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Verbs are the powerhouse of the sentence. Because of that, understanding how verbs work will help you tremendously in the revision process. It’s only by knowing what verbs are all about that you can make them do their tricks. So with that in mind, we’ll look at some of the most misunderstood verbs.
Verb moods are indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Only one of these causes much trouble for writers. The indicative mood forms the bulk of our writing. For basic statement and questions, you use the indicative mood. All of the following sentences are in indicative mood:
I came to find out what happened to my sister.
I took the train.
How did you get here?
In contrast, imperative mood commands or requests. The subject is usually missing from an imperative sentence, such as in the following:
Eat your dinner.
Scrub the floor.
Then, please, give up this crazy idea of going to the Prince’s ball.
Now we come to the trouble-maker, subjunctive mood. Subjunctive mood expresses a wish for something that is not real. The subjunctive mood often uses “if” and uses the being word “were” instead of “was.” Look at these examples of subjunctive mood:
I wish you were a rich man.
If I were you, I’d be careful.
“Well sir, all I can say is if I were a bell, I’d be ringing!”
(Frank Loesser, “If I Were a Bell,” Guys and Dolls, 1950)
So watch for that “if” signal in your sentences (though that isn’t the only way to judge subjunctive mood, it is very common). Are you talking about something that could be or should be, but isn’t? Then you’re probably needing the subjunctive verb form “were” instead of “was.”
Raise Your Voice
Voice is about active or passive verbs. Not every verb has voice––“being” verbs do not have voice: “He is a skunk” is neither active nor passive. Some people argue that any being verb sentence is passive, but that isn’t true. You cannot have the passive voice unless you have a verb with an object. A simple being-verb sentence may be weak. It may be wordy. But a simple being verb sentence cannot be passive. So what can? Let’s look at active and passive constructions and what they really mean.
Some verbs can have only active voice: “He hiccupped” is active and cannot be made passive because the verb “hiccupped” doesn’t take an object. He didn’t hiccup something; he just hiccupped. But verbs that take an object can be either active or passive. The best way to recognize which you have is to check to see if the subject of the sentence is doing something (active) or having something done to it (passive.)
For example, the following are all active voice:
The accident totaled John’s car.
The strange man kissed Joanie.
Betty lowered her eyes and spoke softly.
Notice that in each example the subject of the sentence is doing something.
In contract, the following are all passive voice:
John’s car was totaled in the accident.
Joanie was kissed by a strange man.
Betty’s eyes were lowered and she spoke softly.
And in the last example, see that the first verb is passive and the second is active. (In that example, the second half of the sentence has no object and therefore cannot be easily switched to passive.)
When Verbs Aren’t Verbs
We all know that verbs are the action part of a sentence. But sometimes a verb can be transformed into a modifier or even a noun replacement. How does this happen?
One example is when a verb becomes a participle––or a kind of modifier. A participle will give us more information about the noun it modifies and a participle usually ends in -ing or -ed. They can be used as a single word or as a phrase. Participles should always be placed close to the noun they modify. Look at the following for examples:
The startled policeman reached for his gun.
The laughing child dashed across the playground.
Walking through the door, Jack spotted the baby.
Jack saw the baby crying in her crib.
In the example, the participle “startled” tells us something about the policeman. The participle “laughing” tells us something about the child. And the participle phrase “walking through the door” tells us something about Jack while that participle phrase “crying in her crib” describes the baby.
This could make you believe that any time you see an -ing form of a verb, it must be part of a participle phrase. But that’s not true. Sometimes an -ing form can be a verb that acts like a noun. (These are called gerunds).
Consider the following example:
Laughing is the world’s best medicine. [Laughing is the subject of the sentence.]
And this example:
She took offense at my burping. [Burping is the object of the preposition “at.”]
To be or not to be
Our last verb trick is the infinitive. An infinitive is made by combining to a verb (such as I did in the subheading above). Infinitives may act like nouns, adjectives or adverbs. Consider these examples:
To err is human. [Infinitive as subject.]
She lacked the will to live. [Infinitive as adjective.]
You must eat to grow big and strong. [Infinitive phrase as adverb.]
So how much do you need to know all these terms? Probably not much at all (though it can sometimes make feedback from editors much easier to understand). But by knowing how language works, we strengthen our tool box as writers and we can avoid falling prey to blanket bad advice like “all passive verbs are bad” or “remove all being verbs.” By understanding the verbs (and verb-like constructions) that you use, you’ll be able to judge for yourself when they are doing the work you need or simply adding clutter and confusion to your sentence.
And that will give you a writing super power that many don’t have. Which is pretty nifty, don’t you think?