Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In regard to this answer, my question is similar but that answer is not clear. I want to know why we use base form of verb, e.g. 'go' to form the past tense instead of past form such as 'went'?

Question: Did you go to a bank? (Why we use 'go' here, rather than 'went'?)
Answer: I went to a bank.

Am I confusing verb forms with tenses? Please note that I'm not a native speaker so some clarification or reference on this would be helpful.

share|improve this question

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The rule is that there is at most one tense marker in each clause.

There may be no tense markers, as in the gerund clause going to the Moon or the infinitive clause to go to the Moon; but there can't be more than one.

  • In I visited the bank the single (past) tense marker is the -ed in visited.

  • In I did visit the bank the single (past) tense marker is the did (instead of do or does).

It's spread out this way because Question Formation, Negative Formation, and a number of other syntactic rules all require there to be a first auxiliary verb; and if there is no auxiliary verb (i.e, if there is only one verb) in the clause, then they all require Do-Support to provide that auxiliary verb.

Finally, the rules of English grammar require that the single tense marker goes on the first auxiliary verb, or on the main verb if there is no auxiliary verb. That's why it was on the single main verb before Do-Support; but afterwards, it has to go on the new auxiliary verb, which becomes did.

Silly, I know, but that's English syntax for you.

share|improve this answer
    
How can we recognize these tense markers for each tense? –  cpx May 6 '12 at 1:03
1  
I think the OP may be having trouble with the fact that English requires verb before subject in questions, but (unlike other Germanic languages) forbids all verbs except “be” (and sometimes “have”) from such inversions directly. We say “He goes”, but forbid “Goes he?”. Same in the simple past: “He went” is allowed, but “Went he?” is forbidden. To get past this prohibition, an auxiliary (do, be, or have) will be used in one way or another: “Does he go?”, and “Did he go?” It has nothing to do with past versus present, you see. –  Lubin May 6 '12 at 3:50
    
All auxiliary verbs commute in questions, including all modal auxiliaries (may, might, must, can, could, shall, should, will, would, and sometimes need and dare), have of the Perfect, be of the Progressive, and be of the Passive. In that order. For details, see the Verb Phrase Study Guide. –  John Lawler May 6 '12 at 4:36

The easiest answer is "because we do"... that's English grammar!

But perhaps I can offer something that will be more insightful. The following two sentences are equivalent in meaning (if not in emphasis):

I visited the bank. I did visit the bank.

You can mark past tense by placing the main verb in its past-tense form or by using the past-tense auxiliary did. In questions, we usually use the second of these so that we can perform the usual subject-auxiliary swap:

Did you visit the bank?

So to sum up, English allows the past tense to be formed in two ways and your choice of which is dependent on the context.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.