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Learn Verb Voice, Tense, and Mood for Improved Communication

If you want to make a positive impression on others with your written and verbal communications, it’s important that you use verbs appropriately. This skill, though, involves more than merely making certain that verbs agree with their subjects in person and number. It requires the use of appropriate verb tense, voice, and mood, but in order to make the correct choices, you must first acquire an understanding of exactly what each of these terms mean.

Active and Passive Voice in Verb Usage

The term “voice” refers to the form of a transitive verb that indicates whether or not the subject performs or performed the action the verb denotes. A verb can be either active or passive voice, for example:

  • Tom wrote his first novel in six months. (Active)
  • Tom’s first novel was written in six months. (Passive)

If a transitive verb has a direct object, it’s in active voice, but if there is no direct object, the verb is in passive voice. Active voice is considered stronger and, therefore, more effective and desirable than passive voice. That is not meant to imply, however, that passive voice should be totally avoided. In fact, passive voice is usually the best choice when the performer of the action is unknown, for instance:

  • The grocer said the fish had been delivered fresh the previous day. (Who delivered the fish is not important.)
  • Tom was mugged the other night as he left the bar. (The mugger’s name is unknown.)

Choosing the Correct Verb Tense for Effective Communications

When referring to verbs, “tense” indicates the time of an action in relation to the time one either speaks about or writes about that action. There are three simple tenses and three perfect tenses in the English language.According to Diana Hacker, author of The Bedford Handbook for Writers (1991), in order to make the correct decision when it comes to choosing simple tense, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Use simple present to describe habitual actions or actions occurring at the time one is speaking, to state facts or general truths, to describe fictional events in literary works, or, in some cases, to express future actions that will occur at some specified time.
  • Use simple past to describe actions completed in the past.
  • Use simple future to describe actions that will occur at some future date.

Perfect tense verbs, which consist of a helping verb plus the past participle, are used to indicate more complex time relations. Moreover, these verbs can be present perfect, past perfect, or future perfect, with each form establishing a different time relation.

  • Present perfect is used to indicate an action that began in the past and continues today, or an action that began in the past and has been completed by the time of your speaking or writing about it (Hacker, 1991) For example: Tom has loved beer and football for years. Tom has stopped smoking.
  • Past perfect is used for an action already completed by the time of another past action, or for an action already completed at a specific past time (Hacker, 1991). For example: Tom decided to quit smoking after he had set fire to the couch three times. By 6:00, Tom had decided quitting wasn’t such a good idea.
  • Future perfect is used for an action that will be completed before or by a specified future time (Hacker, 1991). For example: Sue will have packed her bags and left by the time Tom returns home from the bar.

Note: The simple and perfect verb tenses also have progressive forms, which always end in the suffix “ing” and denote ongoing action, whether present, past, for future, for instance:

  • Tom is playing football.
  • Tom was playing football.
  • Tom had been watching football.
  • Tom will be playing football.

The Three Verb Moods in the English Language

Verb mood, according to Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray, coauthors of The Hodges Harbrace Handbook (2006), refers to “the way a speaker or writer regards an assertion,” whether “as a declarative statement or question (indicative mood), as a command or request (imperative), or as a supposition, hypothesis, recommendation, or condition contrary to fact (subjunctive).”

Examples of each verb mood:

  • Indicative: Tom is a football fanatic.
  • Imperative: Sue said, “Turn off that television or else!”
  • Subjunctive: Sue said, “I wish you were not such a loser.”

Most people do not normally misuse indicative or imperative mood, but many people misuse subjunctive mood or else fail to use it when needed. In order to avoid making these mistakes, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • The subjunctive mood uses the base form of a verb and does not change form to indicate the number or person of the subject.
  • With the subjunctive mood there is only one past-tense form of “be”, and that is “were”.
  • The subjunctive mood is used to express conditions that do not exist.

Some examples of subjunctive mood:

  • If Tom were more focused, he could finish the novel he’s being writing for the past ten years.
  • When Sue complained about his lack of focus, Tom said, “Come rain or shine, I promise I will finish my novel this year.”
  • Tom wishes he were a successful author like Stephen King or Tom Clancy.
  • Now tired of his excuses, Sue insists that Tom get a full time job.

In summary, learning to use appropriate voice, tense, and mood to express your thoughts and ideas can help you become a far more effective communicator, whether you are expressing yourself verbally or in writing, and being an effective communicator can greatly increase your chances of both professional and personal success.