Lexical verbs form an open class

We know that lexical words are the main carriers of meaning in a spoken utterance or written sentence. They are the most numerous type of word and they are all members of open classes, i.e. more lexical words can be invented and added – in principle, there is no upper limit.

Like nouns, adjectives and adverbs, lexical verbs constitute an open class. Hence the membership of the class can increase as new verbs are coined and added. Relatively newly added (or used-again) verbs include:

  • Refudiate: used loosely to mean ‘reject’. [Came to the world’s attention when Sarah Palin (9th Governor of Alaska) used the word in a Twitter message in 2010.]
  • De-friend: to remove someone from your social networking site, such as Facebook.
  • Chillax: to calm down and relax.
  • Catastrophize: to blow something out of all proportion.

Semantics of lexical verbs

We have noted elsewhere (see Verbs) that, semantically, lexical verbs represent actions, events and states, e.g.

Craig bought a North Face jacket [action]
the pears ripened on the tree [event]
I suppose you’re right [state]

Syntactic role of lexical verbs

Lexical verbs can only function as main verbs (see Verbs). Therefore, syntactically, they assume the central part of a clause. They either appear as (1) a single-word verb phrase or (2) in final position of verb phrases, e.g.

Single-word verb phrase

verb phrase

Chen

laughed

at him for several minutes

they

gave

the tickets away

I think you know

Final position of verb phrase

verb phrase

Chen

could be laughing for hours

they

should give the tickets to me
I might have thought about that again

Morphological form of lexical verbs

According to English morphology, the base form of a lexical verb can be inflected (i.e. altered through the addition of an affix) to yield four further verb forms (Table 1).

no.

verb form

examples
1 BASE (simple present) walk push sing
2 3RD PERSON PRESENT (-s form) walks pushes sings
3 PAST (simple past) walked pushed sang
4 ED-PARTICIPLE (past participle) walked pushed sung
5 ING-PARTICIPLE (present participle) walking pushing singing

Table 1. English Verb Forms

Infinitive

Another verb form is often added to the list in Table 1 – the infinitive. This form of the verb is easily recognized because a to precedes the base form, e.g.

I told her to wait in the office
to kick the ball was silly
it’s hard to think clearly
Anne and Carl came to watch the play

Time distinctions

Morphologically, lexical verbs make distinctions related to just two aspects of time (tenses): the present and the past.

present time

The simple present (base form) and the 3rd person present (-s form) are frequently used refer to the present time, e.g.

I push the stroller quite quickly
she walks non-stop
we sing in a local choir
there goes the bus

past time

The simple past tense is frequently used to refer to past time, e.g.

Bao Yu pushed the stroller yesterday
they rotated the dial twice
Kathryn sang in the audition
she was successful

future time

Whereas lexical verb forms can be inflected to mark present and past tense, they cannot be inflected to mark future tense in English. That is to say, there is no future tense verb form in English. Of course, speakers of English are well able to talk about the future – but it is not achieved through the use of future tense verb forms. Principally, future time is marked with a modal (e.g. will, shall) or semi-modal (e.g. be going to, be about to) in a verb phrase, and through the use of temporal markers (e.g. tomorrow, next week) and if-clauses (e.g. if you fall, you’ll hurt yourself).

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