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Verb tenses lessons

Verb lessons

Passive voice


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.



Verb moods


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"



Past subjunctive


  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:


                          Present          Past


   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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