I am reading a book, called Minimalist Syntax: Exploring the Structure of English. At the beginning of chapter 2, when discussing the inflectional morphology of English verbs, the author says:

The most regular verb suffix in English is -ing, which can be attached to the base form of almost any verb (though a handful of defective verbs like beware are exceptions).

But a quick search on online language tools, such as Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary and Google NGrams reveals the existence of bewaring. Wiktionary even lists some book quotations. So, what is the author trying to say? In what respect beware is defective?


The Oxford English Dictionary writes that there are forms in which beware is inflected. For example, they write that the secondary sense is:

As an inflected verb.

1598 J. Florio Worlde of Wordes, Raueduto, bewared, espied.

1606 N. Baxter Sir Philip Sydneys Ouránia sig. Kiij, Bewaring of too hot combustion.

1669 Milton Accedence 18, I had bewar'd if I had foreseen.

1672 I. Newton Let. 29 Jan. in Corr. (1959) I. 84, I stirred them a little together, bewaring‥that I drew not in breath neare the pernicious fumes.

1700 Dryden Chaucer's Cock & Fox in Fables 253 Once warn'd is well bewar'd.

1860 R. W. Emerson Fate in Conduct of Life 41 We beware to ask only for high things.

1870 Echo 17 Oct., Showing the greatest respect‥and bewaring of the slightest insubordination.

However, the primary sense of the verb is without these inflections. In the associated OALD, they only include the non-inflected type, and say that beware is only used in infinitives. It is this sense that most people use--without adding tense endings.

The author seems to be using only this sense of the verb, and referring to it as the sense of beware. He is not wrong in that this is the sense that most people will recognize. However, this does not mean that there have never been inflections added--they just didn't catch on into popular use. Now, the secondary use listed by the OED is not likely to be found anywhere except in old quotations. Beware is "defective" because it is a verb which doesn't take inflected endings (at least, not any more), so it has turned itself into a fairly irregular verb.

  • 2
    I imagine that's because most people (including me) parse "beware" as an alternate form of "be aware/wary of", which we wouldn't inflect. It's really almost as much an adjective tacked on to "be" as it is a "defective verb" in its own right. – FumbleFingers Sep 2 '11 at 0:29
  • I come across inflected forms of "be aware/wary" all the time, particularly in forms like "staying aware", "remaining aware", "keeping aware", etc. – Kyle Pearson Sep 2 '11 at 2:28
  • Why would examples from 150+ years ago have any relevance in your analysis? – Neil Coffey Mar 15 '12 at 16:22

One way to look at it is this: part of the meaning of the verb beware intrinsically implies a command. So it is only readily used either as an imperative (having the same form as the infinitive) or as an infinitive as part of a construction that indicates a command. For example:

Beware of the dog!

You must beware of the dog!

whereas the following is a bit odder (although it still uses an infinitive, it doesn't imply a command):

??He decided to beware of the dog.

At least humoristically, you can just about force an inflection on "beware" if you can come up with a context where a particular piece of syntax is so tied to that situation that it can "override" the constraint of the verb not usually allowing an inflection. (Put another way, you could see it as a kind of 'metalinguistic' use.) For example, consider the following exchange between a rich fusspot and her chauffeur:

-Mind that car, Jeeves!

-Minding the car, m'am!

so similarly the following just about works:

-Beware of that dog, Jeeves!

-Bewaring the dog, m'am!

But it's certainly true that "beware" doesn't ordinarily take an inflection, and even without an inflection, appears to be tied to a particular semantic constraint (command) whatever the construction.

  • This linguistics tome is quite happy to mark John is bewaring of your dog, along with John has bewared/beworn of you dog as "unhappy" constructions. That's good enough for me - beware is "defective". – FumbleFingers Mar 14 '12 at 4:48
  • I don't necessarily disagree -- just remember that sometimes when we say that a particular utterance is "ungrammatical", what we really mean is "I can't think of the context in which this utterance would be grammatical/acceptable". I stick to my view that in the very specific context I mentioned, you could actually get "beware" in the progressive. – Neil Coffey Mar 15 '12 at 5:06
  • Yes, I agree your specific context is plausible. But only because the context itself practically forces that verb form. Assuming Jeeves is a native speaker, it's unlikely he could reply like that without being aware that he was being more than a little facetious. And it wouldn't be impossible for His Lordship to come back with Don't be cheeky, Jeeves! Just follow orders! – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '12 at 13:32

"Bewaring" is an antiquated and basically obsolete form of "beware", which is almost exclusively used as an imperative verb ("Beware!") or command ("You must beware the tides of war!"), these days. That is how "beware" is defective, here: the inflected -ing is never used. I, certainly, have never seen it used in modern prose, nor heard it used in modern speech.

If one wants a progressive form of this verb, then "being wary" would be what one would say. Similarly, "You must be wary" is an exact synonym for "you must beware". "We were being wary" would be the past progressive of the verb "beware"; but one won't really hear "we are being wary" or "I am being wary", because to "be wary" tends to mean to be completely silent and focused on one's objective (which is often to remain unseen/unheard/out of danger), or to stay focused on some difficult, physical task at hand (which makes it inconvenient to speak). So one almost never hears the first person, present progressive form of "to beware". This is almost certainly the reason why the verb is "defective", as well.

I think the main reason people don't use inflected forms of this verb is because "wary" has largely dropped out of use; these days, people will say "aware", which is the original word ("ware") with an added prefix ("a-", meaning here "to be in a state of", like the colloquial "a-running", "a-changing", etc). Typically, the present progressive inflected form of "beware" will be "staying aware", or "keeping aware", or even "staying awake", or "keeping on top of things", as in:

While keeping aware of the traffic before you, look in your rear-view mirror and check to see if the cycle lane is clear, and only then make your right turn.

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