Verbs in English have two “voices”—active and passive—which tell readers whether the subject performs the action or is acted upon. Prefer the active voice of verbs to the passive voice. Example:
Teachers did not know how to handle the situation, so Michael was always placed in classes with troubled students.
The verb form in question here is was placed, which is passive. Using the passive voice usually moves the object of the verb to a superior position as the subject of the sentence, relegating the proper subject to an inferior role. In this case the proper subject—usually the person doing the acting—gets lost in the shuffle. Examples:
Jewelry is often stolen by burglars [passive].
Burglars often steal jewelry [active].
To avoid the passive voice in the example sentence above, write:
Teachers did not know how to handle the situation, so they always placed Michael in classes with troubled students.
The passive voice does have some use in writing occasionally, as in various stock locutions like The project was abandoned and The Germans were defeated. The active voice, though, is almost invariably more vigorous, direct, and vivid and therefore keeps the action in sharper focus for the reader.
Verbs are moody little buggers. There are three verb moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. The most common is the indicative mood. You are using the indicative mood when you make a simple statement:
I know the window was shut. (indicative mood)
Where the indicative mood tells, the imperative commands, and the subjunctive wishes or speculates:
Shut the window. (imperative mood)
I wish the window were shut. (subjunctive mood)
Mood indicates how the writer thinks about a subject. If you wish something were true or speculate about what might happen (subjunctive mood) or give a command (imperative mood), you let the reader know this by changing the form of the verb or by the omission of certain words.
Consider this embarrassing situation: A husband comes home unexpectedly and sees a man fleeing out his back door. He rushes into the kitchen and accuses his wife of cheating on him, and she responds:
So what if my lover were here? (subjunctive)
By using the subjunctive mood, she is not confessing; she’s inviting her husband to consider a hypothetical question.
But the situation is quite different if she says:
So what if my lover was here?
Now she is indeed confessing and wants to know what her husband intends to do about that fact.
The changing of was to were is the signal for the mood involved—the subjunctive mood. Look at the subjunctive in another sentence:
The captain ordered that the sails be hoisted and the anchor be weighed.
You might expect the imperative since the captain is giving an order, but—since the desired condition of the sails and anchor are not yet fact—you use the subjunctive.
Once the order has been carried out, you could use the indicative mood to express the situation:
The captain saw that the sails were hoisted and the anchor was weighed.
Compare that to the imperative mood, used to give a command or to direct someone in the performance of a task. Note that the imperative mood is created by removing the implied subject, which in English is always you.
"(You) Hoist the sails! (You) Weigh anchor!" yelled the captain.
Now we are hearing the captain give the actual order—in contrast to the first sentence, where we are merely reporting what the order was. This distinction will become quite important when you start writing dialogue and quotes. It differentiates between the summarizing or paraphrasing of speech and the speech itself.
The Subjunctive Mood
The present subjunctive
The present subjunctive is the same in form as the infinitive
without to. This is also the same form as the present indicative,
except in the third person singular and in forms of the verb to
The present subjunctive is used:
(1) in third-person commands: "Help, somebody save me!" Most third-
person commands (although not those addressed to "somebody") are
now expressed with "let" instead. The following (current but
set) formulas would probably use "let" if they were being
coined today: "So be it"; "Manners be hanged!"; "... be
damned"; "Be it known that..."; "Far be it from me to...";
"Suffice it to say that..."
(2) in third person wishes. Most third-person wishes are now
prefixed with "may" instead, as would the following formulas be:
"God save the Queen!"; "God bless you"; "God help you"; "Lord
love a duck"; "Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy
will be done."; "Heaven forbid!"; "The Devil take him!"; "Long
live the king!"; "Perish the thought!"
(3) in formulas where it means "No matter how..." or "Even if...":
"Come what may, ..."; "Be that as it may, ..."; "Though all
care be exercised..."; "Be he ever so..."
(4) after "that" clauses to introduce a situation that the actor
wants to bring about. Used to introduce a formal motion ("I move
that Mr. Smith be appointed chairman"); after verbs like
"demand", "insist", "propose", "prefer", "recommend", "resolve",
"suggest"; and after phrases like "it is advisable/desirable/
that". "Should" can also be used in such clauses. This use of
the subjunctive had become archaic in Britain in the first half
of the 20th century, but has been revived under U.S. influence.
Note the difference between "It is important that America has
an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs" (America has an adequate
supply of H-bombs, and this is important) and "It is important
that America have an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs" (America
probably *lacks* an adequate supply, and must acquire one).
(5) after "lest". "Should" can also be used after "lest". After
the synonymous "in case", the plain indicative is usual.
(6) "Come...", meaning "When ... comes"
The past subjunctive is the same in form as the past indicative,
except in the past subjunctive singular of "to be", which is "were"
instead of "was".
The past subjunctive is used:
(1) for counterfactual conditionals: "If I were..." or
(literary) "Were I...". In informal English, substitution of
the past indicative form ("If I was...") is common. But note
that speakers who make this substitution are *still*
distinguishing possible conditions from counterfactual ones,
by a change of tense:
Possible condition: "If I am" "If I was"
Counterfactual condition: "If I were/was" "If I had been"
"As if" and "as though" were originally always used to introduce
counterfactuals, but are now often used in "looks as if",
"sounds as though", etc., to introduce things that the speaker
actually believes ("It looks as if" = "It appears that"). In
such cases the present indicative is often used. ("As if" and
"as though" are exceptions to the above table in that they take
the past subjunctive, not the pluperfect subjunctive, for
counterfactuals in the past. The past tense of "If he were a
fool, he would mention it" is "If he had been a fool, he would
have mentioned it"; but the past tense of "He talks as if he
were a fool" is "He talked as if he were a fool." "He talked as
if he had been a fool" would mean that he seemed, not foolish,
but regretful of earlier foolishness.)
Fowler says that there is no "sequence of moods" requirement in
English: it's "if I were to say that I was wrong", not "if I
were to say that I were wrong".
(2) for counterfactual wishes: "I wish I were..."; "If only I
were..."; (archaic) "Would that I were...". Again, substitution
of the past indicative is common informally. Achievable wishes
are usually expressed with various verbs plus the infinitive:
"I wish to...", "I'd like you to..."
(3) in archaic English, sometimes to introduce the apodosis
("then" part) of a conditional: "then I were" = "then I would
(4) in "as it were" (a formula indicating that the previous
expression was coined for the occasion or was not quite
precise -- literally, "as if it were so").
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