Learn English – Rules for verb usage


I'm fairly new to the world of linguistics and this is my first post in this forum. I've been helping a friend to learn English and one of her questions has me stumped, even as a native speaker. She is confused about which verb forms to use. She understands all of the tenses and can create simple sentences in each tense, however she struggles with complex sentences and sentences where multiple verb forms are used. Is there a name for this field so I can do some further reading? Can anyone suggest any materials that explain the rules?

An example sentence that I found in an article online:

George Lucas had considered bringing Mark Hamill back as Luke Skywalker.

Upon seeing this sentence, my friend would probably ask why we use "bringing" instead of "brought" or "considered to bring"?

I'm sure there must be rules about which verbs should be used after one another. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


Best Answer

Aside from the rather intricate rules for what to do with the understood subjects of the second verb in these complex sentences, mentioned by Lawler in his comment, there is also a 3 way choice of complement type. What follows "consider" in the illustration you gave is taken to be a sentence, schematically [Lucas consider [Lucas bring back Hamill]], where the smaller sentence is called a sentential complement to the main verb "consider".

The 3 choices for complement type in English are that-clause, for-to, poss-ing. (I hope I didn't forget any.) (1) [Lucas consider [that Lucas will bring back Hamill]], (2) [Lucas consider [for Lucas to bring back Hamill]], (3) [Lucas consider [Lucas's bringing back Hamill]]. So part of what you're asking, I take it, is what principles determine for a given main verb ("consider" in the example) which of the three complement types will be possible, and what nuances of meaning will be expressed by the choice.

I'm sorry to have to report that the answer is unknown, and it may well be that there is no answer. English speakers may have to learn ad hoc for each complement-taking verb which complements are possible and how to interpret them. So for an English language learner, in this particular regard, grammatical study is probably not useful, and lots of experience with interpreting and speaking or writing English is all that can help.

The name of the relevant field of study, following Noam Chomsky in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, is "the problem of verb subcategorization". It was tackled by George Lakoff in his dissertation Irregularity in Syntax, and there is a very good more recent discussion in McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English.