Traditionally, the category of number is treated as the correlation of the plural and the singular, and the category of person as the correlation of three deictic functions, reflecting the relations of the referents to the participants of speech communication: the first person – the speaker, the second person – the person spoken to, and the third person – the person or thing spoken about. But in the system of the verb in English these two categories are so closely interconnected, both semantically and formally, that they are often referred to as one single category: the category of person and number.
First, the semantics of both person and number categories is not inherently “verbal”, these two categories are reflective: the verbal form reflects the person and number characteristics of the subject, denoted by the noun (or pronoun) with which the verb is combined in the sentence. And in the meaning of the subject the expression of number semantics is blended with the expression of person semantics; for example, in the paradigm of personal pronouns the following six members are distinguished by person and number characteristics combined: first person singular - I, first person plural - we, second person singular – you (or, archaic thou), second person plural - you, third person singular - he/she/it, third person plural - they. Second, formally, the categories of person and number are also fused, being expressed by one and the same verbal form, e.g.: he speaks; this fact supports the unity of the two categories in the system of the verb.
In Old English the verb agreed with the subject in almost every person and number, like in Russian and other inflectional languages, cf.: singular, 1st person - telle, 2nd person - tellest, 3d person - telleð, plural - tellað. There were special person and number forms in the past tense, too. Nowadays most of these forms are extinct.
In modern English all verbs can be divided according to the expression of this category into three groups. Modal verbs distinguish no person or number forms at all. The verb ‘to be’, on the contrary, has preserved more person-number forms than any other verb in modern English, cf.: I am; we are; you are; he/she/it is; they are; in the past tense the verb to be distinguishes two number forms in the first person and the third person: I, he/she/it was (sing.) – we, they were (pl.); in the second person the form were is used in the singular and in the plural. The bulk of the verbs in English have a distinctive form only for the third person singular of the present tense indicative mood. Thus, the category of person and number in modern English is fragmental and asymmetrical, realized in the present tense indicative mood by the opposition of two forms: the strong, marked member in this opposition is the third person singular (speaks) and the weak member embraces all the other person and number forms, so, it can be called “a common form” (speak).
Some archaic person and number verbal forms are preserved in high flown style, in elevated speech, especially the archaic second person singular forms of all the verbs, including the modal verbs and the verb ‘to be’, e.g.: Thou shalt not kill; Thou comest to the needy; Thou art omniscient.
Some older grammar textbooks state that the category of person is also expressed in the future and future-in-the-past tenses by the opposition of analytical verbal forms with auxiliary verbs shall/should for the first person and will/would for the rest. But, first of all, this distinction has practically disappeared in American English, especially in colloquial speech, and, second, in British English it is interconnected with certain modal differences, expressing voluntary or non-voluntary future for the first person and mere future or modal future for the second and third persons together. Thus, the analytical verbal forms with the auxiliary verbs shall/should - will/would cannot be treated only on the basis of the category of person. (This issue will be discussed further in connection with the tense category; see Unit 13.)
The deficient person-number paradigm of the verb in English makes syntagmatic relations between the verbal lexeme and the lexeme denoting the subject obligatory for the expression of this category. This fact is reflected by practical grammar textbooks where the conjugation of the verb is presented through specific semi-analytical pronoun-verb combinations, e.g.: I speak, you speak, he/she/it speaks, we speak, you speak, they speak. One can say that the category of person and number is expressed “natively” by the third person singular present indicative form of the verb, and “junctionally”, though the obligatory reference to the form of the subject, in all the other person and number forms.
Deficient as it is, the system of person and number forms of the verb in English plays an important semantic role in contexts in which the immediate forms of the noun do not distinguish the category of number, e.g., singularia tantum nouns or pluralia tantum nouns, or nouns modified by numerical attributes, or collective nouns, when we wish to stress either their single-unit quality or plural composition, cf.: The family was gathered round the table – The family were gathered round the table; Ten dollars is a huge sum of money for me. – There are ten dollars in my pocket. In these cases, traditionally described in terms of “notional concord” or “agreement in sense”, the form of the verb reflects not the categorial form of the subject morphemically expressed, but the actual personal-numerical interpretation of the referent denoted.
The category of person and number can be neutralized in colloquial speech or in some regional and social variants and dialects of English, cf.: Here’s your keys; It ain’t nobody’s business.