I recently saw a joke that any word in English can be a verb if you try hard enough:
- I just want to tea and book today.
- The corrupt dictator Thanos-ed his starving people.
- She dentists teeth rather poorly, but she jack o’lanterns pumpkins very well.
It’s a new favorite thought-experiment of mine. What’s the weirdest noun you can turn into a verb?
You guessed it: Today we’re talking about verbs.
As usual with the intermediate series, I’m going to assume that you’ve already read the Basics post introducing the concept of verbs. If you need a refresher, go peek at it first 🙂
General Disclaimer: While I love grammar, I’m also new at learning it. I will do my best to explain things correctly. If you find that I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented something, please share that in the comments. Please do so kindly, though. The goal of this is for all of us to learn and become better writers, and people learn better from kindness than troll-ness.
Verb tense tells us when an action is taking place.
There are three major ways to use verb tense: Simple, perfect, and continuous/progressive
Simple tense was dealt with in the basics verb post: It tells us simply that something happened in the past, is happening in the present, or will happen in the future. In other words, verbs are all either in past, present, or future tense.
ALL verbs have tense. Sometimes, though, they get a bit more specific than simple tense.
In that case, we use the perfect tense or the progressive (sometimes called continuous) tense.
Perfect tense is called “perfect” because the verb is complete. We use this to express an action that was, is, or will be done once and that’s it.
To make the perfect form of a verb, add the appropriate conjugation of “has/had/have” and the participle (more on this a bit later, so if you don’t know what a participle is, scroll down.”
Use the perfect tense if your goal is to show that one action happened before another.
Perfect tense can be excellent to delineate flashbacks from the main narrative. If your story is in past tense, use past perfect to give backstory.
Ms. Flerpin picked up the antique mirror set with tiny rubies, though several gem settings were empty. She had been just a girl when Papa had given her this mirror. Her hopes for the future had been grand, and Peter Andrews had whispered still grander dreams in her ear.
She set the mirror down. Now Peter Andrews was gone, and her dreams were like the mirror: rusting and slowly being robbed of their gems.
The regular italics part is in simple past tense: The present narrative, in which Ms. Flerpin is older and dissatisfied. The bolded italics are in past perfect tense, denoting the flashback to a time full of hope and whoever Peter Andrews was.
Without any special formatting (if you removed the bolding that I added for instructional purposes), you’ve just smoothly signaled a break in your narrative timeline to your readers and gently ushered them back to the present.
Progressive (Continuous) Tense
No joke, “progressive tense” and “continuous” tense are the exact same thing. We use them to show that an action is continuous, or that the action is progressing over a period of time. I’m going to use them interchangeably.
As you may have noticed from the examples, the continuous tense is formed by adding a conjugation of “be” plus the suffix “-ing.”
Perfect Progressive (Continuous)
Sometimes actions are both continuous and stop at a certain point. In these cases, we use perfect progressive tense.
This is formed basically by smooshing perfect and continuous forms together. Add “has/have/had,” the appropriate form of “be,” and “-ing.”
- I had been reading for years before the library opened.
- I have been reading since 9 am, and it is now 9 pm.
- I will have been reading this book for a year by the time I finally finish it.
There are SO MANY FUN OPTIONS with verb tense!
To review before we go on:
- I drank tea (simple past)
- I had drunk tea (past perfect)
- I was drinking tea (past continuous)
- I had been drinking tea (past perfect continuous)
- I drink tea (simple present)
- I have drunk tea (present perfect)
- I am drinking tea (present progressive)
- I have been drinking tea (present perfect progressive)
- I will drink tea (simple future)
- I will have drunk tea (future perfect)
- I will be drinking tea (future continuous)
- I will have been drinking tea (future perfect progressive)
Just to clarify, as I write this, all of these are true 😉
You might be asking, right about now, why some of those versions of “drink” are weird–how do you know when to use “drank” versus “drunk”? This is a common issue in writing, and becomes more common every day. The issue boils down to verbs versus verb participles.
When combined with any helping verb to form the perfect, continuous, or perfect continuous form, the main verb gets converted into its particle form.
There are two kinds of participles: Past and present. Most verbs form the past participle by adding “-ed” to the end of the word. We call these kinds of verbs “regular verbs.”
Some verbs are weird (aka “irregular”) and don’t like to play by the rules. They’re the Loki kind of verbs.
Sadly, “Loki verbs” isn’t a technical term. But you’re free to use it as such.
My best advice with irregular verbs is to look them up. When in doubt, Googling “[verb] past participle” will turn up many helpful resources.
Present participles of all verbs are made by adding “-ing” to the end of the word.
Please, please, please do not use simple past tense as a past participle. And please check that you’re using the standard form of the participle.
In addition to knowing what verb tense you’re using and how to use participles to form that verb tense, it is also imperative to stay consistent in your verb tense.
Peter Andrews has been known as a handsome man, whose eyes are green and clothes were always neatly pressed. His hair is standing on end and his had been straightened.
Every verb in that example is in a different tense. Your mind is probably reeling right now, trying to figure out when this Andrews guy was handsome and whether his clothes are still neatly pressed or only used to be.
Choose a tense intentionally and stick to it. Not only will this make your tense communicate something of value for your readers, it will also help you stick to the stylistic principle of parallelism. In writing, you want to express the same things in the same way. Thus, if Ms. Flerpin’s backstory is always in past perfect, stick to past perfect and don’t slip into simple past in the middle of the sentence.
- Ms. Flerpin had just finished her tea when she met Peter Andrews for the first time. (starts in past perfect and ends in simple past)
- Ms. Flerpin had just finished her tea when she had met Peter Andrews. (maintains past perfect the whole way)
No in-depth conversation about verbs would be complete without addressing the inflammable subject of active and passive voice, so we will leave our study there for today:
Active and Passive Voice
Active and passive voice are hotly debated and critiqued in today’s writing world. Before we can discuss their merits and weaknesses, though, we need to understand what they are. If you aren’t sure what a grammatical subject and object are, please review this basics post about subjects and this basics post about objects.
An angry person on Twitter once berated me for misunderstanding the relationship between objects and passive/active voice. It turns out that you might use different words depending on if you’re approaching it from a grammatical or linguistic perspective, and that poor upset soul was approaching it from a linguistics perspective.
This is a grammar series, though, and so I’m going to use grammatical meanings to talk about it.
Active and passive voice have to do with the order in which subjects and objects appear in a sentence.
- If the subject comes before the verb, so that the noun in front of the verb is actively doing the verb, it’s active voice.
- If the object comes before the verb, so that the noun in front of the verb is passively having the verb done to it, it’s passive voice.
In the following examples, the subject will be in red and the object in blue.
A couple things you may have noticed from these example sentences:
1. The passive version of the squirrel sentence had no subject. It’s true. Passive voice sentences do not necessarily have a subject; sometimes the subject is simply implied in the context of the rest of the paragraph. The question still remains: Is the squirrel the one doing the washing or having washing done to it?
2. Zombies. My last example was a nod to a technique that’s been passed around the internet, a trick for easily identifying passive voice. Since, as mentioned above, subjects might be implied rather than stated in passive sentences, see if you can add “by zombies” after the verb. If you can, it’s passive; if you can’t, it’s active.
- My best friend was stood up by zombies (passive)
- Her date never came by zombies because of an accident (active)
- She was furious by zombies (active)
- When she found out the truth, her mind was changed by zombies (passive)
In simple grammatical terms, active sentences are written subject-verb-object and passive sentences are written object-verb-(sometimes subject).
In English, our brain expects the subject to come first. For this reason, active voice is more direct and forceful to English speakers’ ears. That’s the logic behind the prevailing preference for active voice in the writer community.
THAT DOESN’T MEAN THAT ACTIVE VOICE IS ALWAYS BETTER.
In talking with my scientist friends, there are certain fields of expertise that prefer passive voice. Because passive voice is less direct, it comes across as less emotional and more objective. If you’re writing in one of these fields, using active voice would get you in trouble and mark you as a novice. The best practice is to familiarize yourself with examples of experienced writing in your field to learn what is standard.
Conversely, if you’re writing an emotional narrative, you probably want to use more active voice. That directness will work in your favor.
Sometimes, the choice between active and passive boils down to what the focus of the sentence is. In the sentence, “Paul beat Lyle,” the emphasis is on Paul beating. In the sentence, “Lyle was beaten by Paul,” the emphasis is on Lyle being beaten. A story about Paul will probably use the active; a story about Lyle will probably use the passive.
Often, the choice also depends on your purpose. If you’re trying to convince customers to buy your product, you’ll want to use active voice to engage them more. If you’re writing an email about an emotional topic and wanting to diffuse the situation, you’ll want to use passive voice to come across as more gentle and aware of the other person’s side.
In a story, you might be writing about a character who feels removed or disassociated from the scene around them. Passive voice might be better for that situation. You might be writing about a character in the middle of a climactic moment. Active voice might be better for that situation.
The use of active and passive voice can also boil down to cultural expectations. A good friend shared with me that, in Indonesian, passive voice is considered polite. Using passive voice would be a sign of respect toward the reader, where active voice would come across as aggressive and rude. Be aware of your and your readers’ cultures expectations as you navigate voice.
What voice do you prefer? How have you used verb tense in creative ways? Let us know in the comments!
Also, I’d love your questions or critiques. Again, this is a safe place to learn.
Speaking of learning:
As a newer teacher in California, I have to go through a program called “Induction” this year. The goal of this program is to continue to support my growth as a teacher so that I can support my students as well as possible. I’m excited for it and have already been learning cool things that will help my students.
I’m also very busy because of it. In addition to teaching full time, I’m now also taking classes.
My writing time has gotten even more limited than before, but I need to seriously commit to rewriting The Steward’s Apprentice and finishing the last three Steward Stories. Because of that, I‘m cutting back on a lot of things for the school year.
I’m sad to announce that one of those things is Grammar with Beth. I’ve loved getting to nerd out about grammar with you, but unfortunately I will not have the time to commit to these posts this next year. I do anticipate returning in the summer. In the meantime, you can comment here with topics you’d like to see in future Grammar with Beth posts.
My first priority is getting good stories to you. Please bear with me patiently if I am late on publishing monthly Featured Stories in the meantime.
Thank you! 🙂