Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why is the sentence “It can be overcame” grammatically wrong?

To the consternation of many nonnative English speakers, some English verbs like “hit,” “cut,” and “shot” don’t inflect or change at all when forming their past participles. They behave differently from regular verbs like “watch,” which adds an “-ed” to itself to take the passive infinitive form “to be watched”; they behave differently from verbs ending in a vowel, like “take,” which add an “n” to themselves to form the passive infinitive “to be taken”; and they behave differently from even more deviant verbs like “buy,” which inflects to “bought” to form the passive infinitive “to be bought.” Instead, verbs like “hit,” “cut,” and “shot” remain as they are to form the the passive infinitives “to be hit,” “to be cut,” and “to be shot.”

But what about the verb “overcome”? What form does it take in the passive infinitive form—“to be overcame,” following this usual formula for regular verbs: “to be” + the main verb’s past participle? And what form does it take in the modal form—“can be overcame,” following the usual form “can + be + past participle of the verb”? Over six years ago, two first-year journalism students got themselves into such a protracted tangle about the correct usage, prompting one of them to write me for a third-party grammar opinion.

My answer took the form of the essay below, “What the modal ‘can’ does to main verbs,” which should also prove instructive to Forum members who might still be baffled by how “overcome” behaves in the passive infinitive or passive modal form. (July 17, 2010) 

What the modal “can” does to main verbs

A reader of The Manila Times who identified herself as a first-year journalism student sent me the e-mail below that posed an intriguing question about the behavior of the verb “overcome.” Here’s her letter along with my answer:

Dear Mr. Carillo,

In my Speech Communication class, our teacher asked each one of us to deliver a speech for our final exam. A classmate of mine talked about “stage fright,” saying that “Nervousness is normal. It can be
overcome.” He delivered his speech well, but since last week, I have been arguing with another classmate, Jesse, about the second sentence of that line: “It can be overcome.” Jesse said that our classmate should have used “It can be overcame” instead. I said that our classmate did the right thing; I argued that “overcome” was correct because the one being addressed had not overcome the nervousness yet. Another correct way of saying it, I said, was “It could be overcome.” This didn’t convince Jesse, who said that he would do more research on it.

Irritated that he didn’t believe me, I told Jesse that there’s no such word as “overcame” in the first place. “Overcome,” I said, could have no past tense since it has no root word; one could tell if it’s in the past tense only if it is “helped” by the auxiliary verbs. I said that simply because we’d hear the word “overcame” every now and then didn’t mean that using it was proper. Well, yesterday, I finally learned that “overcame” is definitely the past tense of “overcome” (thanks to my pontifical intelligence!), but I still couldn’t believe that what I had read from the book is true!

Could you please enlighten me on this? I’d really appreciate it.

Lucky Mae Q.

Here’s my reply to the above e-mail:

Dear Lucky Mae:

I can very well appreciate your dilemma over such a sentence as “It can be overcome.” In “overcome,” you and Jesse had actually stumbled on one of those perplexing, few-of-a-kind irregular verbs that simply won’t follow the English grammar rules as we know them. Compounding the situation is that “overcome” here happens to be consorting with two other strange grammar bedfellows: the modal “can” and the linking verb “be.” The result, as you have seen, is bedlam.

First, let’s get something straight about “overcome.” This verb can be both transitive (needs a direct object) and intransitive (won’t take a direct object); in “It can be overcome,” it works intransitively in the sense of “gaining superiority over something”—in this particular instance, over the aspect of “nervousness.” We must also take note here that when used transitively, “overcome” can be inflected in two ways: into the past tense “overcame,” and into the gerund or progressive form “overcoming.” (This should validate your finding that “overcome” does have a legitimate past tense.) Intransitively, however, “overcome” keeps its uninflected form—meaning that the word doesn’t change at all in a passive construction.

Recall that verbs normally use the following formula in the infinitive of their passive form: “to be” + the main verb’s past participle. Thus, the verb “watch” takes the passive infinitive form “to be watched”; “frighten” inflects to “frightened” to form “to be frightened.” Verbs ending in a vowel, like “take,” add an “n” to themselves to form the past participle, so “take” becomes the passive infinitive “to be taken.” Some verbs, of course, do even more strange things; “buy,” for instance, inflects to “bought” to form the passive infinitive “to be bought.”

There are a few verbs, however, that don’t inflect or change at all when forming their past participles. “Hit,” “cut,” and “shot” are such verbs, forming the passive infinitives “to be hit,” “to be cut,” and “to be shot.” “Overcome” behaves in exactly the same way: it doesn’t inflect to form its past participle. This explains why “to be overcome” is correct and “to be overcame” is wrong. (One other “come” word, the verb “become,” takes the passive infinitive form “to become,” not “to be become”; it gets rid of the extra “be” in the interest of euphony. Such are the errant and confusing ways of some English verbs.)

Now, in the sentence “It can be overcome,” the modal “can” has simply taken the place of the infinitive in “to be overcome.” As we know, “can” indicates current ability in the same sense as “able to,” but being a modal, it also puts some element of uncertainty in the statement. It tells us that although there’s a strong possibility of overcoming one’s nervousness in public speaking, we can never be 100% sure that it will happen. In any case, “overcome” is definitely not being used in its present tense here. It is in every way in the past participle form, except that it had retained its uninflected form and simply didn’t follow the usual rules. (April 14, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 14, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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