WORKING WITH VERBS

THE WORDS THAT DO THE REAL WORK


Topics: 1. Verb forms | 2. Mood | 3. Tense | 4. Voice

Nouns, adjectives and adverbs are the words that name and describe things, people, events and ideas. However, to make any of these actually do something requires a verb – and every clause and sentence must have at least one. Verbs describe action, existence or occurrence – they are the engines of our language:

  1. Verb forms

    Finite verbs are those that change their form to fit the subject of the sentence (in tense, person and number) and every clause must have one finite verb:

    • Yesterday we gave – today we give. [Tense]
    • I write; he writes; they wrote; it is written. [Person]
    • Soldiers drive jeeps – Corporal Smith drives a jeep. [Number – i.e. singular or plural.]

    The finite verb is always the main verb of a clause with all other verbs in the same clause being nonfinite verbs. The finite verb can also be transitive or intransitive:

    • He hit the ball. Transitive: requires an object – ‘the ball’ – to make sense.]
    • She danced. Let them die! Fish swim in the sea. [Intransitive: no object required to make sense.]

    For further information about finite verbs, see the sections on Mood and Tense below.

    Nonfinite verbs are not changed by the nature of the subject, and for this reason can never be the main verb of a clause or sentence. Nonfinite verbs often function as adjectives, adverbs and even nouns. There are three types of nonfinite verb:

    1. Infinitive: This is the plain, uninflected form of the verb and is usually accompanied by the particle ‘to’:
      • John tried to help the poor. Alice went to buy a dress. [Purpose or intention.]
      • They left him there to die; he managed to escape. [Expressing an outcome or result.]
      • I love to go to the movies. She was asked to explain her actions. [Indicating a desire or advice.]
      • Here is a coat to wear. Do you want something to drink? [Explaining the function of a noun.]
      • You’re the third person to complain! [Giving meaning to a phrase with an ordinal number.]
      • Anne went for a swim, but Lisa didn’t want to. [Here, the missing verb ‘go’ is readily understood.]
         
    2. Participle: The participle can act like an adjective, assigning action to a noun. It is also the last word in a verb string and the verb in nonfinite phrases. It can be present tense or past tense, but has none of the other inflections used by finite verbs.

      The present participle mostly ends with -ing:

      • Where are my dancing shoes? [Modifying a noun.]
      • I will be buying lunch today. [Last verb of a verb string.]
      • Sitting here, I can see the traffic passing by. [Nonfinite clauses.]
         

      The past participle often ends with -ed, -en, or -t. The past participle is generally, though not strictly, in the passive voice:

      • Samantha has spoken of her ordeal. [Passive voice; active = Samantha spoke of her ordeal.]
      • The difficulties encountered were almost insurmountable. [Modifying the noun ‘difficulties’.]
      • Have you looked in lost property? [First in a verb string and then modifying a noun.]
      • The old soldier honoured his fallen comrades every year.
         
    3. Gerund: This is another -ing verb and looks exactly the same as the present participle – but it has a different function in the sentence. The gerund acts as noun:
      • Dancing is a very healthy pastime. [It’s a verb form, but here it forms the subject.]
      • She thought about buying some new shoes.
      • Did you mind me asking you out?
      • He doesn’t mind voicing his opinions.
      • I can’t bear to see you suffer.
         

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  2. Mood

    When people speak or write, they tend to express their ideas with a certain manner – and in grammar these manners are called moods. Finite verbs are expressed in three main moods – the indicative, the imperative and the subjunctive:

    1. Indicative mood: this is the most common use of the verb – it is used to make a statement, express opinions or to formulate a question.
      • Most sentences on this page are in the indicative mood.
      • I think adversity brings out the best in people.
      • Is it necessary to use good grammar? [Questions are sometimes called the interrogative mood.]
         
    2. Imperative mood: verbs in the imperative mood give a directive, a strong suggestion or a command. There is no stated subject in this mood: the word ‘you’ is understood.
      • Be here for opening time. [You be here for opening time.]
      • Bring me my slippers, dear. [You bring me my slippers, dear.]
      • Don’t underestimate your competitors. [Don’t you underestimate your competitors.]
         
    3. Subjunctive mood: by far the most difficult to define, this mood is used to express what is wished for, possible or hypothetical; it is often expressed using the verbs ‘might’, ‘should’ and ‘could’. When wishing for something that is not actually real, the past tense should be used – always use ‘were’ rather than ‘was’.
      • If only he were here. [Wished for – but he’s not.]
      • I wish I had brought my spectacles. [But I haven’t.]
      • If Australia were a wet continent, we would have no deserts. [But it isn’t: and we do.]
      • The report recommended the company be re-financed. [It’s a desire: not a fact.]
      Note: In English, the subjunctive mood is seen mostly as fixed phrases:
      • Be that as it may.
      • God save the Queen.
      • Lest we forget.
      • Perish the thought.
      • Come what may.

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  3. Tense

    When we communicate, we need to express our ideas and statements in time. It’s logical that some things are happening now and others in the past or the future. So, naturally, English verbs have three basic (or simple) tenses: the present, the past and the future. That seems straightforward as can be seen in these examples:

    • Edith travels regularly. [Present tense – it happens now.]
    • Edith travelled regularly. [Past tense – she used to travel.]
    • Edith will travel regularly. [Future tense – it is going to happen later.]
       

    However, these basic forms don’t always express every necessary nuance. If something happened in the past, did it continue to the present? Did it happen before some other action? Did it happen at a specific point or at some indefinite time? To express these notions, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ are mixed with verbs to form compound tenses – and grammarians take delight in giving them names to frighten us out of our wits!

    If the action has an indefinite sense of when it started or will start, it is called the perfect tense and uses the verb ‘to have’:

    • My aunt has knitted me a pullover. [Present perfect – she did it at some time.]
    • My aunt had knitted me a pullover. [Past perfect – at an indefinite time in the past.]
    • My aunt will have knitted me a pullover. [Future perfect – she will some time.]
       

    Where action is, was, or will be ‘ongoing’ (not just momentary), the tense is said to be progressive (or continuous):

    • Jason is exercising to lose weight. [Present progressive – it suggests that he continues to exercise.]
    • Jason was exercising to lose weight. [Past progressive – he was doing it for a while.]
    • Jason will be exercising to lose weight. [Future progressive – he’s going to keep on exercising.]
    Note: the progressive form takes the verb ‘to be’ with the participle (-ing) form of the verb.

    Of course, that’s not where it ends! Just to make sure you won’t sleep at night before an English exam, grammarians have combined the nuances expressed in the perfect and progressive tenses. Here, where actions may have started at an indeterminate time, but continue until now or some other event – and may even continue into the future – we have the perfect progressive tense:

    • Mildred’s cat has been walking on my petunias. [Present perfect progressive – it has been and is still doing it. Is there no end to this?]
    • Mildred’s cat had been walking on my petunias. [Past perfect progressive – the cat was doing it, but stopped at some time, thankfully.]
    • If there are paw prints in the garden tomorrow, I’ll know that Mildred’s cat will have been walking on my petunias – again! [Future perfect progressive – I’m not sure when she does it, but it has to stop!]
    Note: this tense adds the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ to the participle (-ing) form of the verb .
    Examples of the most common tenses:
     
    PAST
    PRESENT
    FUTURE
    Simple
    I edited books.
    He edited books.
    They edited books.
    I edit books.
    He edits books.
    They edit books.
    I will edit books.
    He is going to edit books.
    They will not edit books.
    Perfect
    I had edited books.
    He had not edited books.
    They had edited books.
    I have edited books.
    He has edited books.
    They have not edited books.
    I will have edited books.
    He will not have edited books.
    They have edited books.
    Progressive
    (Continuous)
    I was editing books.
    He was not editing books.
    They were editing books.
    I am editing books.
    He is editing books.
    They are not editing books.
    I will be editing books.
    He will not be editing books.
    They will be editing books.
    Perfect Progressive
    I had been editing books.
    He had been editing books.
    They had not been editing books.
    I have been editing books.
    He has been editing books.
    They have not been editing books.
    I will have been editing books.
    He will not have been editing books.
    They will have been editing books.


    All of the above is only a rough guide, since each tense can be used to convey more meanings than I have outlined. And the bad news is there are other tenses that express subtleties even more nuanced than the ones above (try conditional perfect progressive!) – the good news is: I’m not going to bore you with them!

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  4. Voice

    Apart from the various tenses, forms and moods of verbs, they are also used in one of two voices: the active and the passive – and the selection of the correct voice is an important issue in English usage. The choice is decided simply by what sounds most effective in a given circumstance. The passive voice can sometimes be difficult to pick, but the fundamental anatomy of English generally dictates that the active voice will give a stronger, clearer meaning to your words.

    The most potent sentence structure in English goes: subject + verb + object.

    Next week, Jemima Smith will launch her latest crime novel, Death in the Hedgerows, at the Midsomer Writers’ Festival.

    This sentence is in the active voice.

    • Subject = ‘Jemima Smith’ [the doer].
    • Verb = ‘will launch’ [the action being performed].
    • Object = ‘her latest crime novel’ [… plus some additional information].
       

    Now, let’s put the same sentence into the passive voice:

    Her latest crime novel, Death in the Hedgerows, will be launched next week by Jemima Smith at the Midsomer Writers’ Festival.

    As you can see, the passive voice is more wordy and tends to weaken the impact as it focuses on the thing affected by the action rather than the doer. The passive voice introduces the verb ‘to be’ (regarded as the weakest verb in the language) and converts the main verb into a weaker past participle (‘launched’ rather than the direct verb ‘launch’).

    So, we can usually spot the passive voice by looking for the verbs ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ (is, are, was, were, has/have/had been, will be, etc.) followed by a past participle (see the examples marked in blue below):

    • The college student ate four hot dogs. [Active]
    • Four hot dogs were eaten by the college student. [Passive]
       
    • Luciano Pavarotti sang Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s opera Turandot. [Active]
    • Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s opera Turandot, was sung by Luciano Paverotti. [Passive]
       
    • In the past, the CIA covered up many covert operations. [Active]
    • In the past, many covert operations were covered up by the CIA. [Passive]
       

    In each of these cases, the active voice is clearer and more direct. However, the passive voice can be used effectively in at least three situations:

    1. Where it is more important to draw the reader’s attention to the thing (or person) being acted upon, or where the ‘actor’ is unknown:
      • The Holden Commodore is manufactured in Australia by General Motors. [Useful for advertisers, focusing on the product rather than the company.]
      • General Motors manufactures the Holden Commodore in Australia. [Active voice, but we’re really talking about the car.]
      • Jemima Smith was brutally murdered in Midsomer. [The victim is the focus of this sentence, and nothing is known of the doer – this is an agentless passive voice construction.]
      • An unknown assailant brutally murdered Jemima Smith in Midsomer. [This is the active voice, but poor Jemima is really the concern of this report.]
         
    2. Where the subject (the doing agent) is not important to the idea:
      • The sea mist can always be seen at sunrise. [Here we have a ‘hidden’ doer – in the active voice this would be: One can always see the sea mist at sunrise.]
      • A revolutionary liver transplant operation was performed at the Glasgow Infirmary yesterday. [Active: Yesterday, surgeons at the Glasgow Infirmary performed a revolutionary liver transplant operation.]
         
    3. Where you want to deliberately de-emphasise the doer:
      • All residents will be charged a levy on their rates. [Active: The Council will charge all residents a levy on their rates. In the passive voice, the politicians are conveniently left out to avoid opprobrium.]
      • We lost because an own goal was kicked. [We lost because I kicked an own goal! A dangerous admission in some places.]
         

    Other, but more obscure, reasons to choose the passive voice are:

    • to create a sense of detached ideas – For democracy to exist, all people must be treated as equals.
    • to create dramatic effect by placing the doer at the end – The murder was committed by none other than … the butler!
       

    However, if you want to emphasise the doer, minimise the words, or get directly to the point, then use the active voice. The active voice creates a vigorous and forceful style in writing:

    • For democracy to exist, we must treat all people as equals!
    • The butler committed the murder!
    Note: the passive voice is not a grammatical error – it is a sentence construction that has its uses in writing, but the writer should deliberately choose when to use it. Be aware of these rules:
    1. Don’t use both active and passive voice in the one sentence:
      • The Senate approved the amended tax measures, and the date for their implementation was revised. [Wrong.]
      • The Senate approved the amended tax measures, and revised the date for their implementation. [Better.]
         
    2. Avoid dangling modifiers when using the passive voice (i.e. don’t start a sentence with a modifying clause if it can’t adequately refer to the next thing):
      • Too embarrassed to face the angry workers, consultants were hired to explain the redundancies to staff. [The consultants were embarrassed?]
      • Too embarrassed to face the angry workers, management hired consultants to explain the redundancies to staff.
         
      • Hoping to have her book published, an editor was hired to revise the text. [This sounds as if the ‘editor’ was having her book published.]
      • Hoping to have her book published, Jemima hired an editor to revise the text. [As she should!]

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