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Walter HIRTLE, Lessons on the English Verb

No Expression without Representation
Dennis Philps
p. 223-225
Bibliographical reference

Lessons on the English Verb. No Expression without Representation by Walter Hirtle. Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Date of publication: second quarter 2007. ISBN 978-0-7735-3198-7

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1Walter Hirtle’s “Lessons on the English Verb” is based on a university course taught over many years by the author to future teachers of English as a Second Language, and has benefited from extensive feedback from his students—to whom the book is dedicated—and colleagues alike. As well as seventeen ‘lessons’, its 346 pages contain a welcome, though concise, glossary, a set of notes, a bibliography, and an index. The Lessons are as follows: On Studying the Verb, Chronogenesis I (Aspect), II (Mood), III (Tense), The Simple Form I (Activities), II (States), III (Prospective Events), The Subjunctive, Person in the Verb, What Does Do Do?, Compounding with Do, The Progressive, The Transcendent Aspect (I): Perfective Events, (II) Imperfective Events, The Passive, Auxiliaries, and The System of Voice: A Hypothesis.

2One can scarcely quarrel with the structure of the book, since it reflects the methodology and expository techniques of Guillaume himself, whose own ‘lessons’, need it be recalled, have been published posthumously since 1971 by the Presses de l’Université Laval. This type of organization, somewhat unusual in modern publications, no doubt reflects the ‘chronogenesis’ and the aims of the book itself. As such, it has certain undeniable advantages: it seals the contact between the teacher, who has understood, and the student, who seeks to understand; it allows the author to be more pedagogical than in a typical grammar book, by repeating points or approaching topics from different angles; it allows areas of (avowed) ignorance to be lit up by areas where problems have been resolved; and, last but not least, it allows the book to be consulted in modular fashion. The subtitle, “No Expression without Representation”, cannot but evoke the late 18th century slogan referring to a major grievance of the American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies, to whom the British responded that they were ‘virtually’ represented in Parliament.

3The book’s main objective is nothing less than to “discern and describe the system of the English verb in light of all the data” (p. 8) within a theoretical framework largely inspired by the work of the French linguist Gustave Guillaume (1883-1960), namely the psychomechanics of language. Put succinctly, this wordbased theory rests on the general intuition that whatever exists in a ‘real’ state at a given moment in space-time must already have existed in a potential state. In linguistic terms, this postulate implies that language in use results from a process which transforms actualizable language (‘tongue’ in Hirtle’s terminology) into actualized language (‘discourse’). As Hirtle states (p. 8), Guillaume’s concern was always “to infer [a] form’s underlying potential meaning from observed uses in discourse.” Secondary objectives arising from the main objective include attempts to explain usage in the light of meaning, and to show how a given form expressing various meanings can nevertheless be understood as one and the same form.

4In this book, which is not intended to be a grammar of the verb, Hirtle’s main argument is that language in the form of discourse is underpinned by a system of potentialities which allows such use, and that if the speaker were not able to resort to the unconscious resources of this system in his/her native language in order to represent a mental purport, actual expression by means of words would be compromised. Subsidiary arguments, linked to the specific aspects of the English verb discussed, bring out certain, cogently expounded oppositions within the system, as noted below in brackets:

  • tenses are characterized by the position they occupy in the operational system known as ‘chronogenesis’ (tongue/discourse);
  • the system of mood furnishes the means of providing different representations of ‘universe time’ (finite/non-finite forms);
  • haveaux represents an interval of event time in the event’s aftermath without any particular event occupying it (immanent/transcendent aspects);
  • be + Ving combines the capacity of be to represent a moment somewhere within the verb event and that of Ving to depict the event as only partly accomplished (imperfective/perfective);
  • do + infinitive combines the capacity of doaux to represent a span of time for the verb event’s accomplishing and that of the infinitive to represent the event as accomplishable (do + infinitive/simple form);
  • be + V-EN combines the capacity of be to represent a moment somewhere within the verb event and that of V-EN to provide an accomplished-moment-by-accomplished-moment representation of the verb event (passive/non-passive);
  • identifying the features common to all compounds highlights an opposition between two ways in which the subject exercises its role (preconditioned/unconditioned attribution of the event’s accomplishment to the subject).

5Turning to the contribution this work makes to its field, it must be said that the psychomechanics of language was until now sadly lacking in serious, full-scale studies on (and in) English, perhaps because much of the early groundwork was done on (and in) French, Guillaume’s native tongue. And even in French, Guillaume is never an easy read. Walter Hirtle was, with John Hewson (Newfoundland), the first linguist to provide an English translation of one of Guillaume’s works, the epistemologically orientated “Principes de linguistique théorique”, under the title “Foundations for a Science of Language” (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, vol. 31, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1984). His interest in the English verb dates back to 1964 (The English Present Subjunctive, Canadian Journal of Linguistics 9, 75-82) and culminates in the book under review. Since its appearance, Hirtle has also published “Language in the Mind. An Introduction to Guillaume’s Theory” (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s).

6Remarkable in its scope and ambition, “Lessons on the English Verb” contains Hirtle’s own ‘stamp’, in that the recourse to psychomechanics is substantiated by a large number of judiciously chosen examples culled from a wide range of oral and literary sources. It rests on a life-long study of the subject, as illustrated by the large number of works published by the author—approximately thirty titles are recorded in the bibliography provided by the Fonds Guillaume website (currently​fgg/​z%20bilbio/​biblio4.htm)—in the fields of linguistics, grammar teaching, and even metaphor, a subject on which Guillaume wrote little but intimated much. As his bibliographical references testify, Hirtle gives proper and due credit to his predecessors and contemporaries in the field, right up to the early twenty-first century, although earlier works tend to predominate. His breadth and depth of scholarship is considerable, and allows him to cite Plato, Aristotle, Einstein and Valin, for instance. But most fundamentally, Hirtle is one of the few ‘Anglo-Saxon’linguists not only to have attained a profound understanding of the workings and implications of psychomechanics, but also to have succeeded in rendering it accessible (by translation or through his own writings) to non Frenchspeaking readers and to students, whether of ESL or of English grammar in general. This is no minor achievement.

7In the list of publications on the verb provided by the Fonds Guillaume website, one finds very few in English, and most of those that can be found are either by Hirtle himself, or by his colleague Patrick Duffley. As for fully-fledged books on the English verb within a psychomechanical framework, there are none to my knowledge other than Duffley’s “The English Infinitive” (London and New York, Longman, 1992), and perhaps Korrel’s “Duration in English. A Basic Choice, Illustrated in Comparison with Dutch” (Berlin and New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 1991), both cited by Hirtle.

8The appeal of the objectives mentioned above is so wide that a whole gamut of readers will necessarily be interested in (and benefit from) the author’s insights: linguists, students of English grammar, language specialists in general, and doubtless the informed layman. Hirtle’s book is to be recommended not only on its intrinsic merit, but also because it will hopefully attract English-speaking readers who would normally fight shy of psychomechanics due to its theoretical complexity and the necessity of having excellent French to be able to read many existing publications (including Guillaume’s own writings) in the field.

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Bibliographical reference

Dennis Philps, « Walter HIRTLE, Lessons on the English Verb », Anglophonia/Sigma, 11 (22) | 2007, 223-225.

Electronic reference

Dennis Philps, « Walter HIRTLE, Lessons on the English Verb », Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 11 (22) | 2007, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 28 June 2017. URL :

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Dennis Philps

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