MARTIN JOOS – THE ENGLISH VERB, FORM AND MEANINGS – THE UNIVERSITY
PRESS – MADISON
This linguist is a descriptive
linguist working on British English, though he is not British. This book is
entirely based on one book by novelist Sybille Bedford on the longest murder
trial in England
at the time at the Old Bailey in March 1957. The title of the book was The Best We Can Do in the UK and The
Trial of Dr Adams in the US.
This gives absolute unity to the corpus used here, and yet that corpus is very
circumstantial since many people of different cultural circles met and spoke in
this court, some of them having to use a very standardized legal language or
even interrogation language: you do not speak in a court of justice the way you
speak in the street. And the whole thing is seen, through the pen and the mind
of one person who is a novelist, hence a creative writer who has her style and
cannot depart from it. Some of the remarks I will do depend on this fact.
Martin Joos would have been well inspired to widen his corpus to other British
genres, not to mention of course American English. The circulation between the
two dialects of English started to be very important in the late 1950s thanks
to tourism and to television and cinema exchanges.
My first remark will be on what
he calls the “gerund” that he opposes to the “present participle.” He reduces
the present participle to a simple adjective and eventually an adverb. He is
more or less scrambling his mind when this present participle has an obvious
subject and wonders whether it should be the subject personal pronouns or the
object personal pronouns. The case of these pronouns is determined by the
function they hold as to the main verb in the main clause and the present participle
cannot be a gerund because it is a simple apposition to that pronoun, or a
noun, hence an adjectival modifier. When I say:
“I don’t like Peter/him reading Hamlet.”
The case of the pronoun (or the
noun) depends on their function as to the verb “like” and in no way as to the
present participle “reading.” In fact I don’t like the person known as Peter,
circumstantially engaged in the reading of Hamlet.
This explanation introduces the third use of the Ving form, but more in a
moment. We have a present participle when the “subject” is NOT in the genitive
and when the object is in the normal objective case using no preposition to
introduce itself because it is a direct object, the way it is in my example.
That makes Martin Joos slightly
fuzzy when he deals with the gerund: he accepts the two cases as for the
subject, both objective case and genitive. He does not see that in the first
case we have a real present participle that is apposed to a noun or pronoun
giving him thus a deep subject function it does not really have in the
sentence. This apposition behaves like an adjective but it keeps its verbal
syntax as for its own complements.
The real gerund has a real
subject in the genitive case. The genitive is the case of the agent in the
nominal field whereas the nominative is the case of the agent (subject) in the
verbal field. But this gerund keeps its verbal syntax as for its complements.
It can even take adverbs:
“I don’t like Peter’s/his
dramatically reading Hamlet in every
meeting of ours.”
These first two cases are clear:
they deal with the action of reading itself and nothing else.
The third case is not at all
considered and Martin Joos misses a point then. The third Ving form can be a
real verbal NOUN, a NOUN built on a verbal root. But then this noun has a
nominal syntax both before and after. It can take genitives and adjectives
before or simple articles, and only nominal complements after introduced by
“I don’t like Peter’s amorous
reading of Hamlet as if it were a
romantic if not melodramatic story.”
Obviously we have shifted from
the action of reading to the interpretation (as an actor or as a critic) of the
play. We can note the play itself is introduced with the preposition “of”
because it no longer is a direct object but a nominal complement to a noun.
My second remark is going to be
extremely positive. The way he spreads out the structure of the verbal phrase
(reduced of course to the verb and its direct auxiliaries and not including
anything else like complements or adverbs). Page 55 he exemplifies this
structure in a clear table and page 76 then page 81 he summarizes the whole
approach in two clear tables. He thus considers the verbal phrase can be
decomposed in six successive verbal elements from left to right (seven if we
consider the subject):
[0- Subject, my addition]
1- “Tense” that can be actual and
remote, opposing the unmarked present to the marked preterit (-D).
2- “Assertion” that can be
factual or relative, opposing simple tenses or the use of modals of various
types (WILL, etc.).
3- “Phase” that can be current or
perfect opposing simple perspective tenses looking at the action as a whole and
the perfective phase as he calls it which looks at an action that started in
some past moment and is still going on at the moment of utterance (HAVE-N).
4- “Aspect” that opposes generic
to temporary, meaning the full action as opposed to an action seen in its
temporal development and as unfinished at the time of utterance or reference.
We are dealing here with the progressive form (BE-ING).
5- “Voice” that opposes neutral
to passive and the fact that he does not say active is a good thing because
there are quite a few verbs who do not imply an action with an agent (“He lies
on the ground” as apposed to “He lies to his father all the time.”) or
some intransitive verbs who cannot be set in the passive because they are both active
and passive (“He runs everyday at seven a.m.” “He” is obviously both the person
who is doing the action and the person who is being transported by this running
person from point A to point B. To introduce a passive would be tricky: “He is
run by his brother every morning for thirty minutes, doctor’s orders!” on the
model of “Paul is walking the dog” or “The dog is walked by Paul every night.”).
We are thus dealing here with the passive voice (BE-N).
6- “Function” that opposes the
propredicate (mostly DO or any anaphoric verbal reduction for simple back
references to previously used verbal phrases and actions (“Paul cannot really
have been working all night since he looks fresh and rested, can he? –
Oh yes he has!”), hence to a full verb (V).
What his presentation does not
make visual is the fact that at every level what he gives as the second element
is in fact governed by the first but on the next level, as shown in the
I have kept most of Joos’s terms
though I would favor others. He then exemplifies his approach by using 0 for
the first choice at each level and 1 for the second choice at each level. The
most complete example he gives is 111101: “She (1) would (2+3) not have (4) been (5) having (7) much.” He does not provide an example for 111111 and
that is probably because his corpus does not contain one that could be in the
same genre: “She (1) would (2+3) not have (4) been (5) being (6) murdered (7)
when I arrived if the murderer had been arrested after his first crime.” Note
the shortest possibility is “Paul (1) runs (2+7).” Due to the neutralization of
3 to 6 strata.
The third remark is that he does
not approach modals properly. He does not approach them syntactically but only
semantically and thus he cannot understand the opposition between CAN in
“Yesterday he could run two miles” with the alternative “yesterday he was able
to run two miles,” and MAY in “Yesterday he may have run two miles: I don’t
actually know” with the alternative ‘Yesterday he might have run two miles: I
don’t actually know.”
The first use is deictic because
it refers to a real action that was possible and was performed. In the second
case we are dealing with an epistemic modal since the prediction of a probability
is always positioned in the present (a neutral probability with “may” and a reduced
probability with “might,” both reflecting the level of prediction implied by
the utterer) and the action is positioned in the past by the perfective
auxiliary “have.” We are dealing here with syntax and not semantics and it is
these syntactic structures that determine our understanding of the modals. The
chart presented above then has to be modified to integrate this case.
Actually Martin Joos, due to his
corpus I guess, practically only examines the permissive value of “may” and
“might” though he calls it the “archaic sense.” But he does not seem to really
explore the non-archaic sense, the sense of probability. It’s obvious the
permissive meaning is archaic but what’s
more it is absurd in sentences like: “The doctor said the baby may die
tonight.” It cannot be a permission, of course not. “Might” will make the
probability more relative, hence lower or higher but a permission is out of
place in the context and the use of “may” and “might” for probability
prediction is absolutely modern and common.. Same thing of course in sentences
like: “The parents were extremely anxious about their baby who may die
tonight.” No one has given the permission that the baby should die tonight
which would become an order and hence a criminal action.
The last remark is about “shall.”
Here again he is conscious that “shall” is not a simple future auxiliary. He is
conscious that it is not a simple first person auxiliary. He is also aware that
“shall” in an assertive sentence is not the same thing as in a question or in a
suggestion (“What shall it be, gin or vodka?” and “Shall I suggest a glass of
But he is entangled in court
language in Great Britain
in the 1950s when “shall” was still used as a future auxiliary, marginal, for
all persons, but yet still a future auxiliary. Since then this value has
practically disappeared but contractual language has valorized the basic
meaning of “shall” as being the future prediction of something that depends on
some authority of some kind over the person who is supposed to perform the
action, which gives in the interrogative form the value we have just quoted
(someone asking a person what he/she would like to have or a suggestion from
someone but submitted to the agreement of the other person.) It is the basic
value and has always been. In King James’ Bible we have: “Thou shalt not kill.”
(Exodus, 20:13) and it is systematically used in second person singular or
generic (plural) in that version of the Bible. Today it is only used in
situation where someone is confronted to a strong authority that dictates their
actions. “Of course he shall do it, since I am his boss on this question.” And
there is no other way to say it with that meaning and that force. In a contract
it has exactly the same value that “must,” “have to,” or “ought to” do not
carry. To have the same power as “shall” we should say something like: “you
must absolutely do this.” You do not find such a phrase in a contract or even
in a user’s manual of some industrial machine. In fact in a user’s manual the
equivalent could be a simple imperative.
He is right though that “shall”
should be used in contexts that absolutely require that modal, and these
contexts are rare and certainly not in colloquial everyday language. The only
common use is in the interrogative form though it is always a little bit
stilted and formal. In the underground if someone is blocking the way out of
the carriage you may say: “Shall I push you or shall you move?” but you might
be confronted to some surprising reactions. Not everyone speaks like the
upstairs gangs of Downtown Abbey.
Apart from that it is an
interesting and useful book, even if it is not a highly computerized model of
the English language. At times it is necessary to wean ourselves from all
Universal Grammar of any type that turns us into some translating machine
producing gibberish codes of signals instead of language.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU