowel, typically occupies the position in a sentence between the subject noun (or noun substitute) and the object(s) or predicate complement, etc.


Even as early as the period of Thrax Verb has been defined formally. Thrax defined Verb as a part of a sentence without inflection, susceptible of tenses, persons, number of activity and passivity as its meaning. Thus Thrax's first criterion for identifying the Verb is formal; absence of the typical noun endings and presence of the typical verbal endings. After this, the important class meaning (name of an action) is assigned. All of the sub-classes are distinguished formally (Dineen 1967). Piscean's grammar (of the sixth century A.D.) defines Verb as a part of speech with tenses and moods, but without case, signifies acting or being acted upon.

In fact, it appears that, from the earliest times, efforts at defining Verb had exploited all the possible avenues, formal, meaning, distributional, functional, and so on. While some took the category for granted and with universally definable characteristics, others defined it only with reference to the language under investigation; still others defined it with reference to particular language, but took the characteristics including the formal ones of an individual language applicable to all languages.


The definition given by the ancient grammarians gets repeated with little or no change at all. Darbyshire (1968) defines Verb forms as those, which can have the properties of person, number, mood, voice and tense, and the property of finitude. Gray defines it as a word characterized by inflexion, if inflected at all, for person. A definition such as that of Gray, although formal in the sense that a formal process (inflexion) is used to define Verb, is objected to by some Linguists who prefer to define Verb formally in strict terms. Harris (1970) criticizes it saying that 'this does not define the Verb, for example, in southern Painte or Zuni, nor will it serve for Hidatsa, where any stem may take on any of a class of final (Syntactic) elements, some of which would make verbal (forms) which others would not.


Verbs are also considered as forming a distinct substitution class: "We list, for the language concerned, all single morphemes which replace each other in the substitution test, i.e. which occur in the same environments (have the same selection). If any of them do not occur in the same order, they are placed in a special subclass. The morphemes having slightly different distributions are graphed together into one class if the distributional differences between their environments correspond to the distributional differences between morphemes" (Harris 1970).

Verb is defined also in terms of its distributional characteristics. A word is determined as a Verb in terms of its distribution - its potentiality of occurrence in sentences relative to the occurrence of other words in the same sentences. Verb is marked by the various ways in which its members react to system morphemes and this provides for the definition of Verb in individual languages. For instance, in English, if a word form is a Verb, either it will carry no inflectional morphemes at all or it will carry one of the four; past, perfective (usually -ed, or -en), third singular present (-s) and -ing (Bolinger 1968).

The syntactic behavior of words is not only the most crucial characteristic but also the tangible factor for defining any part of speech, according to structural linguists. Sapir (1921) insists that a part of speech outside of the limitations of syntactic form is but a will of the wisp, and thus places the syntactic frame and the syntactic behavior as the crucial defining characteristics.


The difficulty in defining Verb even if one follows strict formal criteria has been recognized by linguists themselves. Jaspersen (1933) recognizes the need to have names for the various clauses into which words fall naturally, and which are generally, but not very felicitously, called 'Parts of Speech'. It is practically impossible to give exact and exhaustive definitions of these classes: nevertheless the classification itself rarely offers occasion for doubt and will be sufficiently clear to students if a fair number of examples are given, as he worte.

The difficulty of defining Verb in rigorous terms lies in the use of the term as well as the concept. Joos (1968) states that "Verb (the use of this word both as a technical term and as an ordinary word) in the same book is not entirely avoidable, in its narrowest since it is opposed to propredicative; in its broadest technical sense it includes non-finites; in its popular sense it can mean bare; in any case, it can consist of more than one word within the clause, perhaps in a sequence interrupted by other words."


The formal approach to grammatical analysis has several characteristics; it rejects semantic considerations both in the determination of the units of grammatical analysis and in the establishment of rules for their permissible combinations; it focuses on the distributional patterns as well as the formal shapes of the items involved - how the forms are modified through various process; it does not make assumptions in advance about the university of the grammatical 'categories' and claims to describe the structure of every language on its own terms (Lyons 1968).

Lyons (1968) defines Verb as one of the grammatical categories that belong to the open class of words. 'A closed set of items is one of fixed and usually small, membership; for example, the set of personal pronouns, tenses, genders, etc. An open set is one of unrestricted, indeterminately large membership; for example, the class of nouns or Verbs in a language.

This definition corresponds quite well with the traditional distinction between the major parts of speech, on the one hand, and the minor parts of speech and secondary grammatical categories, on the other. Unlike a number of other definitions that have been suggested, it is not restricted to languages of any one morphological type (for example, inflecting languages)' (Lyons 1968).

The definition of Verb as a formal category, thus, is based on the affixation processes that are adopted exclusively by Verbs in individual languages. The peculiar distributional patterns resorted to by the class (of Verbs), and the internal patterns in the selection and use of morphemic alternant, etc. Meaning or notion is generally avoided, but the categorical meaning/function is generally recognized. In spite of the dependence only on the formal criteria which emphasized the characteristic of Verb in individual languages, scholars did recognize the need for some universal definition - Sapir recognized that languages, since they are all basically sets of propositions, must distinguish something like a noun and something like a Verb (or perhaps something that is subject and something that is predicate), since 'there must be something to talk about something must be said about this subject' (Sapir 1921). Bloomfield also represents a similar position here. 'Some features, such as, for instance, the distinction of Verb-like and noun-like words as separate parts of speech, are common to many languages, but looking in others, Bolinger (1968) finds that 'there is a 'noun ness' among nouns - they take a static view of the segments that they designate, even when the segments are actions ... there is a 'Verb ness' among verbs - they put things in motion and pass them through time. All the same these ingredients are not essentially different from other kinds, and we find different languages elevating different one to the status of categories of their grammar'.

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B. Syamalakumari
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570008, India