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  • Lessons on the English Verb: No Expression without Representation
  • John Hewson (bio)
Walter Hirtle . Lessons on the English Verb: No Expression without Representation. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2007. x, 346. $85.00

Long years ago I taught English as a Second Language, as a graduate student, to francophone students at Université Laval. Although I had trained as a language teacher and had taught Latin, Greek, and French, [End Page 410] the students knew more about English grammar than I did - a situation that is quite common with native speakers, who, unless they have a vocation as a grammarian, remain largely unaware of the grammatical subtleties of the language they speak.

Walter Hirtle taught a course on the grammar of the English verb to francophones at Laval for some thirty years, during which he researched modern linguistic works on questions of tense, aspect, mood, and voice, became thoroughly familiar with all the modern grammarians of English, and constantly collected examples, in both his listening and his reading, to teach students the variety of nuances each form of the verb can express.

An early book (1967) was published from sections of his doctoral thesis and is still one of the best expositions of the difference between the simple and progressive forms of the English verb; he was one of the first to take into account the relationship of Aktionsart (lexical aspect) and grammatical aspect. The difference between simple and progressive (spoke, was speaking), is often difficult enough for non-native speakers: he shoots, he scores! but not He is shooting, he is scoring! The usage of these forms is complicated by the lexical sense of the verb: in He is talking on the phone right now, the simple form cannot be used in ordinary conversation, but the progressive form of a verb like know is equally unacceptable - I am knowing the answer - and a simple form must be used: I know the answer.

A later book (1975) dealt with the use of the have-perfect forms of English, and now, in this latest volume, we have a book based on the long years of teaching the finer points of the grammar of the English verb to those who had already learned to speak the language, but were non-native speakers, and were seldom secure with the usage of the progressive (e.g. Every time I am seeing him he is telling me . . .) or the perfect (I am here since ten minutes, which should of course be I have been here ten minutes). Hirtle's subtle analyses, and endless examples of usage from real life, both spoken and written, are a massive contribution to appreciating and explaining the way the English verb functions. This book will be of immense value not only to those who speak English as a second language, but also to native speakers, especially those engaged in the task of teaching English as a second language.

There are eighteen 'Lessons' (the teaching background!) covering the usual verbal categories, and also zeroing in on usage special to English. Readers will undoubtedly enjoy Lesson 10, 'What Does Do Do?,' and its extension, Lesson 11, 'Compounding with Do,' which examines the usage of the do auxiliary that became grammaticalized in the eighteenth century, being used in the negative and interrogative of the simple forms: I know; do you know? He doesn't know which replaced earlier Know you? and He knows not.

The theoretical background used for these analyses is the Psychomechanics of the French linguist Gustave Guillaume. This is a [End Page 411] word-based, meaning-based theory that is ideal for examining usage and meaning of grammatical forms. Its basic premise is from Saussure: every morpheme has a sememe, a permanent underlying meaning, which produces allosemes in discourse in much the same way that a phoneme produces allophones in different contexts. The work is therefore of value to linguists, since it includes theories of aspect, mood, and tense, and hitherto unpublished theories of voice and of the auxiliaries do, be, and have.

Both anglophones and francophones will find in this work a masterful parade of insights into the workings of the English verb.

John Hewson

John Hewson, Department...


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