Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

I HAVE YET to figure this out…

(yes, pay attention to the CAPS)

Linguistics is all about questioning what you already think you know about language.  And, as I’ve pointed out in other posts, in order to be an effective English instructor, you must also be a linguist — if not by career, at least by your willingness to question your understanding of the language.  My first ESL post is what actually led me to become a linguist.  I remember being in the classroom as a very green teacher and upon seeing the various looks of confusion on my students’ faces, thinking that there simply had to be a better way to teach English than the method used in that school (Callan Method).  I realised at the time that while these purely communicative methods provide learners with an inventory or forms and vocabulary, that they fail to convey any actual understanding of how or why to use this newly acquired knowledge.  Of course my next realisation was that neither I nor my fellow teachers really understood the various reasons and logic behind most of the usage we were teaching either.  Hence my entry into the field of linguistics, and the beginning of an ever ongoing project to research, classify, and explain the various bits of English grammar and syntax that confuse even the best of us at times.

Over the past three years I have been doing quite a bit of work on sentence structure, word order, and forms which are difficult for language learners to grasp.  I owe this to probably the greatest group of students I shall ever have — a class of 16 German engineers to whom I taught a 3 month intensive technical English course.  They were great for asking questions I couldn’t answer and for not allowing exceptions to the rules.  I made a deal with them at the time that I would research their questions until I found a fool-proof answer for them.  Three years later and I am still working on about half of those queries!

Much of my work has resulted in a classification system for modals (found here) that seeks to explain why some verbs, or forms, or other such sentences don’t mesh with the standard ‘rules’.  I’ve found that almost every one of the oddball constructions is a modal expression (just like shall, or will, or be going).  However, there is one form that I’ve been trying to figure out for well over a year now, and it’s actually the only but of standard grammar I have not been able to fully explain.  That form is:

have + yet + infinitive.

Examples include things like “I have yet to finish my homework,”  “he has yet to call home,” “I had yet to cook dinner when the fire broke out.”

These forms differ from other uses of yet and generally have an equivalent form in the perfected informational aspect:

I have yet to finish my homework  ≃ I haven’t finished my homework yet.

He has yet to call home  ≃  He hasn’t called home yet.

I had yet to cook dinner when the fire broke out  ≃  I hadn’t cooked dinner yet when the fire broke out.

Now, modal forms and adverbs both are often used to express mood in English.  And many times two completely different forms can be used to express the same mood.  Often one form has an added meaning that is perhaps a bit different than the other.  That’s probably the case here.  I have yet to actually figure out what mood is being expressed by these forms, but I am certain that have + yet is a modal phrase.

Modals in English have certain characteristics that set them apart from other verbs and verb phrases (these are outlined in the modal post below).  Certain attributes are only found in some modals though and not in non-modal forms.  Have+yet subordinates the verb that follows it into the infinitive form (requiring to); this is a modal-only characteristic.  Have+yet cannot be modified by other modals (will have yet is not possible), another modal characteristic.  Have+yet has no negative form.  This final one is characteristic that only modals and some auxiliaries exhibit.  It is also what separates Have+yet from the perfected forms with yet.

Thus, while I have no doubt that have+yet is in fact a modal, I still have no idea what mood (or moods) it expresses.

Any ideas?


December 19, 2009 - Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. This doesn’t answer your question, but it might bring a smile. From Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (your dilemma reminded me of the last paragraph):

    “One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother….
    “The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

    “Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

    “The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstration, pausing only to note that the term “Future Perfect” has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.”

    Comment by Alex | January 6, 2010 | Reply

  2. Ha! It’s been a long time since my misspent youth of watching Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on TV! Great find!!

    Comment by Drew Ward | January 6, 2010 | Reply

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