End-of-life interviews . . . and verbs

patient-doctor-392 A lot of people ask me for more information when I tell them that my second job is discourse analyses of end of life psychotherapeutic interventions between doctors and palliative care patients. When I explain that I do both thematic and grammatical analyses of these interviews, people still ask what that means. Today I will discuss what I mean by grammatical analyses and I’ll save an explanation of thematic analyses for another post. Specifically, I am looking at the way that palliative care patients use verbs and how verbs are grammatical markers that evince a sense of mortality for these patients.

What are verbs?

Verbs are the central part of a sentence, especially because they select what other parts can occur in a sentence. So take this sentence as an example:

He wears her pendant as a reminder of days long past.

In this sentence the verb is wears and we know that the verb must be followed by more information because “He wears.” is an impossible sentence. Yet, have a look at these two sentences (the one with the asterisk is another impossible one):

*He wears her her pendant as a reminder of days long past.

He gives her her pendant as a reminder of days long past.

Here, the verb decides what type of phrase can follow it. In these examples I’ll illustrate more examples of how verbs allow certain concepts to follow them:

*He wears her concept as a reminder of days long past.

*He wears her pendant quickly.

He grabs her pendant quickly.

These simple examples illustrate that verbs are the central part of a clause (a clause simply means the smallest meaningful part of a sentence) and therefore are the most influential aspects of how a sentence can be understood. I’m explaining this because I believe that studying how people use verbs can reveal how they situate themselves in relation to time and space, and their own personal beliefs.

Lexical vs auxiliary verbs

Okay, here’s where things get kind of complicated, but I’ll try to keep this interesting and use good examples. In brief, the English language strings together verbs to relay the complexity of space and time into sentence meaning. So, for example, here is a string of verbs about an owl eating a mouse:

The mouse might have been being eaten by an owl.

Here we have the word might (a modal) followed by a string of four verbs (have been being eaten)—each of these verbs contribute to how this sentence can be understood in terms of space and time.

In this sentence, the most important verb is the verb eaten as it is the main focal action of the sentence. Eaten is the lexical verb of this sentence, the most ‘contentful’ verb. The remaining verbs in this sentence (“have been being”) are auxiliary verbs—verbs that contribute to other ways a sentence can be understood; they ‘help’ the lexical verb and can only occur as part of a verb string.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxilliary verbs provide information about the modality, aspect, or voice of a sentence (for our purposes, I’ll define voice here, but I’ll elaborate on it in another post; here my focus is modality and aspect):


Grammatical voice describes the relationship between the action that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (the subject or object). So, when the subject enacts the verb, the verb is in the active voice; when the subject undergoes the action described by the verb, it is in the passive voice.

Modal auxiliaries

Modality relates to how plausible the speaker thinks it is that what the sentence says will actually happen (this is why modality is sometimes referred to as grammatical “mood” and why grammatical markers of modality, as mentioned, are called modals). English does not have a separate verb form for the future as some other languages do. And, because my work studies palliative care patients discussing the future after they have died, I look at how patients use grammatical markers to indicate a future after they’ve passed away. Below are amended examples of how palliative care patients use modals to discuss their futures:

1) “I’ll always think about my family, even if I be in heaven. I will always protect my family.”

2) “I believe that your essence continues after death, you don’t end, so to speak. The body disappears, so you shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about small things.

3) I know I’m going to die and I’m ready as most people can be. I don’t know what it will be like when it happens.

4) All in all, I’m not going to miss much. (9.4)

5) “I could die in six months or it could be six weeks. Who knows?

6) “I hope my husband can manage himself and eat well.

The core modal verbs are can-could, may-might, shall-should, will-would, and must. The modal will most commonly indicates a focus on the future (as in the first and third examples), and the second most common way we discuss the future is the verb string “be (am, are, is; was, were) + going to,” as in the third and fourth examples. However, as we can see, other modals also refer to the future.

So in the above example, dying patients discuss the future with the following modal constructions: “it would,” “you should be,” “I could be,” “he can,” and “I will,” etc.

So, overall, the modals used here are really used to make predictions about how likely it is that something will happen in the future. The choice of verb, then, depends on how confident the speaker is about the statement.

Next up: Aspect

So in English we use modals to make predictions about the future, and which modals we choose indicate our belief in the likelihood of the statement occurring. Think about how you talk about the future, and you’ll realize that we almost always use modals. I thought I could fully discuss verbs in this post but I’m already running a bit long. I’ll follow up this post with another about grammatical aspect: which is how we relate information about whether the event described by a verb is ongoing, has been completed, or is being repeated. In case you forgot the reason I am telling you all this: modality and aspect are my focus for my discourse analyses of end of life psychotherapeutic interventions between doctors and palliative care patients. By better understanding how patients use grammar at the end of life, I believe that we can better understand how they situate their stories in relation to themselves as dying patients, and the individuals they were before they were diagnosed with a terminal illness.

6 thoughts on “End-of-life interviews . . . and verbs

  1. Hey Allan! Excuse me for my poor grammer! I know British English and American English aren’t always the same. For example, color (USA) and colour (UK). Sometimes I don’t know which to use on the net (Singaporeans and I am one – are brought up with British English but I am more comfortable with the verbal American English).

    I must admit I don’t really know when to use “can” and “could”. Should one be saying,”Can you pass me that pepper?” or “Could you pass me that pepper?”?

    After going through your blog entries, I realise there’s so much MORE to copywriting than most non-copywriters think!

    Allan, may be you can reveal who your role models are? I am curious to know! Thank you Allan and keep up the great info you give on here! :D


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