The English verbal ending -s

It is often said that English verbs inflect in the present tense for the person (1st / 2nd / 3rd) and number (singular / plural) of their grammatical subject. In Notes on English Agreement, Richard Kayne provides a different analysis. He suggests that English verbs inflect only for number, not for person.

Background

Almost all English verbs have 2 forms in the present tense:

  • a form ending in the suffix -s for the 3rd person singular (he / she / it exists).
  • in all other cases, a form with no suffix at all (I / you / we / they exist).  

There are two exceptions to this pattern:

  • the verb be has 3 forms, not 2: I am; you / we / they are; he / she / it is.
  • modal verbs—mainly can, may, will, shall, must—have only a single form and never add any suffix.

In the past tense, the verb be has two forms: I / he / she /it was; we / you, they were. All other verbs have only one form (I / you / he / she / it /we / they existed).

Kayne’s analysis

Kayne suggests that:

  • English verbs inflect only for number, not for person.
  • The first person (I and we) is not marked at all for number. Second person (you) subjects are always marked grammatically as plural, even if they refer to only one person. A third person subject is marked grammatically as singular (he / she / it) if the subject is a single person or thing but as plural (they) if the subject is more than one person or thing.
  • The suffix -s is used when the subject is marked grammatically as singular. Thus, it is used only when the subject is a third person subject marked grammatically as singular.
  • A default form with no suffix is used for all subjects not marked grammatically as singular.

As I discuss below, Kayne:

  • views his analysis as more natural than the traditional analysis
  • suggests that the default form has no suffix
  • treats only the 3rd person as grammatically singular
  • rejects a different analysis: that the English present tense inflects only for gender, and not for number or person.

A more natural analysis?

Kayne views his analysis as more natural than the traditional analysis. The traditional analysis treats English verbs as inflecting in the present tense for two features: person and number. The traditional analysis would lead us to expect 6 combinations of person (1st v 2nd v 3rd) and number (singular v plural), so it is surprising that almost all English verbs have only 2 different inflections in the present tense.

A default form with no suffix

The default form Kayne identifies is one that has no suffix. He comments on several implications of the absence of a suffix:

  • The form with a suffix is used only when it refers to a subject with a specified feature (or combination of features). Said differently, that suffix depends on that feature (or set of features). In contrast, the default form is used in all cases unless another form pre-empts it (in this instance, -s): when the default form is to be used, there is no need to specify that a particular feature or features is present. So it seems natural that the default form has no suffix.
  • Consistently with the previous point, he views the default form as having no suffix, rather than having a suffix that is zero. That distinction—between (1) no suffix and (2) a suffix that is zero–may be important in analysing some aspects of word order and some aspects of English modal verbs (which do not bear the -s inflection).
  • For all verbs except be, the default form is the same as the bare (or plain) infinitive (the version of the infinitive that has no preceding to).

Only 3rd person as grammatically singular

Kayne’s most novel suggestion is that only the third person can be marked grammatically as singular. He comments as follows on this point:

  • For the second person, his suggestion is consistent with how the French polite second person form (vous) behaves. Vous always requires a plural verb (eg vous allez), even when it refers to only a single person. Although French also has a separate informal second person singular form (tu) requiring a singular verb, this requirement does not, in his view, count against his analysis because English no longer distinguishes a separate informal form similar to tu.
  • For the first person, his analysis may seem less natural than his analysis of the second person. This is because the second person has one form (you) and the verb be likewise has only one corresponding form (you are); in contrast, for the first person, two different forms are available (I and we) and the verb be likewise has two corresponding forms (I am) and (we are).

Another idea rejected

Kayne discusses briefly—and rejects—an analysis that the English present tense inflects only for gender, and not for number or person. On that analysis, the suffix -s is required when the subject is either a pronoun displaying gender (he / she / it) or a noun (or noun phrase) that can be replaced by one of those pronouns. 

Kayne’s analysis: the verb be

For the present tense of the verb be, Kayne suggests the following:

  • The form is is used when the subject is marked as singular. The only subjects marked as singular are 3rd person singular subjects.
  • The form am is used when the subject is marked as first person. This applies to I (and not to we).
  • The default form are is used for all other subjects (those not marked as singular or as first person).

For the past tense of the verb be, Kayne suggests the following:

  • The term were is used when the subject is marked as plural: we / you, they were.
  • The default form is was and is used for all other subjects: I / he / she /it was.

Comments

Kayne gives an ingenious account of why almost all English verbs have only 2 inflectional forms in the present tense. On the other hand, some parts of his analysis seem unsatisfactory:

  • The treatment of the first person as unspecified for number seems contrived, with the aim of achieving a desired outcome rather than being driven by clear concepts. Kayne (2000a) doesn’t explain why he takes the first person form I to be unmarked for number. Kayne (2000b) comments cryptically ‘there is clearly nothing that I is a true singular of’, but gives no further explanation. Moreover, Kayne doesn’t explain what distinguishes I from we; after all, the traditional (and most natural) view is that I is first person singular and we is first person plural.
  • Kayne treats I as unspecified for number in analysing the present tense of most verbs, but as being marked as singular in analysing the past tense of be. He offers no conceptual justification for this contrivance.
  • Kayne treats the present tense of be as inflecting for person and number, but other verbs as inflecting only for number.

Overall, Kayne’s analysis looks promising in some respects, but it seems to be lacking a clear conceptual foundation for some key points. This makes it seem contrived.

Other topics covered

Kayne (2000a) and Kayne (2000b) discuss several other topics not related directly to those discussed in this post.

Sources

Notes on English Agreement, Richard S Kayne (2000a), reprinted in Kayne (2000c) as chapter 10

Agreement and Verb Morphology in Three Varieties of English, Richard S Kayne (2000b), reprinted in Kayne (2000c) as chapter 11

Parameters and Universals, Richard S Kayne (2000c)

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