The Five Verb Trick: Verb Conjugation in English

The Five Verb Trick: Verb Conjugation in English

Many years ago, I was sitting in our teachers’ room, quietly planning my lessons. Outside in the corridor, I could hear somebody pacing up and down. I ignored it and carried on planning. After about twenty minutes, when the pacing still hadn’t stopped, I decided to go out into the corridor to investigate. To my surprise, it was one of the other teachers. “Why are you waiting out here?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “I saw that the door to the teachers’ room was closed, so I assumed that it must have been being used for a lesson or something.”

I was speechless for a few seconds. “That was it!” I said excitedly. “You just used a five-verb trick! Must have been being used!” She hadn’t got a clue what I was talking about, but I was delighted. She was more interested in why I’d left the door closed, which had always been our signal to each other that we weren’t to be disturbed.

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As the name suggests, the five-verb trick consists of five verbs strung together as a single chunk, such as must-have-been-being-used or should-have-been-being-worn. It’s incredibly rare: in my twenty years as a grammar fan, I’ve only noticed one authentic spontaneous example, which is why I was so excited that day outside our teachers’ room.

Now, on the one hand, you could say that there’s really no point in worrying about a structure as rare as that. On the other, it represents such an important point about the nature of the English tense system that I think it deserves to take pride of place in our teaching.


Combining forces

The key to understanding the English verb system is that it’s combinatorial: we can make a huge range of complex structures simply by combining a handful of basic structures in different ways. Traditionally, we teach structures like “past perfect” or “future perfect continuous”, and learners come to fear these complicated-sounding concepts. The longer the name, the more complex it sounds, so the later we leave it before inflicting it on our poor learners.

But perhaps there’s actually no such thing as past perfect or future perfect continuous. Maybe all you need to know is a few simple concepts like “present” and “past”, “perfect” and “continuous”, “will” and “would”, “active” and “passive”, etc. Perhaps if you know how to use those simple building blocks, and how to combine them, the form and meaning of all the combinations should simply fall out automatically.

Well, that would be nice. The reality is probably a little more complicated, but it’s not far off. For one thing, some of the building blocks aren’t as obvious as they seem: “past” doesn’t always refer to past time, for example, and “will” certainly doesn’t always mean “future”. But that just means we need to define the building blocks carefully; it doesn’t undermine the fact that the English tense system has a very simple combinatorial nature.


Four simple building blocks

So let’s look at how the building blocks fit together. We need four simple rules, each made of two elements. Here they are:

  • Rule 1 (modal): MAV + V1 (i.e. a modal auxiliary verb + an infinitive without to)
  • Rule 2 (perfect): HAVE + V3 (i.e. a form of have + a past participle)
  • Rule 3 (continuous): BE + Ving (i.e. a form of be + an –ing form)
  • Rule 4 (passive): BE + V3 (i.e. a form of be + a past participle)

The most important MAVs (modal auxiliary verbs) are can/could, will/would, may/might, shall/should and must; we needn’t worry here about borderline cases like ought, need and dare. Notice that I treat will as just another MAV – in our combinatorial system, there’s no need to distinguish “future” as a separate concept.

Like many teachers, I use the terms V1, V2 and V3 to refer to verb forms as they appear in irregular verb tables, such as sing (V1), sang (V2), sung (V3), but I also use them for regular verbs, such as work (V1), worked (V2), worked (V3). I find these labels easier for learners to grasp and remember than technical terms “infinitive” or “past participle”. As you can see, I’ve extended the system to include Ving for the –ing form (e.g. singing, working).

Once we’ve got our four rules, we can start combining them, as long as we don’t break the order of the rules (modal (1) before perfect (2) before continuous (3) before passive (4). In addition, where there’s no MAV, we can choose past or present for the first verb in the sequence. Here are some examples:

  • It can’t be done. (rule 1 + rule 4)
  • We had been waiting a long time. (past + rule 2 + rule 3)
  • We’re being watched. (present + rule 3 + rule 4)
  • You should have been wearing a helmet. (rule 1 + rule 2 + rule 3)
  • You could have been injured. (rule 1 + rule 2 + rule 4)


Caged beasts

As I say, this system accounts for pretty much every verb form in English. It’s also possible to join two or more strings of verb forms to make incredibly complicated beasts, such as “{I was hoping} {to have been told}” or “{I’d been regretting} {having been tricked}”. There’s a lot to be said about those beasts, but I think we can keep them safely in their cages for now.

But while we’re looking at the beasts, notice that our combinatorial system unites some structures that are traditionally treated as separate. For example, the first part of a structure like “{I’m going} {to leave}” is covered by rule 3: it’s the same form as in “{I’m trying} {to leave}”, even though going to has evolved its own special meaning. Similarly, the first part of “{I’ve got} {to leave}” is covered by rule 2, even though the meaning of have got has drifted a long way from other rule 2 structures, such as “{I’ve decided} {to leave}.”

So it’s important to realise that the combinatorial system doesn’t explain absolutely everything: there are plenty structures like going to and have got whose specific meanings don’t simply drop out of the combinatorial system. The system is a good starting point, but real life is a bit more messy.


Why have some forms been being avoided?

As you can see in the examples above, combinations of two and three rules are completely normal and natural, so why should the five-verb trick, which combines all four, be so rare? The main problem seems to be a resistance to use combinations that include the words be being and been being. They just sound a bit clunky and awkward, so we try to avoid them if we can.

Look at these examples.

  1. Why are they building the airport?
  2. Why is the airport being built?
  3. How long have they been building the airport?
  4. How long has the airport been being built?

Let’s assume we don’t know (or care) who “they” are. Sentences 1 and 2 are both fine: sentence 1 perhaps sounds a little informal; sentence 2 might be preferred in more formal or careful English. But in the next pair, sentence 3 feels a lot more natural than sentence 4. This time it’s the passive version that’s likely to be avoided in careful English, simply because it contains the clunky combination been being.

Of course, be being and been being aren’t wrong, and there are times when they’re better than the alternative. I remember when I was a boy, my mum used to say things like “You should have been being more careful”, and I’d reply “But mum, I have been being careful.”


The elusive five-verb trick

As for the elusive five-verb trick, I’m still looking out for my second spontaneous example in twenty years. To be fair, I’ve spent most of that time in non-English-speaking countries, interacting with non-native speakers, so perhaps if I’d been living in the UK for that time, I’d have been hearing examples all the time.

Should we be teaching these verb combinations? I think we should, and I’d argue that we should have been teaching them for years. I’m actually tempted to say that these structures should have been being taught all along, but perhaps that’s taking things too far.

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