English Grammar

Verbs: Tense, Number, Voice, Forms

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Letís consider the tenses (present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect), voices (active and passive), and forms (simple, progressive, and emphatic) of two verbs: play and sell.

Active voice of play: (simple present) play, plays; (simple past) played; (simple future) will play, shall play; (simple present perfect) has played, have played; (simple past perfect) had played; (simple future perfect) will have played, shall have played; (present progressive) am playing, are playing, is playing; (past progressive) was playing, were playing; (future progressive) will be playing, shall be playing; (present-perfect progressive) has been playing, have been playing; (past-perfect progressive) had been playing; (future-perfect progressive) will have been playing, shall have been playing; (present emphatic) do play, does play; (past emphatic) did play

Passive voice of play: (simple present) am played, is played, are played; (simple past) was played, were played; (simple future) will be played, shall be played; (simple present perfect) has been played, have been played; (simple past perfect) had been played; (simple future perfect) will have been played, shall have been played; (present progressive) am being played, is being played; are being played (past progressive) was being played, were being played

Active voice of sell: (simple present) sell, sells; (simple past) sold; (simple future) will sell, shall sell; (simple present perfect) has sold, have sold; (simple past perfect) had sold; (simple future perfect) will have sold, shall have sold; (present progressive) am selling, are selling, is selling; (past progressive) was selling, were selling; (future progressive) will be selling, shall be selling; (present-perfect progressive) has been selling, have been selling; (past-perfect progressive) had been selling; (future-perfect progressive) will have been selling, shall have been selling; (present emphatic) do sell, does sell; (past emphatic) did sell

Passive voice of sell: (simple present) am sold, is sold, are sold; (simple past) was sold, were sold; (simple future) will be sold, shall be sold; (simple present perfect) has been sold, have been sold; (simple past perfect) had been sold; (simple future perfect) will have been sold, shall have been sold; (present progressive) am being sold, is being sold, are being sold (past progressive) was being sold, were being sold

* * * * *

2. Be consistent in your use of tenses. In general, if you begin writing a story using the past tense, continue using the past tense throughout the story; if you begin with the present tense, stay with the present tense.

* * * * *

3. Use the present-perfect, past-perfect, and future-perfect tenses to indicate actions or states that are past relative to present, past, and future time, respectively.

- On most days, the children have finished their homework (present perfect) by the time their father gets home from work (present time) .

- By the time he got home yesterday (past time), the children had finished their homework (past perfect).

- By the time he gets home this evening (future time), the children will have finished their homework. (future perfect).

* * * * *

4. Avoid using the passive voice. Is that good advice? No, it isnít. There are times when the passive voice is exactly right. Minimize your use of the passive voice by using it only when it is more effective than the active voice. Now thatís good advice.

* * * * *

5. Letís examine briefly what the passive voice is and isnít. A verb in the passive voice consists of a form of the verb to be (for example, am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, had been) and a past participle (for example, seen, understood, featured, injured, manufactured, withheld). Sentences like The air show will be seen by thousands, The instructions had not been understood, Derby hats are featured in this morningís paper, Ten miners were injured in the accident, The new cars will be manufactured in Mexico, and Identification has been withheld are in the passive voice. In the passive voice, the object of an action is the subject of the sentence. Remember: (1) the passive voice is not the past tense (tense and voice are not at all the same), (2) not all sentences using forms of to be are in the passive voice, and (3) the passive voice is not a grammatical error

* * * * *

6. The passive voice is often weaker than the active voice. Consider these two sentences:

- The boys carried the piano into the house. (active)

- The piano was carried by the boys into the house. (passive)

I think you will agree that the former sentence is stronger than the latter.

* * * * *

7. The passive voice is often less precise than the active voice. Compare these two sentences:

- Johnny was overheard to say that he hated school. (passive)

- The sixth-grade teacher overheard Johnny say that he hated school. (active)

Of course, the passive-voice sentence could include the agent: Johnny was overheard by the sixth-grade teacher to say that he hated school; however, we now have a sentence that is weaker than its corresponding active form.

* * * * *

8. We should use the passive voice when the object of an action is more important that the doer of the action.

- Today we learned about x-rays. They were discovered accidentally in 1895 by a German scientist. (passive)

- Today we learned about x-rays. A German scientist discovered them accidentally in 1895. (active)

The focus established by the first sentence in each pair of sentences is x-rays. Use of the passive voice keeps the focus on x-rays. 

* * * * *

9. We should use the passive voice when the doer of an action is either unknown or unimportant.

- One by one, cancer genes are being identified. (passive).

- Researchers are identifying cancer genes one by one. (active)

The passive voice is often desirable in scientific writing, in which the object of research is more important than the identity of the researcher.

* * * * *

10. An author may want to conceal the identity of the doer of an action in order to create suspense. With this in mind, he or she may begin a paragraph with The jewels were stolen late on the 25th or early on the 26th. The reader isnít even told if there was one thief or more than one, which may be just what the suspense doctor ordered.

* * * * *

11. In reading this morningís paper (The Courier-Journal, April 23, 2007), I found several sentences using the passive voice. Here are three of them:

- Bangladeshís former prime minister was blocked from boarding a flight home from London yesterday after her countryís military-backed interim government banned her from returning. Clearly the womanís identity is more important than the identity of the one or ones who blocked her.

- Eight Ethiopians held hostage for 52 days after they were kidnapped along with five European tourists have been released unharmed, government officials said yesterday. It is clear from the rest of the article that the kidnappers are unknown.

- Eighty-two members of The Women of Zimbawe Arise group were arrested Thursday in the city of Bulawayo at the protest against power outages. Of course, they were arrested by the police, so nothing is accomplished by mentioning it.

* * * * *

12. Letís look at the question of number when the subject of a sentence is the unexpressed antecedent of the indefinite relative pronoun what. Which sentences of the following pairs do you consider correct?

- What has been added are endzone bleachers.

- What has been added is endzone bleachers

- What is needed are hundreds of used books.

- What is needed is hundreds of used books.

The second sentence in each pair of sentences is preferable because the main verb agrees in number with the unexpressed that; however, it seems one can also say What have been added are endzone bleachers and What are needed are hundreds of used books.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

Sentence Diagrams, main page
German-Latin-English, my home page
English Grammar and Usage