Verbs: Part 6—Voice

Voice is that characteristic of a verb that permits the speaker to specify, and the listener to understand, the relationship among the action described by the verb, the agent causing or initiating the action, and the recipient of the action.

There are in English two voices: active and passive. Using a bare-bones active voice construction, the usual order of words is agent–action–recipient, or in grammatical terms, subject–predicate–direct object. In the corresponding passive voice construction the order is recipient–action–agent.

Active voice. Let’s look at a very simple active voice sentence that contains all three—and only those three—elements: an action, an agent, and a recipient.

Julian enjoys movies.

In this sentence, the action word—the verb—is enjoys; the agent (the doer) is the proper noun Julian; and the recipient of the action is the plural common noun movies. In a sentence diagram, we can illustrate this with the most basic of diagrams, which portrays the subject (the agent), predicate (the verb), and direct object (the recipient) on a single horizontal line, separated by vertical lines of different lengths.


Passive voice. The equivalent passive voice construction places the recipient (now the subject) and verb (now lacking a direct object) on the horizontal, and puts the agent (now the object of a prepositional phrase) in a subordinate position:

Movies are enjoyed by Julian.

And here is its sentence diagram:


What’s the difference? As you can see, this version is semantically, but not syntactically, equivalent to the active voice version—it preserves the meaning but not the grammar of the original sentence. Specifically, where the first sentence uses a simple present tense form of the verb to enjoy, the second one has to use the more convoluted passive construction, which in this case is [present tense of the verb to be + past participle of the verb to enjoy]. Furthermore, the passive construction pushes the agent (Julian) to the end of the sentence, introduced by a preposition (by) that indicates that he is the agent. Not trivially, three words have become five.

The syntactic differences between active and passive constructions are not the only differences; we will discuss other differences later in this article.

Forming the Passive Voice

The passive is formed in English not by inflecting (i.e., conjugating) the root verb, but by using auxiliary verbs. Specifically, as we have seen in the sample sentence above, the present indicative passive of the verb enjoy is formed by joining the present indicative active of the verb to be, in the appropriate person and number, to the past participle (the third principal part) of the verb enjoy.

I enjoy movies becomes Movies are enjoyed by me.

We like food becomes Food is liked by us.

Politicians sometimes tell lies becomes Lies are sometimes told by politicians.

Passive verbs across the tenses. There are active and corresponding passive verb forms for most, but not all, verbs across their many tenses. Here are examples.

As you can see, some verb tenses, most notably the perfect progressive tenses, really can’t be made passive. You can also see that many of the possible passive constructions sound odd—stilted and awkward—to the ear. For this and other reasons, most writing manuals urge careful writers and speakers to avoid passive constructions where active ones will be more effective. Typically, the active voice is not only more concise than the passive, but it is punchier, more direct, more forceful too.

Note also that commands (i.e., verbs in the imperative mood) do not do well in the passive voice. Pick up those papers simply works better than Those papers are to be picked up. And Sheriff Matt Dillon would have been met with naught but derision if he had snarled, The sky is to be reached for, Bart.

Similarly, the passive voice drains the power out of questions. Is that man bothering you? is better than Are you being bothered by that man? and Can I help you? is much better than Can you be helped by me?

Using the Passive Voice

Writing manuals and teachers so often and so forcefully inveigh against the passive voice that many people believe that there is something wrong with it. Well, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the passive voice per se, but it has certain undesirable characteristics that justify the cautions of writing manuals. In moving from active to passive constructions, we introduce  not only the obvious formal differences in the sentence (use of an auxiliary verb, inversion of the verb, slowing the pace and flow of the sentence, shifting of the agent and the recipient in the sentence, increasing the level of difficulty of the sentence), but other, subtler differences as well.

For the careful writer or speaker, the most important distinction lies in the differing effectiveness of statements in the two voices. The active voice supports sentences that are pointed, direct, and concise. The passive voice supports sentences that are indirect, vague, or even evasive. This mainly explains the counsel in books on effective writing to avoid as much as possible the passive voice.

Habitats of the passive voice. Some types of writing seems to thrive on passive constructions. Bureaucratic prose, for example, is rife with passives, as in the following actual examples:

Your signature should be placed in the box to the left of the date box, the form should be dated, and the completed form should be placed in a stamped envelope and mailed to the following address.

Employees are advised that their desks should be locked overnight, and in cases where sensitive documents are kept in the desk, during any absence from the desk of more than a few seconds. Such documents, if unattended, can be glanced at and even removed for copying if they are not secured. This will not be tolerated.

Police and legal writers also use the passive voice. In many cases, this is an intentional (or instinctual) bias toward an avoidance of clear assignment of responsibility. If a police report states,

According to witness testimony, the alleged perpetrator was initially approached by the alleged victim, hostile words were exchanged, leading to blows, and the ensuing altercation was actively engaged in by both parties.

the probable intent—or at least the pretext—is to avoid assigning responsibility for the altercation clearly to either the accused or the alleged victim.

Another sphere in which we find many passive constructions is scientific and academic writing. In this case, the culture of academia provides decades of precedent for avoiding the clear pattern of agent–action–recipient in all forms of research reporting. This seems to stem from a professional shibboleth against inserting the actual agent, the researcher, into the narrative of an experiment or a study. This shibboleth of course goes hand-in-hand with the prejudice against the first-person pronoun in research reports.

Here is an example from a journal article. I have underlined the passive constructions and made the active constructions bold. As you can see, the passives have it, 7–4.

A group of 1st-graders who were administered a battery of reading tasks in a previous study were followed up as 11th graders. Ten years later, they were administered measures of exposure to print, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and general knowledge. First-grade reading ability was a strong predictor of all of the 11th-grade outcomes and remained so even when measures of cognitive ability were partialed out. First-grade reading ability (as well as 3rd- and 5th-grade ability) was reliably linked to exposure to print, as assessed in the 11th grade, even after 11th-grade reading comprehension ability was partialed out, indicating that the rapid acquisition of reading ability might well help develop the lifetime habit of reading, irrespective of the ultimate level of reading comprehension ability that the individual attains. Finally, individual differences in exposure to print were found to predict differences in the growth in reading comprehension ability throughout the elementary grades and thereafter. (From Cunningham, A.E., & Stanovich, K.E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.)

In sum, the passive voice is not by any means incorrect, but at its most benign it lengthens sentences without adding anything new. Moving along the scale from benign to malignant, the passive voice can lead to genuine awkwardness of expression. And moving further toward malignancy, the passive can subtract something of importance from the sentence: the agent. If the agent is suppressed, the passive voice can be a way to dodge responsibility.

Secret Agents

This agent-suppressing ability is the most probable cause for the frequent use of passive constructions by politicians. Let me take just one notorious example, the sentence Mistakes were made.

“Mistakes were made.” Believe it or not, this agent-free passive sentence has had a very long run in political discourse. The first instance cited in a list of “notable political usages” of the phrase that appears in a Wikipedia article of the same name (at  goes back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Enjoy this sampling:

  • “Mistakes have been made, as we can all see and I admit it.” (President U.S. Grant, 1876, reporting to Congress)
  • “We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments [critical of the Washington Post].” (Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary, 1973)
  • “And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.” (President Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1987)
  • Acknowledging that it was ill-advised to involve both a senior banking regulator and the Democratic Party’s senior fundraiser in White House discussions with the banking community about banking policy, President Clinton said “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.” (1997)
  • The king of all users of the phrase is probably Senator John McCain, who had a lot to say during the George Bush administration about the Iraq War. Speaking with reporter Tim Russert, McCain once said, “I think that one of the many mistakes that have been made is to inflate the expectations of the American people beginning three years ago that this was going to be some kind of day at the beach” [which, by the way, had been McCain’s own position earlier]. Then, speaking of President Bush, McCain went on to say, “he admitted that errors have been made.” When Russert tried to pinpoint an agent for all these mistakes, asking, “Isn’t that the president’s failure?” McCain replied, “Well, I—all of the responsibility lies in everybody in positions of responsibility. Serious mistakes are made in every war. Serious mistakes were made in this one, but I really believe that there is progress being made [Wow! Another one!], that we can be guardedly optimistic.” (2005)
  • U.S. General David Richards used the phrase to lay to rest the souls of about 70 Afghan civilians killed in an air strike: “In the night in the fog of war, mistakes were made.” (2006).
  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys during the George Bush administration for apparently political reasons had been a bad idea with “I acknowledge that mistakes were made.” (2007)
  • The Internal Revenue Service, apologizing for apparently targeting political action groups for audits before the 2012 presidential election, commented “Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale” [a statement that appears to have been vindicated by subsequent investigations] (IRS, 2013)

These statements all admit the existence of mistakes, but they seem to pin the blame for them on nothing at all—perhaps a change in the wind or a giddy whim of fate. The use of the passive voice makes it easy to avoid taking personal responsibility, and for this reason careful writers (and I mean stylistically careful, not legalistically careful) should weigh the use of the passive very judiciously against the almost always more straightforward active voice.

In my next blog post, I plan to write a little bit about the grammar of the United States Constitution.

Verbs: Part Five—Mood

The term mood, when applied to verbs, refers to the speaker’s or writer’s attitude toward the reality, potentiality, purpose, or effect of the action described by the verb. In English, the four moods are the indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and conditional. The conditional mood is sometimes regarded as a subset of the subjunctive.

The Indicative Mood

When the attitude of the writer is actual or factual, which is to say concerned only with conveying or requesting information or expressing opinions, the verb will be in the indicative mood. We spend most of our lives in the indicative mood. The sentences in this paragraph are in the indicative mood.

The indicative mood can be used with any tense of the verb. For instance, the following sentences are all in the indicative mood, even though they use different tenses.

I have about 30 books on that topic. (present tense)

Are you thinking of buying that refrigerator? (present progressive tense)

Your brother was a writer, wasn’t he? (past tense)

Sal and Thera were swimming all afternoon. (past progressive tense)

We ate at that restaurant last month. (past tense)

I have always enjoyed spending my summers on the lake. (present perfect tense)

Honestly, that idea had never occurred to me. (past perfect tense)

Can you tell me how to get to South Street? (present tense)

Will your brother spend time with us this Christmas? (future tense)

You’ll have finished that book in plenty of time for me to borrow it for my class. (future perfect tense)

The Imperative Mood

The imperative is used to express commands, requests, or desires. The best way to illustrate this mood is to play a little mind game.

Imagine you are the king or queen of a small country. Picture your castle peopled by eager servants and filled with wealth untold. Summon your page and direct him to bring your children to you. Look upon your children; tell them how important and fine and noble they appear. Urge them to maintain always their regal bearing, but remind them to mitigate their hauteur with human compassion. Oblige them to accept that their birth and breeding are privileges. Counsel them to understand their subjects. Help them to see the role of a monarch as serving the people, not the reverse.

The main verbs in this paragraph are all in the imperative mood. The subject of every main verb, as is usually the case with verbs in the imperative mood, is an implied You.

You should also notice that the imperative is used mostly with the present tense. You can’t order someone to do something in the past, of course, and while there are future commands (of the type: You will obey me!), they are rare now outside of movies involving Nazi Commandants.

Both the indicative and imperative moods are reality-based moods. They pertain to the here and now, and in the case of the indicative, to the actual past or the intended future. They contrast strongly with the subjunctive mood, which is the mood of unreality.

The Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is the mood for expressing wishes and hopes, talking about imaginary or hypothetical situations, expressing preferences, and issuing indirect commands, suggestions, or requirements.

For instance, the following sentences use verbs (underlined) that are in the subjunctive mood:

I wish I were president.

If I were president, I’d end inequality in every sphere of human life.

I know what Theo would do if he were president. What would you do if you were president?

It is essential that the voices of parents be heard.

The committee suggested that the accountant prepare a detailed explanation of last quarter’s corporate expenditures.

The head nurse demanded that the police officer leave the patient’s room immediately.

Visible and invisible subjunctives. The subjunctive mood in English requires very few verb changes (i.e., inflections), which is lucky for us. In fact, of the seven true subjunctives sprinkled in the sentences above (i.e., those not using would), one of them requires no verb change at all: What would you do if you were president? This second-person subjunctive form is no different from the second-person indicative form: you were.

The other subjunctives in the sentences take a form that is different from the corresponding indicative form (I were, he were, voices be, accountant prepare, officer leave). These forms are “visible” subjunctives; i.e., they are distinguishable from their indicative counterparts (I was, he was, voices are, accountant prepares, officer leaves).

There are many “invisible” subjunctive forms in English hiding within seemingly indicative shapes. In fact, we often use the subjunctive without really knowing we’re doing so; it’s clearly quite possible to say, for instance, What would you do if you were me? without realizing that we have used the subjunctive mood (if you were me).

Formation. The universal way to form a subjunctive—in all persons of all verbs—is to use the base form of the verb (the first principal part, which is the infinitive without the word to). Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the formation of subjunctives across the three persons, focusing first on verbs other than to be.

First and second persons. In the first and second persons, singular and plural, of any verb other than to be, the subjunctive form (i.e., the base form of the verb) is indistinguishable from the corresponding indicative form—it is always an invisible subjunctive. Only the context—the implied or stated wish, hope, dream, imagining, preference, counsel, suggestion, or command—tells us that we are dealing with the subjunctive.

Consider these examples of invisible subjunctives across the three persons and both numbers of some common verbs:

Would you prefer that I go with you, or would you rather we both stay home?

Are you suggesting that we lie to the police?

I would suggest that you attend the concert with your daughter.

The judge has decreed that I appear before the magistrate at ten a.m.

My advice is that we accompany you to the courthouse.

I strongly suggest that you do the speaking.

Third person. In the third person singular and plural, the regular formation of the subjunctive (the base form of the verb) has a different effect in the singular and in the plural.

In the third person plural—the they form—the subjunctive of all verbs except to be is invisible: It is the same form as the indicative. But in the third person singular of these verbs, the subjunctive differs from the indicative because the subjunctive uses the base form, as it is supposed to do, while the indicative (as you may recall) uses the base form + s. Here are some examples of subjunctives in the third person, both visible and invisible:

The captain suggests that passengers remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened. [Third person plural: The subjunctive is invisible.]

The captain requests that passenger Morris return to his seat immediately. [Third person singular: The subjunctive differs from the indicative and is therefore visible.]

House rules require that audience members refrain from using their cell phones during the show. [Third person plural: The subjunctive is invisible.]

The management requests that no one photograph any portion of this presentation. [No one is third person singular, causing the subjunctive to be visible.]

The Verb To Be. The verb to be is slightly different. Across all persons and numbers, the subjunctive form is the base form of the verb, be, just as it’s supposed to be, but this form is always visible because it can never be indicative.

The boss strongly suggests that we be in attendance at the “voluntary” picnic.

The judge has decreed that I be at the magistrate’s office no later than ten a.m.

My advice is that you be at the courthouse one hour before the hearing.

I strongly suggest that he be the spokesperson.

The Court demands that members of the public be silent and respectful during the trial.

An endangered species? While subjunctive forms are far from extinct, they are probably on the path to extinction. It would not yet sound quite right to use the indicative forms in these sentences (i.e., The boss suggests that we are in attendance; It is decreed that I am; My advice is that you are; I strongly suggest that he is; The Court demands that they are), but speakers today are coming to use the conditional should in place of the actual subjunctive, as in:

The boss strongly suggests that we should be in attendance at the “voluntary” picnic.

It is decreed that I should be at the magistrate’s office no later than ten a.m.

My advice is that you should be at the courthouse one hour before the hearing.

I strongly suggest that he should be the spokesperson.

The Court demands that members of the public should be silent and respectful during the trial.

The Conditional Mood

Like the subjunctive mood, the conditional mood in English is a mood of possibility, unreality, wishing, and pretending. In contrast with other languages, which use inflected forms, English constructs its conditional verb forms with auxiliary verbs—almost always would, and sometimes might, should, could, can, and ought.

Unsurprisingly, conditionals are used very often in conditional sentences—that is, sentences comprising an if clause (a protasis) and a then clause (an apodosis). Within the sentence, the if clause—the condition—is the subordinate clause and the then clause—the result— is the main clause. Note that the then in what I have been calling “the then clause” is usually unexpressed, or understood.

Recall one of the sentences I used as an example of the subjunctive mood earlier, into which I have now inserted the usually unexpressed then:

If I were president, [then] I’d end inequality in every sphere of human life.

This is one type of conditional sentence, a counterfactual (or contrary-to-fact) sentence using the subjunctive mood of the verb to be in the if clause and the conditional mood of another verb in the then clause. It is called conditional precisely because the stated result (e.g., ending inequality) is conditional upon the truth of the if clause. In the case of a counterfactual sentence like this one, the condition is not met (I am not president) and therefore the result is unattained (i.e., imaginary): universal equality remains a dream.

Before we discuss the 4 + 1 types of conditional sentences that grammarians recognize, let’s take a look at how this sentence would be diagrammed.

 If I were president

Types of Conditionals: An Overview

In English, there are four basic types of conditional sentences, commonly (but mysteriously) numbered 0, 1, 2, and 3. The Zero Conditional is factual, Conditional I is predictive, and Conditionals II and III are hypothetical. A fifth type, the Mixed Conditional, combines elements of types II and III. The following table presents examples of sentences illustrating the basic types.

Conditional Table

The Zero Conditional

In the Zero Conditional, the action in both the protasis (the if clause) and the apodosis (the then clause) is generally in the present. The Zero Conditional is used for statements that the speaker or writer claims or believes to be factual, logical truths.

Conditional I

In Conditional I, the action in the protasis is generally in the present, and the action of the apodosis in the future. Conditional I is predictive: The writer or speaker expresses a prediction about the likely future result of performing the action in the if clause.

Conditional II

In Conditional II, the action in the protasis is expressed as a past tense, but refers to a usually unrealized present condition, and the action of the apodosis is in the present conditional.

This is an unusual set-up worth parsing in detail. The actions in If I spoke German or If I had a million dollars seem to be set in the past, but they really refer to a (nonexistent) state or condition in the present: If I spoke German now and If I had a million dollars now. But the speaker knows that these present conditions do not exist, and so Conditional II is hypothetical and counterfactual.

How subtle this is! The writer or speaker sets up a logical relation between a past event that did not happen, a present condition that does not exist, and an unrealized result that will not come to be. Conditional II expresses, usually with regret, a “prediction” about what might have been if only the condition in the if clause, which doesn’t exist because of a road not taken in the past, were true.

I believe that the past tense verbs in Conditional II (in this case, spoke and had) may be the traces of extinct subjunctive forms that would have existed as inflected forms if English had developed differently. (The preceding sentence, as we will now see, happens to be a Conditional III. It may also be hogwash because I am not a trained linguist; I merely play one in this blog.)

Conditional III

In Conditional III, the action of both the protasis and apodosis is in the past, but the action of the protasis refers to a time in the past prior to the time referred to in the apodosis. That is, one past action is “paster” than the other. The other characteristic of Conditional III sentences is that both clauses are hypothetical and counterfactual: Neither action happened.

For example, in the sentence If you had spoken up, I would never have married her, the speaking up would have had to have happened (but didn’t) before the marrying (which would then, it is claimed, not have happened). Similarly, in the sentence If Carlos had come, the party would have been more fun, Carlos’s coming would have had to have happened before the party became a total bore; since he never came, the party was a flop.

To express these hypothetical relationships, English puts the verb in the protasis in the past perfect and the verb in the apodosis in the past conditional (aka the conditional perfect).

The Mixed Conditional

The Mixed Conditional is a combination of Conditional II and Conditional III. Typically, the action in the protasis is in the past and the situation described in the apodosis is in the present, generally describing something that is not the case now. Thus, the Mixed Conditional is usually hypothetical and counterfactual. For example, If I had listened to you (in the past), I wouldn’t be in the trouble I’m in now (but I didn’t, and I am).

Here, in summary and in conclusion, is a chart of the characteristic attitude and usual progression of tenses in the basic types of conditional sentences.

Conditional Table 2

The next topic in our discussion of verbs will be voice.


Verbs: Part Four—Tense: Section Three—The Future Tenses

The Simple Future Tense

Formation. The future tense is formed by adding will to the base form of the verb. Thus, we get I will go, you will stay, she will be there, we will return, you will wait for us, and they will be sad.

Negation and interrogation are handled in the usual way: For negation, you add not between will and the main verb (I will not go, they will not be sad), which is often contracted to won’t. By the way, you can’t rely on your automatic spell checker to correct wont to won’t for you, because wont is a properly spelled, though different, English word. The same is true of cant, a word that will not be “corrected” to can’t for you.

To form questions, as usual with compound verb forms, you simply invert the subject + will combination and place it before the main verb, as in Will we return? Will they be sad? and Will you stay? For the negative interrogative, you have a choice of two forms: Will you not stay? and Won’t you stay?

The shall form. There is another way, now archaic, to designate the future tense: the shall form, but you need not worry about it. The simple fact is that shall is disappearing. When I was a boy, the convention was to use shall to express the future with the first person singular and plural (e.g., I shall return and we shall be together), and will with all the other persons: You will have to wait for me, you will all write, won’t you?, and They will stay here with you. And to express emphasis, the reverse was the case: I will write you, I promise. You shall pay your bills.

No longer. Now, the word shall (and it negative shan’t) is retained as a frozen form in only a few expressions (Shall we dance?). It also appears in the (King James Version of the )Ten Commandments (Thou shalt not steal) and in a few legal formulas (The party of the first part shall maintain the vehicle in good working order…). The shall/will distinction that I learned is supposedly still sometimes enforced by well-born British people striving for linguistic nicety (or nice British people striving for well-bornness).

The only current use of shall is in the expression of offers, such as Shall I turn on the air conditioner for you? and even this is yielding to sentences such as Do you want me to turn on the air conditioner for you?

The long and short of it: You can safely forget about having to produce the word shall in speech or writing, but to make your reading of older English novels (not to mention legal documents and the KJV of the Bible), you should hold onto your recognition of the word. Put it in the same bucket in your brain where you store “Methinks.”

Usage. The simple future is most often used to describe actual or intended future events, but it serves other, related functions as well. These are the most common uses:

  1. to state a future plan or intention (I will take you to the ballgame tomorrow.);
  2. to express willingness to do something (I’ll do the washing up; Jerry will mow the lawn.);
  3. to state an order or command (You will obey me. They will be in my office at 9 sharp.);
  4. to invite someone to do something (in question form only) (Will you go to the dance with me?)
  5. to express unwillingness (in the negative form only) (I won’t obey your stupid regulations!)

Other ways to express the future. In addition to the future tense, other ways are available to the English speaker to indicate that an action is planned for, or likely to happen at, a future time. Here are five more:

The present progressive. One informal way to talk about events that are very likely to happen in the near future is to use the present progressive form. For example, I’m flying to Chicago next Tuesday and I’m staying with Jim and Louise. Louise is working all day tomorrow, but Jim is taking the day off and driving me around to several realtors to look at properties.

The simple present. The simple present can also serve as a future in informal discourse. For example, My plane takes off at 7 tomorrow morning clearly relates to a future event. This construction is quite common.

The to be + to construction. The construction to be + to (i.e., am to, is to, and are to) can be used to indicate a future obligation, as in I received word from my employer that I am to travel to France next week or According to the government, we are to leave the building at once.

The to be + about to construction. This construction provides one more way for English speakers to speak about fairly definite future events. For example, I’m about to lose my patience and you’re about to spend the evening in your room without television or Internet access.

The to be + going to construction. This construction (which is mirrored in French and Spanish, and in the latter is apparently supplanting the true future form) is very common. I’m going to see that new Turkish movie with Jonathan tomorrow and Is Ben going to help you move this weekend? are examples.

The Future Progressive Tense

Formation. I’m sure you will be happy to know that the present and past progressive tenses have a sibling that operates in the future. The future progressive tense is formed by adding will be to the present participle (the base form of the verb + -ing). Thus, we can say I will be requesting a raise at my next evaluation and Will you be staying the entire weekend? and we will be using the future progressive tense.

Usage. By now you’re an old hand at this and can undoubtedly figure out that the future progressive tense is used to refer to actions the will be happening over a fairly long but often indefinite period of time in the future. I’ll be seeing grandma when I go to Minneapolis next month and You’ll probably be staying up late a lot during your first semester in college are examples.

The Future Perfect Tense

Formation. This is a fairly unusual verb form and somewhat complex to work out on the fly, which makes it a more likely candidate for written than spoken English. It is formed by adding the past participle (the third principal part) to will have. Thus, By the time you read this, I will have landed in South America features a future perfect (will have landed) in the second (i.e., the main) clause.

Usage. This tense requires speakers (or, more likely, writers) to imagine themselves in the future after having completed some action that has not yet happened. In the sentence used as an example above (By the time you read this, I will have landed in South America.), the speaker was not yet in South America. The other event in the sentence, the letter reading, also had not yet happened.

The future perfect is a nifty but odd construction. Here are a few more examples, just for fun:

By this time next month, I will have turned 30.

When I see you next, you will have traveled around the world.

When Mom and Dad get back from Peru, you will have graduated from college.

By the time I finish this book, my characters will have aged ten years and I will have aged thirty.

By the time I retire next year, I will have been working 52 years. [This one is actually an example of a variant of the future perfect tense, called the future perfect progressive tense, which I have decided doesn’t need a separate section of this blog. Consider this sentence its section; you’re welcome.]


Verbs are very substantial parts of speech, with a lot of moving parts. So far, we have covered Person, Number, and Tense. By the time we finish our discussion of verbs, we will have looked at (note the future perfect!) those topics as well as Mood and Voice.

Next up: Mood.

Verbs: Part Four—Tense: Section Two—The Past Tenses

The Simple Past Tense

Formation. The past (technically the simple past) is just as easy to form as the present: It’s the second principal part of the verb uniformly across all of the persons and numbers for both regular and irregular verbs, with only one exception—to be again. There are two past tense forms of to be—was and were. All other verbs, regular and irregular alike, take the form of the second principal part: I baked, you helped, she ate, we cleaned, you mopped, and they rested.

Usage. The simple past is used to describe actions that took place in the past and are no longer going on. They are actions that happened and are complete. I drank the coffee means that the act of drinking occurred at some point in the past and is not going on now. Often an adverb of time accompanies the past form of the verb to pinpoint when the action occurred: I drank the coffee ten minutes ago, I baked a loaf of bread yesterday, I went to the dentist last week.

Other Past Tenses

There are three other past tenses used to indicate variants on past action. These are the past progressive (akin to, but by no means the same as, the imperfect in other languages), the present perfect (again, similar but not identical to the perfect in other languages), and the past perfect (similar to the pluperfect in other languages). Let’s discuss these briefly.

The Past Progressive Tense

Formation. This is the past-tense version of the present progressive, formed similarly. That is, the
form of the verb (which is also the present participle) is used with the simple past tense of the verb to be to form the past progressive. The past progressive of I walked is I was walking; of you told, it’s you were telling; of he lied, it’s he was lying.

Usage. The past progressive is used to describe ongoing, incomplete, or continuous actions that took place in the past. It is usually used with some indicator of another action happening at the time of the continuous past action. For example, we would rarely say I was walking the dog plain and simple; almost always, we would elaborate this statement with the mention of a simple past event, or we would produce this sentence in response to a question such as What were you doing last night when I called you? In response we might say I was walking the dog when I heard the alarm go off in the supermarket, or When you called me, I was walking the dog.

The past progressive has another use: It is used for the narration of past events that have a continuing or ongoing aspect. In such a narration, there is always a sense of an impending when just offstage, a when that interrupts the flow and thereby brings the narration to a climax. The kind of mystery novels that I enjoy may have long past progressive passages of this kind, as in:

Bolt was walking idly along the waterfront, minding his own business. He wasn’t expecting any trouble, nor was he looking for any revelations. He was simply doing his job. He was whistling a tune that came from nowhere, a habit he had developed after years on the job. He was just thinking that he was becoming more a creature of habit than was good for him, when the next seconds proved him right. He was turning mindlessly into the section of the wharf where the large foreign freighters docked, when a blow from the right caught him in the ribcage and doubled him over….

Past progressive vs. imperfect. Okay, so the past progressive is used to describe ongoing action in the past and in some kinds of narration. When is it not used? The answer to this question introduces some key differences between our past progressive and other languages’ imperfect tenses.

Differences. The main way in which English does not use the past progressive marks the key difference between that tense and the imperfect tense of many other languages. In English, the past progressive is not used to describe repetitive, habitual actions in the past—things we used to do or were accustomed to doing.

For example, an English speaker would have to use the “used to + base form” construction instead of the past progressive tense to express what the French can properly use their imperfect (l’imparfait) to say.

To be more concrete: When the French say Je visitais souvent le Louvre, this sentence is not translated into English as I was often visiting the Louvre, but as I often used to visit the Louvre. In fact, this peculiarity of usage provides a nearly foolproof way of distinguishing many nonnative English speakers from natives (that is, it’s a classic shibboleth). When you hear someone say, even in perfectly pronounced English, When I was living in New York, I was buying the New York Times every day, you know you are listening to a nonnative English speaker.

There are other ways an English speaker can communicate habitual past actions in addition to used to; for example, we can say “When I lived in New York, I had the habit of buying the Times every day.” Or, “… I was accustomed to buying the Times every day” or even “… I would buy the Times every day.” But we don’t say “… I was buying the Times every day.”

Of course, the French have their revenge, because for English speakers the reverse predicament materializes: The French imparfait seems to have been created primarily to drive English speakers mad; anyone learning French knows that it is nearly impossible for nonnative French speakers to grasp the subtlety of the distinction in usage between the imparfait and the passé composé.

Similarities. On the other hand, there are similarities between the two tenses. The imperfect tense of other languages shares many uses with the past progressive in English. It can be used like the past progressive to describe incomplete, ongoing actions in the past—a usage, as we noted above, that usually has a stated or implied “punctuator,” such as a when, to interrupt the flow of time.

For example, consider the two English sentences about dog walking cited above.

I was walking the dog when I heard the alarm go off in the supermarket.

When you called me, I was walking the dog.

These sentences describe an ongoing action in the past (the dog walking) that was proceeding when something else happened (the alarm and the phone call). These sentences can be translated nearly literally into French as one might expect, using the appropriate conversions: past progressive = imparfait and simple past = passé composé:

Je sortais le chien quand j’ai entendu sonner l’alarme du supermarché.

Quand tu m’as téléphoné, je sortais le chien.

The Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect is, despite its name, a kind of past tense. Let’s talk about its formation first, and then its usage.

Formation. To form the present perfect, you need the appropriate form of the present tense of to have plus the past participle (i.e., the third principal part) of the verb. These are all proper present perfect forms:

6 persons conjugated

To negate these forms, simply change the to have verb either by adding the word not, as in I have not bought, you have not seen, she has not broken, etc., OR by adding the contracted form of not, which is -n’t directly to the end of the to have verb, as in I haven’t bought, you haven’t seen, she hasn’t broken, etc.

For the interrogative form, invert the subject pronoun or noun and the to have verb form, as in Has Jamie bought the napkins?, Have you seen my glasses?, and Have we met? The interrogative form of the negative is formed pretty much the same way: invert the (pro)noun + to have form, and then continue with the negative and the main verb form. For example, Have the Claytons not responded?, Have I not read this book before?

Note, however, that the latter two sentences sound a bit odd to the native speaker—stilted and old-fashioned. What has happened is that we have used an uncontracted form of have not, instead of the more normal-sounding haven’t. Inverting the to have form virtually requires us to invert the attached –n’t as well. The more comfortable sentences are Haven’t the Claytons responded? and Haven’t I read this book before?

Usage. The present perfect describes actions that started in the past and either (1) continue into the present; (2) ended in the past but at some indefinite time and after some indefinite period.

An example of the first use is Jared has lived in Poughkeepsie for many years. The implication is that he started living there many years ago and still lives there. Similar sentences are I have always been a Democrat, I have loved you since the day I met you, and It has been a very difficult year.

An example of the second use is I’ve seen that movie already. It is clear that the speaker saw the movie at some indefinite point in the past and is not still seeing it. A more subtle inference is that the speaker doesn’t want to see it again. Note that this inference is not implicit in all similar uses of the present perfect. The sentence I visited the Metropolitan Museum three times this summer does not imply that the speaker doesn’t want to visit the museum again.

The distinction between the present perfect and the simple past is not always clear; there is considerable room for ambiguity, which can be used in aid of subtlety. Consider these sentence pairs:

I shot the sheriff.
I’ve shot the sheriff.

There is clearly a difference, but it takes some thinking to express just what the difference is. The first sentence is a simple report of a fact, or two facts: The sheriff is shot and I am the one who shot him or her. The second sentence is less definite. While the same two facts are conveyed, there is some additional extra-verbal information in this sentence that has to be pried out of it. The statement is not a simple, accomplished fact: the act of shooting lives on in the mind of the speaker. Perhaps there is a sense of innocent horror in it, as in Good God, I’ve shot the sheriff (and I didn’t mean to). Perhaps there can also be a sense of recency and hope in it, as in I’ve (just) shot the sheriff (and maybe he can be saved).

The present perfect is a subtle—even sly—tense, suitable for conveying a great deal of information which the listener or reader is left to interpret more or less by intuition. Consider some more sentence pairs and have fun with intuiting inferences that may be drawn from each of them without much stretching.

I’ve always loved you.
I always loved you. [Is there a hidden message here?]

I can see I hurt you.
I can see I’ve hurt you. [Which is probably the worse injury? Are the injuries of similar types?]

We discussed this in the past.
We’ve discussed this in the past. [In which instance is there likely to be another discussion now?]

I slept with your husband.
I’ve slept with your husband. [You could write a short story about this pair.]

I’ve got a cold.
I got a cold.

I hated you for that!
I’ve hated you for that!

You paid no attention to me.
You’ve paid no attention to me.

See what fun we can have by reading between the lines in the use of tenses?

The Past Perfect Tense

Formation. The past perfect is formed by combining the past participle (i.e., the third principal part) of the verb with the past tense of to have. Examples are I had been in the train station an hour and a half when the train finally arrived and Jeremy had not read the book before the class convened.

Usage. The past perfect always has two past time periods in mind: Event A happened and Event B happened. The past perfect is attached to the past event that happened first—before the other past event, which is described in the simple past. The form is I had Event A’d when Event B happened.

For example, I had just gone to bed when the phone rang. Both actions—going to bed and ringing—happened in the past, relative to the “now” when the speaker is speaking, but one of them, marked with the verb had, happened before the other, which is in the simple past.

Other examples are:

The train had already left the station when Marceline pulled into the parking lot.

We had finished dinner when you arrived.

The test had begun when you showed up.

Past-contrary-to-fact conditions. The other common use of the past perfect is in what are called (or at least used to be called by my Greek teacher) past-contrary-to-fact conditions; the more up-to-date term is counterfactuals. These are conditional sentences (i.e., sentences commonly marked by the conjunction if) that describe events that the speaker claims would have happened in the past if something else had happened (or not happened) first. Here are examples:

If you had spoken up at the altar, I would never have gone through with the wedding.

If Henry had not killed Anne, she might eventually have given him a son.

I would have been an honest man if I had never met Rogers.

I would be an honest man today if I had never met Rogers.

Note that in such sentences, there are typically two clauses: the conditional clause (the protasis or if clause), which uses the past perfect form of the verb, and the consequent clause (the apodosis or then clause), which uses the would form (technically the conditional tense, either past or present) of the verb. Sometimes the protasis comes first, and sometimes the apodosis does. (Okay, okay, these are weird, unnecessary words. But I just love this stuff.)

In either case, the action described in the protasis did not happen; and because it did not, the action described in the apodosis also did not happen. All this not happening gives this conditional structure its appellation of contrary-to-fact or counterfactual.

Two things to note: One, the word if is not needed; we can simply use the pluperfect, but inverted:

Had you spoken up at the altar, I would never have gone through with the wedding.

Had Henry not killed Anne, she might eventually have given him a son.

I would have been (would be) an honest man had I never met Rogers.

Two, the had–would structure is falling into disuse, apparently because many people find it cumbersome and difficult. I often hear people using would have in both the protasis and apodosis, as in If you would have told me about his gambling habit, I never would have trusted McCaffrey. I find I am having to get used to this structure because I hear it more and more often and the past perfect less and less.

[Continued in Part Four–Tense: Section Three–The Future Tenses]

Verbs: Part Four—Tense: Section One—The Present Tenses

In addition to person and number, which we covered in an earlier post, verbs have tense, mood, and voice. We begin our discussion of the first of the remaining characteristics now.

Tense. When applied to verbs, tense refers to time; indeed it derives ultimately from the Latin word tempus, which, as we all know, fugit. There are three basic times in which actions can occur: the past, the present, and the future. These time frames correspond to the three fundamental verb tenses. A fourth “tense,” the conditional, is really a mood, and I will defer discussion of it until I reach that topic in this blog.

I have divided my discussion of verb tense into three sections, which will appear as separate blog posts:

Section One (this section): The Present Tenses;

Section Two: The Past Tenses; and

Section Three: The Future Tenses.

Verb tenses and the principal parts. Formation of the various verb tenses depends on the knowledge and proper application of the principal parts of each verb. We discussed in an earlier post the principal parts into which English verbs are classified. For example, the table below presents the principal parts of some common regular and irregular verbs.


02 Principal Parts

Regular verbs. As you can see, the regular pattern is to add a –d or –ed to the present tense form to form the past and the past participle, while making associated spelling changes that themselves follow standard English patterns. For example, the final –y in try and cry becomes –ied in the past and past participle, and the end consonant of the present tense form is doubled in the past and the past participle of the words drag and stop as the normal way to preserve the pronunciation of the root verb’s vowel.

Irregular verbs. As for the irregular verb pattern, well, of course there isn’t one, but there are some recurring themes. For example, there may not be a think, thank, thunk (which would be parallel to drink, drank, drunk), but what there is—think, thought, thought—is at least similar (in a slant rhyme kind of way) to bring, brought, brought. Similarly, creep, keep, and weep follow the same pattern as sleep—and take has its parallels in shake and forsake (but not, I’m sorry to say, in bake, fake, make, rake, stake, and wake).

If you are learning the English language, you just have to memorize these words; fortunately, many of them are very common and manage to work their way into one’s “language sense” (or Sprachgefühl, as the Germans put it) subconsciously.


The Simple Present Tense

Formation. So, now that we have a sense of the principal parts and their formation, how do we apply the parts to express different times in English? Well, forming the present tense of almost every verb is easy: In five of the six persons and numbers, it’s the base form, and in the sixth—the third person singular—it’s the base form plus –s or –es. The exception is the verb to be, which uses am, is, and are across the cases and numbers.

Thus, we have I bake, you bake, and he/she/it bakes in the singular, and we bake, you bake, and they bake in the plural. The same is true for the irregulars: I go, you go, he/she/it goes, we go, you go, and they go. And for our friend to be, the forms are I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you are, and they are.

Negation. To negate most present-tense verb forms, English makes use of not only a negating particle, not, but also the auxiliary verb do. Thus, we typically say I do not bake, he does not go, they do not like, and so on, rather than I bake not, he goes not, and they like not. Those forms were used until quite recently, but now postpositive negation (meaning negation positioned after the verb) is used only with a few special verbs: be and what are called the modal verbs: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would.  We cannot grammatically say *I do not am, *he does not is, and so on. Nor can we say *you do not can, *he does not might, and so on. For these verbs we must use postpositive negation, as in I am not, you are not, he is not, and so forth (which when spoken usually appear in contracted form: I’m not, you’re not, he’s not, they can’t, you mustn’t, and so on).

Interrogation. This is another place in English where most verbs and the verb to be and a few others part company. The interrogative form of most verbs involves the use, again, of the auxiliary verb do. Thus, we say Do you bake? Does he go? Do they like? instead of Bake you? Goes he? and Like they? Those latter forms, the inverted forms, were used in English until relatively recently, but are now limited to a very few verbs, including be, do, have, and the modal verbs (see above).

Usage. The present tense is the one we use to speak about actions that:

  1. happen routinely or regularly (I go out with my wife to a restaurant every Friday; I visit the dentist twice a year);
  2. are happening now (I see storm clouds gathering in the southern sky; I hear the sound of bagpipes);
  3. are unchanging facts (Albany is the capital of New York State; The Nile is the longest river in the world);
  4. are about to happen, as a kind of informal or weak future (Classes start in two weeks; The sale begins on Saturday);
  5. are reported in newspaper headlines (President Obama visits Mideast; Bridge collapses, traps workers); and
  6. are narrated in the historical present, to make past actions vivid (Madigan enters the room slowly, sensing the air around him. He moves stealthily to his left, toward the open window. Suddenly his toe touches a soft, heavy object…).

The Present Progressive Tense

Formation. There is a variant of the present tense, called the present progressive, which is used to report ongoing actions that have not yet finished their course, as in Jack is making his way to the scene of the accident and The birds are flying south early this year. The mark of the present progressive tense (which is sometimes denied the status of a tense and called instead an aspect of the verb) is the –ing ending.

Usage. The present progressive is most often used to describe actions that are:

  1. continuous at the present time, as in I can’t talk right now. I’m cooking dinner. This  means that right now I am in the process of cooking;
  2. “in process” in an extended, indefinite present but not being performed at this exact moment. I’m working on a good solution to that battery problem doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker is at that moment working on it, but that in general it is on the “in-progress” list and will be worked on off and on for some ongoing time;
  3. imminent and planned. For example, we can say Tomorrow we’re going to the movies or Next week we’re starting classes when we are talking about planned, imminent, definite future actions.

Aspect. A word about aspect in grammar is in order. Aspect is related to, but different from, tense. Both tense and aspect offer information about time, but, as an excellent article in Wikipedia says, “Aspect conveys other temporal information [than tense], such as duration, completion, or frequency, as it relates to the time of action. Thus tense refers to temporally when while aspect refers to temporally how.”

Aspect typically arises in a language, if it arises at all, with respect to the perfect tenses and the progressive tenses, in that these tenses are used to convey information about both the time at which an event occurs or has occurred, and the nature of the flow of time around the action. The three phrases I eat, I am eating, and I have eaten convey very different information about the act of eating. The first, I eat, relates a simple event that happens at a particular point in time; it begs for the addition of further information, such as I eat lunch every day promptly at noon. The second, I am eating, describes an ongoing event that is occurring over more than one point in time. The typical context would be something like I can’t talk now because I am eating. And the third, I have eaten, refers to a past event that was completed at an indefinite—not pinpointed—past time.

Present progressive and present participle. In the present progressive, the word with the –ing ending is in form and fact a present participle. When it follows a form of the verb to be, it may be either part of the verb (thereby forming the present progressive tense) or simply an adjective (thereby becoming a predicate adjective). Consider the word stunning in these sentences:

The dancer is stunning the audience with a series of acrobatic yet graceful moves.

The dancer is stunning.

In the first sentence, the word stunning, with the word is, is the present progressive form of the verb. In the second sentence, stunning is a participle used as an adjective after the verb is. In other words it is a predicate adjective.

The difference becomes especially apparent when the sentences are diagrammed.

stunning audience

stunning dancer

[Continued in Part Four–Tense: Section Two–The Past Tenses]

Verbs: Part Three—Person and Number

The indispensable verb. Verbs have the distinction of bearing uniquely heavy responsibility for conveying the meaning of a sentence. Without a verb, there is no action and, usually, no sentence. So important are verbs that they don’t even need the company of other words to create good sentences.

Consider “Sit!” and “Enter!” These are well-formed sentences containing a predicate (the verb) and an implied subject (You) and nothing else. To be fair, it is also technically possible to craft a complete, one-word utterance consisting of a part of speech other than a verb, especially in spoken or written dialogue, but these are not usually standalone sentences. For example, “Really!” and “Baloney!” are complete utterances—but only in context. They depend for at least 50 percent of their meaning on whatever was said in the sentence that preceded them.

One clear indication that “Sit!” and “Enter!” are complete sentences and “Really!” and “Baloney!” are not is that you can diagram the first pair and you can’t diagram the second—unless you are willing to supply a lot—a whole lot—of speculative context from preceding sentences. Consider the following exhibits, in which the unstated, speculative bits are encased in parentheses:





As you can see, it is a routine and simple matter to supply the understood (you) in the first two sentences. However, you have to go quite far out on a limb to supply all the words that may be required to turn “Really!” and “Baloney!” into possible sentences. The sentences I came up with, which I diagrammed above, are:

Do you really expect me to believe that?!  and
What you say is baloney!

But these are a stretch. It’s better to admit that these two one-worders are merely utterances—and quite effective in context—but not actual sentences.

Hauling freight. The freight that verbs must bear in and of themselves usually involves conveying, in addition to the mere action itself, the following qualities of the action:

(1) who is performing the action—which grammarians call person;
(2) how many people or things (i.e., one or more than one) are performing it—called number;
(3) the time when the action is being, has been, or will be performed—called tense;
(4) whether the action is actual or potential—called mood; and
(5) whether the action is active or passive, doing or being done—which is called voice.

These five elements—person, number, tense, mood, and voice—are present at least implicitly with the verb in English, and they are explicitly present within the verb form in many other languages. In this blog post, I will discuss the first two of these: person and number.

Person and number in regular verbs. Verbs must have some means of expressing whether the doer of the action they denote is the speaker (or writer), the listener (or reader), or someone else. This is person. Equally, they must have a way of showing whether there is only one or more than one doer. This is number.

For example, with the present tense of the verb fall, the possibilities are I fall, we fall, you fall, he falls, she falls, it falls, and they fall. Together these forms—verb plus pronoun—convey differences of person and number.

Indicators. So it turns out that if you want to talk about person and number in verbs (and who doesn’t), you have to talk first about another part of speech: pronouns. The pronouns I and we are the singular and plural first-person subject pronouns. The pronoun you is the second-person singular and plural subject pronoun, and the pronouns he, she, and it (singular), and they (plural) are third-person subject pronouns. In English, these personal pronouns are the primary means of showing who is or are performing the action of the verb. They are, in other words, the primary indicators of person and number in verbs. Changes in the form, or morphology, of the verb are, as we will see, secondary—and very rare.

Instead of a pronoun, of course, a noun could be used as the subject of the verb, governing its person and number. We could say, for example, Roger falls, the book falls, or stock prices fall—and in every case the noun tells us the person and number of the verb. As for person, the presence of a noun (as distinct from a pronoun) virtually ensures that the verb will be in the third person. This is because nouns in English do not have person markers; only pronouns do. Nouns are always in the third person. This is not uniformly true of all languages; in Latin, for instance, nouns, in addition to having case and number, can also convey person. The name Marcus, for example, has its own sort of second person, Marce, which is called the vocative case. It means roughly “Yo, Marcus!”

In English, nouns used in direct address, corresponding to the Latin vocative, may appear to be in the second person, as in Roger, shut up! and Death be not proud!, but the real grammatical subjects of these sentences are not Roger and Death, but—once again—the implied you. “Roger, (you) shut up!” and “Death (you) be not proud!”

Simple English persons. English is a determinedly simplifying language, and simplicity characterizes the handling of person and number in verbs. Quite simply, the base form of the verb is used across the vast majority of persons and numbers. In the example we have been using, the form fall is used in five of the six possible persons and numbers in the present tense, and falls in the remaining one (the third person singular). The same form, fall, serves again (with the appropriate helping verb) in all six persons and numbers of the future tense. Fall becomes fell in all persons and numbers of the past tense, falling is used uniformly in the progressive tenses, and fallen is on duty throughout the perfect tenses.

The bottom line is that there is only one change in form that regular English verbs use to indicate a difference in person and number—the –s or –es ending in the third person singular of the present tense. That’s it. There is no other person-indicating change in any of the other tenses.

The slight fee that English has to pay for this simplicity is that a subject pronoun or noun pretty much has to be present with every verb. In this limited sense, English is a wee bit less economical than languages that make the subject implicit in the form of the verb—Spanish, for example, in which only one word, hablo, is needed to say what in English requires two words, I speak. The first person “I” is inherent in the form of the word hablo; it’s the –o ending. He speaks would be habla, we speak would be hablamos, and so on.

In all other ways, English is a lot less profligate in its use of varying word forms than other languages.

Those complex foreigners. In many languages, person and number are indicated by changes in the form of the verb (changes in morphology), not by shifting the burden to other parts of speech, such as pronouns. What is rare in English (i.e., inflection) is ubiquitous in other languages.

Consider Latin. In my blog post of Feb. 5, 2013, entitled “A Preface to the Parts of Speech: The Joys of Weak Inflection,” I listed the 90 different forms that one regular Latin verb could take across all its tenses, moods, and voices. To a modern English speaker, this seems extraordinary, and yet the Romans blabbered away all the time, apparently never realizing that they were speaking an impossibly difficult language.

And the same is true of the speakers of Latin’s romance language successors (and of English’s relative, German, for that matter). In Spanish, for instance, the number of different forms of the regular verb hablar is very substantial (81, not counting the compound forms in which the past participle hablado remains unchanged while the auxiliary verb haber goes through its own changes). In Italian the corresponding number for parlare is 51, in French for parler it’s 48, and for the German sprechen, 28 (again, not counting compound forms using auxiliary verbs). In English we have a total of five forms of the regular verb speak (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, and spoken). Five.

I should note that English is by no means the least inflected language in the world. As far as I know, Vietnamese, which the U.S. government was kind enough to teach me in 1970, uses only one form for the word speak (nói) through all the tenses. Vietnamese is an uninflected language (called by linguists an isolating language), relying on particles and temporal words to convey the time when someone speaks, spoke, or will speak. I understand that the same is true of other Asian languages.

Still, English is highly economical in the verb inflection department.

Another English economy—the second person. English carries simplification even further in the matter of the second person, in two ways. First, English makes no distinction between singular and plural you, relying on context alone to differentiate the two numbers. Thus we can say, with the Kinks, “Girl, you really got me” in the second person singular, and in the second person plural, with Sally Fields, “Wow, members of the Academy, you really like me!”

Second, English lacks the distinction, available in many other languages, between you (familiar) and you (formal)—in French, the tu/vous distinction; in Spanish, the tu/usted/ustedes/vos distinction; and in German, the du/Sie distinction, for example. Unlike speakers of those languages, we English speakers use the same word whether we are talking to a close relative (“Jimmy, you suck!”) or a complete stranger (“I hope you will hire me for this position, Ms. Hamilton.”).

Improper yousage. However, the first economy—having only one word to cover both the second person singular and plural—is sometimes felt as a lack, a disadvantage. This is why many English speakers have taken the reins in their hands and created a nonstandard but wonderfully useful plural form. In many parts of the southern United States, you all and y’all are used for the plural of you, and in my native Brooklyn and other urban areas of the northern United States, the form youse—formed, quite regularly, by adding an s sound to the singular you—serves as a plural.

It may not be a good idea to use these forms in writing unless you are recording dialogue, but who can deny their utility?

Person and number in irregular verbs. Irregular verbs in English don’t really display a crazy amount of irregularity either. For instance, even irregular verbs like see form the third person singular of the present tense in the usual way, by adding an s to the base form, producing sees. The irregularity of most of these verbs lies only in their past tense forms and past participle forms, which are sometimes presented in three-column lists of their principal parts, with the base or present form in column 1, the past in column 2, and the past participle in column 3.

Immediately below is a sample of such a list with a few common verbs. For lists of the principal parts of the most commonly used irregular verbs, try searching the Web. One good list is at

Principal Parts

Of these verbs, only be shows a comparatively high degree of irregularity, using three forms in the present tense—am, is, and are—and two more in the past—was and were.

The strange case of do and say. Two other verbs—do and say—show a different sort of irregularity: an irregularity not of form, but of pronunciation. These verbs follow the regular pattern for forming the third person singular of the present tense: They add ­–s or –es, depending on the sound with which the root form ends. Thus do becomes does and say becomes says. So far so good.

But you have only to pronounce these two forms and you will see why English can give fits to people who are learning it. How did we ever get the perfectly standard (at least on this side of the Atlantic) pronunciations “duz” and “sez” for these verbs?

Verbs: Part Two—Transitive and Intransitive Uses of Verbs

Transitive and intransitive uses of verbs. Rather than speaking of transitive and intransitive verbs, which would erroneously imply that the quality of transitivity or intransitivity is inherent in the verb, it is more precise to distinguish between transitive and intransitive uses of verbs in sentences or clauses. Then the distinction becomes easy: When a verb has a direct object complement, it is being used transitively; when it does not have a direct object complement, it is being used intransitively.

Time out for an explanation of complements. Here’s a definition:

A complement is a word, phrase, or clause that completes the action of a verb.

A direct object is only one type of complement; the other major types are the predicate noun, predicate adjective, and prepositional complement. The latter three are normally used to complete the action of verbs that are used intransitively.

Transitivity. When a verb is used transitively, the action that the verb describes “moves through” the verb from the subject of the verb to its direct object. The word transitive contains the sense of moving through in its etymology: It comes from two Latin words, meaning “to go across.”

Take a look at these examples:

  1. The verb hit in the sentence The car hit the bus is used transitively: The action of hitting moves from the car to the bus.
  2. Similarly, the sentence The young woman caught three fish but threw all of them back into the river contains two verbs that are used transitively, caught and threw. The woman caught fish, and the woman threw them back.
  3. Finally, in the sentence The woman loves fishing but refuses to kill any fish, we have two verbs used transitively (loves and refuses), one verbal (to kill, an infinitive showing its verb aspect) used transitively, and three direct objects: fishing (another verbal, this one a gerund), to kill (an infinitive showing its noun aspect), and fish (the object of to kill).

The following are sentence diagrams that clarify the relationship among subjects, predicates, and direct objects in these three sentences.

Sentence 1:
Car bus woman fish

Sentence 2:
woman caught fish 

Sentence 3:
woman loves fishing

Fun fact: By diagramming convention (I think it was held in Vienna in 1904), the transitive nature of the verbs is indicated by the short vertical lines between the verbs and the words that are their direct objects. Lines that do not cross the horizontal are placed between verbs and their objects; lines that cross the horizontal, on the other hand, are placed between subjects and their verbs.

Intransitivity. By contrast, when a verb is used intransitively, the action encapsulated in the subject + verb combination is complete. Simply, the subject does something—not to someone or something else, just does something. An example is The boy slept on the sofa all night. The verb slept has no direct object because sleeping is all that is happening. The remaining words tell us where the sleeping took place and for how long (i.e., they are used adverbially), but they add no more to the action of sleeping than is already contained in the verb.

Boy slept

Usually transitive verbs. While it is dangerous to call any verb transitive or intransitive, as if transitivity were a property inherent in the verb rather than in its use in a sentence, some verbs, particularly action verbs, yearn to be used transitively. Without objects, they are like lost souls; the direct object fulfills them. Consider the following clauses:

The man hit
My uncle closed
My sister broke

Our natural reaction is to want more from each of them; they feel incomplete. What we want is a direct object.

The man hit the ball.
My uncle closed the door.
My sister broke the window.

Usually intransitive verbs. Other verbs are entirely comfortable without objects. Examples of such verbs are come, go, arrive, swim, live, and die, and there are many others. Typically, these are intransitive verbs, appearing in sentences such as these:

The plane arrived two hours later than scheduled.
My mother swims in the pool at the Y every morning.
My cousin still lives in Brooklyn.

Muddying the waters. However, there is a lot of crossover between transitivity and intransitivity at the level of the individual verb. Many usually transitive verbs can be used intransitively, for example. Consider these sentences, using the same verbs that were transitive just a minute ago (hit, close, and break) in the sentences cited about three inches above:

The boxer hits better with each fight.
The store closed unusually early last Thursday.
My sister remained stoical for two days, but in the end she broke.

In these three sentences, our normally transitive verbs are used intransitively.

And sometimes the opposite occurs: Even insistently intransitive verbs sometimes take direct objects—sort of. Specifically, many such verbs take what are called cognate objects, defined as a direct object complement that has the same linguistic root as the verb that governs it. Consider these fairly formulaic sentences:

The challenger hoped that he had fought the good fight.
Abraham Lincoln lived life to the fullest.
My aunt often prayed that she would die a happy death.
My daughter always slept the sleep of the just.

Each of these sentences seemingly contains a verb + cognate object combination. All are examples of what may be called pleonasm, tautology, or redundancy, in that they contain verbs and objects that are cognates: fought/fight, lived/life, die/death, and slept/sleep.

However, there is a subtle difference between the first sentence and the other three. The verb fight is as often transitive as intransitive; that is, it often takes genuinely direct objects, not just cognate objects. You can fight intransitively (as in He fought proudly but lost), but you can also fight any number of things, all of which are proper direct objects. You can, for instance, fight an opponent, fight depression, fight crime, fight discrimination, fight the flu, and so on.

On the other hand, you can’t live, die, or sleep very many other things than a life, a death, or a sleep. When you say someone lived a good life, or lives life to the fullest, you are not really adding much verbal information to the basic word live. This is because live has a deeply intransitive meaningand so do its companions die and sleep.

We sense that the cognate object that may follow a usually intransitive verb is grammatically different from a direct object after a transitive verb, even though the cognate object resembles a direct object in all other ways, including the way it would be depicted in a sentence diagram.

This is also true of other expressions containing cognate objects, including those in such expressions as laugh a hearty laugh; dream a little dream of me; walk the walk, talk the talk; sing a sad song; and dance a merry dance.

Linking verbs. In English there are a number of verbs that, when used intransitively, serve a linking function between the subject of the sentence and a noun or adjective complement. In other words, they set up an equivalency between the subject and the complement. Such verbs are therefore called linking verbs. They have also been called copula verbs and copulative verbs.

The simplest example is the verb be, as in the sentence John is a bore. The sentence states that there is an equivalency between a man named John and the type of person we call a bore. Note that we could as easily have used an adjective after the verb, as in John is boring.

When we diagram these sentences, we depict the equivalency by tilting the line between the verb and the complement from the vertical (which would indicate the presence of a direct object) to a 45-degree slant “pointing” from the complement back to the subject of the sentence. The complement in such sentences is called a predicate noun (bore) or a predicate adjective (boring).

 John bore

 John boring

In addition to be, other verbs that sometimes or always serve a linking function include appear, become, feel, get, grow, look, prove, remain, seem, smell, sound, stay, taste, and turn. You may have noticed that many of the verbs on this list can also be used transitively. The two lists below show examples of the two kinds of use.

Verbs used intransitively as linking:                   Verbs used transitively, with different meaning:
I was happy.

Aunt Lucia appeared sad.
I am becoming weary.                                                    Moonlight becomes you.
I feel pretty.                                                                        I feel the tomatoes to test their ripeness.
I am getting tired.                                                             I am getting a new tire for my car.
Atash is growing tiresome.                                           Atash is growing potatoes in the garden.
Robert looks angry.
This math problem may prove hard.                           Nafari proved his honesty.
I remain unconvinced.
He seems a complete fool.
Beatrice smells lovely this morning.                           Beatrice smells the fish before buying them.
Miguel sounds grumpy.                                                 Miguel sounds the gong for dinner.
I will stay faithful to you always.                                    Bill stayed his hand with difficulty.
This tastes funny.                                                           The cook tasted the stew while cooking it.
The banana is turning brown.                                     James turned the plant toward the sun.

 Auxiliary verbs. One last important type of verb is the auxiliary or helping verb. These are common verbs that serve an auxiliary function when used with other verbs. They include do, be, have, can, will, want, and a few others. In general, these verbs are used in English instead of inflected endings to signal important changes in meaning that verbs undergo. We will see more of these verbs in the next few posts when we discuss the tenses, moods, and voices of verbs.

Verbs: An Introduction

Run, jump, tumble, shout
paint, write, dance, sing
Is, was, were
is, was, were
Strive, struggle, laugh, weep
Ask, push, scream, love
Is, was, were
is, was, were
Dream, wake, give, share
touch, taste, explore, grow
what a difference
a verb makes. 
            Amy Henry, 1999

Verbs do indeed make a difference: Without verbs we would be powerless to describe the actions we witness or plan, the deeds we have done or propose to do, our thoughts, our memories. It is impossible to imagine a human language without verbs. While some of the earliest specimens of written language that we have found are verbless catalogs of possessions, taxes owed and collected, and records of crops, cattle, and other commodities, the real languages that people spoke—at the same time as officials made those bare written records—were rich with verbs. Even the earliest cave paintings are, after all, pictures of verbs: hunting, meeting, fishing, feasting, dancing.

Verbs in any language are where the action is. As the poem above observes, verbs run, jump, tumble, shout, paint, write, dance, and sing. They strive, struggle, laugh, weep, ask, push, scream, and love; and they dream, wake, give, share, touch, taste, explore, and grow. They excite, surprise, terrify, calm, force, persuade, anger, inflame, impassion, and soothe. They hurt, wound, heal, and cure. They frighten, enchant, and seduce, and they fuck, love, hate, betray, trick, kill, and die. They think, conceive, imagine, feel, regret, disgust, excite, pretend, mislead, appear, suspect, hint, suggest, and insist.

An introduction to verbs. Let me pause at this point and offer a fairly standard definition of a verb:

A verb is a word or phrase that denotes an action, occurrence, or state of being.

Clearly, action verbs are words like hit, kick, run, and stroke; they are words like those in the first two lines of the poem above. Occurrence verbs include occur, happen, appear, and become, and state of being verbs include be, exist, stand, rest, and the like. The state of being verbs often serve as linking verbs, which we will discuss later.

Verbs as superheroes. Verbs are wonderful lexical units, but a mythology has grown up around them, usually at the expense of other parts of speech. The point generally made is that verbs are dynamic, vivid, imaginative, persuasive, and potent, while other parts of speech are lifeless. Many self-help guides to improving the [choose one] persuasiveness/marketing ability/power/interest of your writing suggest that you dump all your [choose one] nouns/adjectives/adverbs and plug in an appropriately aggressive verb. The result is guaranteed to boost the testosterone of your writing.

Consider the quotations below, in which verbs are depicted as that muscular guy on the beach who kicks sand into the face of the skinny noun in the baggy swim trunks. Poor Mr. Noun looks like he’s ready to cough up $19.95 for a self-improvement system which, if used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care, will double his size and vigor, presumably by turning him into a verb.

God is a verb, not a noun. (Buckminster Fuller)

Marriage is not a noun; it’s a verb. It isn’t something you get. It’s something you do. It’s the way you love your partner every day. (Barbara de Angelis)

I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun. (Yoko Ono)

I think we all do heroic things, but hero is not a noun, it’s a verb. (Robert Downey, Jr.)

Theater is a verb before it is a noun, an act before it is a place. ( Martha Graham)

Take that, Mr. Noun. Better dig out that wallet.

Nouns’ fellow travelers. Nor are nouns alone in being made to feel inferior. According to many blogs on the Web, verbs also kick ass when they’re pitted against adverbs and adjectives.

For instance, an advice blog for people who want to write screenplays offers this prescription: “When you’re writing a script you need to communicate effectively, visually and economically. One of the best ways to do this is to minimize the use of adjectives and replace them with strong verbs whenever possible…. Instead of saying ‘quickly runs’ say ‘races’ or instead of saying ‘enters through the door’ say ‘barges through the door.’ (From [Note: Ignore the fact that the examples have nothing to do with adjectives; the point is that verbs rule.]

Similar advice can serve business people well, according to at least one marketing blog  ( The blog quotes the managing director of admissions for the MBA program at Harvard on letters of recommendation that she has received: The best recommendations have a lot of verbs. They say, ‘She did this,’ versus adjectives that simply describe you.”

The article continues: “There are multiple reasons to choose verbs over adjectives. First, adjectives on their own don’t say all that much and are easy to throw in without real justification. Describing a candidate as ‘dedicated, focused, and creative’ is a quick way to satisfy the need for a favorable comment and get the recommendation on its way…. Action verbs force the writer to get specific—‘created a series of ads,’ ‘led a team of engineers,’ ‘worked through a holiday,’ and so on require actual examples of the behaviors or characteristics in question…. These specifics will increase the credibility of the copy, in addition to providing more information than when the adjective-driven shortcut is taken.”

One more example, this one from Sarrah Hakim, who has a blog on writing at Offering an “extra writing tip,” Ms. Hakim advises, “Avoid adverbs. Seriously. When you write, instead of sticking in a weak verb plus an adverb, put in one strong verb.” Instead of She walked quickly, Ms. Hakim suggests She strode. Instead of He spoke loudly, the suggestion is He yelled. She continues: “Adverbs clutter up the text. Strong verbs are clean, save space, and make your writing sound a lot more fluent. Use them!” (From

These are actually valid points, and I don’t mean only to lampoon them. Verbs are indeed potent and writers can learn to use them effectively to improve their writing. My hesitation about advice of this sort is that it is simplistic. Dr. Grammarius’s take: Consider such advice carefully and take it into account, but don’t apply any of it mechanistically. If you do, you risk turning your language into a machine of war. I call this the General Patton approach to verbs.

The General Patton approach to verbs. Verbs are often touted as the most useful—the most strategic—of words. If you have built up reserves of well-muscled verbs and are ready to deploy them at the first sign of weakness, they will make your writing more effective. Viewed this way, verbs are aggressive little bastards. They build bodies twelve ways. They put a tiger in your tank. They put spring in your step. They’re lexical Viagra.

There is an underlying truth in this approach to word choice—verbs can be highly expressive—but honestly, the advice that you receive from some sources is absurdly simplistic.

Consider the plethora of suggestions that populate the Web for building up your résumé by using “action verbs” and “power verbs.” It’s a snap: You can easily make your résumé crackle and pop (Disclosure: Dr. Grammarius is not above a Rice Krispies product placement) just by swapping out a few dull verbs for their more dynamic, punchier synonyms.

Okay. Let’s see. All I have to do to get a good job is write about how, in my most recent position, I pummeled my assignments into submission, wrangled my staff into shouldering the hawser of achievement, assaulted my to-do list at each day’s dawning, tore into my weekly objectives and devoured my departmental goals, seduced or vanquished my supervisors, and drove my organization to a frenzy of pillage and conquest over its corporate foes. Great stuff! Reads like a crappy novel.

But, sadly, the actual “power-up” advice on the Web just isn’t as exciting as you might think.

The power verbs that most of these résumé-improving advisers suggest for spicing up your résumé are—no kidding—words like administered, evaluated, developed, prioritized, researched, strategized, delegated, labored, motivated, visualized, and empowered. Can’t you hear those résumés popping?

Back to basics. Let’s admit that verbs can enliven your writing and speaking; they certainly can. But let’s not accept any easy recipes for using verbs in this way. I’ll bet you can figure out for yourself how to choose the best words for your writing once you have control over the basics of verbs and all the other parts of speech—once you feel you own them.

One of the underlying purposes of this blog is to help you understand the language you use and have available to use, to encourage you to inspect sentences by lifting their hoods and looking inside. Then and only then, I believe, will you accept this truth: You are the driver of your language; your language is yours as well as everybody else’s. You have a responsibility to value it and use it in a way that others can understand, but you have the right to use it in ways that you find satisfying and pleasing. My intent is to show you how your language works; then you will be free to use—or break—the “rules” of language any way you intend, as long as you understand what you are doing.

Why I like verbs. What makes verbs most interesting to me as a writer and grammar geek is their infinite variety, their shades of meaning, their versatility, their ability to cover every nuance of feeling, thinking, being, and doing.

What is also interesting to me as a collector of grammatical arcana is that verbs have a greater number of abstruse lexical and linguistic concepts and terms associated with them than any other part of speech—way more! Grammarians and linguists through the ages have invented an arsenal of words to describe exactly what verbs do in a sentence and how they do it. Some of the words are cool, and some are merely wonky. “Cool” and “wonky,” by the way, are technical terms.

Let’s all play “Cool vs. Wonky.” For example, it is cool—and useful—to know that verbs may be transitive or intransitive; it is wonky to understand the distinction among monotransitive, ditransitive, and ambitransitive verbs. What’s more, verbs have aspect (of the perfective and imperfective flavors)—and knowing this is clearly wonky rather than cool for everyday users of English. And it is way beyond cool, and nearly surpasses wonky, to understand a property of verbs that linguists call valency—which is a category that subsumes transitivity and intransitivity. Dr. Grammarius loves these words, but he will have no truck with them here.

However exciting and useful such terminology may be to linguists, it is far too technical for an armchair linguist (or to use a power word, nonlinguist) like Dr. Grammarius. I will be content to discuss what I consider to be the most useful distinctions within verbs in English, and the most traditional and practical for everyday writers and readers of that and other languages.

I will talk about the transitive/intransitive distinction, the category of intransitive verbs called linking verbs, and the traditional categories into which verbs fall within the context of the sentence: person, number, tense, mood, and voice. This will be more than enough: Cool, but not wonky.

We’ll begin with the transitive/intransitive distinction in the next post.

Nouns: Part Five—Nouns of a Different Stripe

In addition to the plain vanilla nouns we have covered so far—such as dog, hats, freedom, country, foolishness, Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln, step-sisters, Secretary of State, and Doctor Grammarius—there are other types that up the grammatical ante a bit. These include noun clauses and two sorts of nouns that are formed from verbs, and are therefore called verbals: infinitives and gerunds.

Noun clauses. A noun clause is a group of words that contains a verb and functions as a noun in a sentence. Consider these sentences:

I know that you stole those books from the library.

That cats are smarter than dogs is common knowledge.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

In the first sentence, the noun clause that you stole those books from the library is the direct object of the verb know. The sentence can be diagrammed in either of the following ways:

 Stole books


Stole books 2

In the second sentence, the noun clause that cats are smarter than dogs (are) is the subject of the verb is. The sentence can be diagrammed this way:

 cats smarter

The third sentence is, of course (God bless Jane Austen!), more complex and interesting. The subject of the sentence is, nominally, It. However, the word It functions, in grammatical terms, as an expletive—a word that serves as a filler (it comes from a Latin word meaning to fill up), just as there (as in There is a tavern in this town) serves as a filler, for the real (semantic) subject. In the tavern’s case, the underlying, simple sentence is A tavern is in this town.

In Jane Austen’s sentence, It and the semantic subject of the sentence (the long noun clause that stretches from that to wife) are in apposition. The sentence can be diagrammed this way:

Truth acknowledged 

As you can see, the noun clause is where subjects always are, and it is placed in apposition to the expletive It.

Some other notes on the diagram: I have construed the phrase in want as an adjective (here a predicate adjective after the linking verb must be) equivalent to the word needful. Similarly, I have interpreted the phrase in possession of as a single preposition equivalent to the word with.

The art of diagramming (an aside). Diagramming comprises a lot of skill and a bit of art, and that there are other ways that the details of this rich sentence might have been diagrammed. But any accurate diagram will show the related functions of all the words in the sentence; that is the point of a diagram. Once you get the hang of it, diagramming is not only very useful for analyzing the parts of a sentence, but fun as well.

To begin to diagram a sentence, you have to be able to identify (1) the main verb, which will describe the action that the sentence presents (whether that action is a genuine action, such as walk, run, hit, kick, go, sip, eat, talk, hold, rob, press, and the like, or a more mental or passive action, such as think, seem, be, believe, love, hate, trust, betray, analyze, and so on); (2) the subject or doer of the action (answering the question Who or what is performing the action?; and (3) the direct object or direct recipient (if any) of the action (answering the question: Who or what is getting acted upon?).

If the sentence has all three of these things and nothing else, we can easily fill in the slots in the main horizontal line of a sentence diagram:

 Sentences have verbs

But not every sentence has all three of these components, and many sentences have much more.

Let’s start in a minimalist way. Every proper sentence has a verb, called a predicate in grammatical terms, and this is all some sentences have, at least explicitly. For instance, the command Stop! is a complete, one-word sentence. The verb stop presents an action, and it turns out that this sole word is all we need to form a sentence.

But there is more to this one-word sentence, and we can ask another question to ferret it out; we can ask the subject question: Who is supposed to stop? And the answer to that question is contained in the mood (imperative) of the verb: Obviously, the person who is being addressed—an understood you—is who is supposed to stop. You (understood) is the subject of the sentence. This is usually indicated in a sentence diagram as either (X) or (You).


We can also ask the direct object question: Who or what is supposed to stop or get stopped?, but here we don’t get an easy answer. To figure out the direct object we need a specific context. For instance, if the sentence is spoken or written (as in a traffic sign) at a busy street intersection, the implied direct object may be you (or, more grammatically, yourself), or it may be walking, crossing, driving, or moving forward. If the sentence is spoken or written in another context, the direct object may refer to talking, arguing, touching, kissing, bothering, hitting, and so on. Because there is not always an unambiguous answer, we don’t usually fill in the direct object slot for this type of sentence with an understood word.

Here are a few other examples of noun clauses. If you want to try your hand at diagramming them, be my guest.

How I’m going to read all these books before the test is a complete mystery to me. [noun clause used as a subject]

I don’t understand how she puts up with him. [noun clause used as a direct object]

We need to have a long discussion about why you expect me to pay for all this. [noun clause used as the object of a preposition]

My fondest wish is that you will remember me with affection. [noun clause used as a predicate noun]

For more on sentence diagramming, I invite you to visit my friend and colleague Elizabeth O’Brien’s excellent website at If you plan to order one of Elizabeth’s books on the subject, please follow the link on my home page or click this link for “Sentence Diagramming Exercises” or this one for the “Sentence Diagramming Reference Manual.”

Additionally, this website ( offers a good variety of sample diagrams.

Infinitives. Something magical happens when you insert the word to before a verb: The verb becomes a noun. Thus, the verb entertain, as in “The performers will entertain the audience with a medley of popular favorites” can be made into a noun very easily to serve another context, as in “The performers would like to entertain you.”  In the first sentence, the word entertain is the main (and only) verb in the sentence, serving as its predicate. The sentence can be diagrammed like this:

 Performers entertain

In the second sentence, the infinitive to entertain is not a verb (that honor goes to would like), but a noun, the direct object of would like. Here is the usual way to diagram this sentence:

 Performers would like

Two observations about infinitives. First, there is a lot of mythology about a supposed rule that forbids careful users of English to split infinitives, i.e., to place any word or phrase at all between the to and the plain form of the verb. Examples of split infinitives are:

I have to always check the time.

I promised myself to never eat between meals.

Can you manage to some way or another finish this job by 4 p.m.?

The prohibition against splitting infinitives is imaginary. If you don’t like to split them, try to find a way around it without sounding stilted. If you don’t care, split them at will. If you are a careful writer, choose the wording that sounds best and truest to your ear.

In some cases, it would be hard to avoid splitting the infinitive. Consider this sentence from The Wall Street Journal (online U.S. edition, February 28, 2011):

China plans to more than double the value of its entertainment and other cultural industries to nearly three trillion yuan, or roughly $460 billion, within the next five years….

It’s futile to struggle to pry the more than from the jaws of the infinitive to double. Why even try?

Second, it is worth noting here that the subject of an infinitive is in the objective case, not the nominative case. This means that I want him to take the fall for me is of course correct, and I want he to take the fall for me is of course incorrect.

Remember this when we discuss pronouns (which in English are pretty much the only words that show genuine case markings). Recalling that both the subject and object of an infinitive are in the objective case will prevent many a malapropism, such as a sentence that I recently overheard: “They asked he and I to come to the party on Saturday.” Whether you construe the pronouns as the direct objects of asked, the indirect objects of asked, or (as I do) the subjects of the infinitive to come, the case that those pronouns ought to show is the same: objective. Here is the diagram of the corrected sentence:

 Saturday party

Here are a few more examples of infinitives in common use:

To know him is to love him. (Or: To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him.)

To cease loving London is to cease loving life.

To be is to do.

To be or not to be, that is the question.

To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow. (Nah, only kidding.)

To live is to die.

Gerunds. Gerunds are produced by another grammatical magic trick: Adding an -ing to a verb can produce a noun. If it does, such a noun is called a gerund. (If the same trick produces an adjective, the resulting -ing word is called a participle.)

Thus, in the sentence I love swimming in the ocean, the word swimming is a gerund, because it serves as the direct object of the verb love. By contrast, in the sentence I saw a dolphin swimming in the ocean, swimming is a participle (more precisely, a present participle—to distinguish it from a past participle, which for the verb swim would be swum) because it modifies the noun dolphin.

The diagrams of these sentences tell the story, depicting in the first sentence the gerund in the direct object slot, but on a stilt elevated above the main horizontal line, and the participle in the second sentence on a slanted (modifier) line below the direct object dolphin:

 Love swimming

Dolphin swimming

 Here are a few more examples of gerunds in action:

Seeing is believing.

Breaking up is hard to do.

I can’t help falling in love with you.

Living without you is unimaginable.

I’m terrified of dying alone.

Diagramming sentences puts hair on your chest.

Conclusion. Noun phrases, infinitives, and gerunds are actually rather cool sentence components, greatly expanding the flexibility and reach of our language (and very many other languages). Learning to recognize them whenever you hear them is a skill. You may be surprised at how often they show up. For instance, the two immediately preceding sentences right here in this paragraph both contain a noun clause, the first one (“Learning…”) used as the subject of the sentence, and the second one (“how often…”) as the object of a preposition.

Nouns: Part Four—Possession

Compared to the morphological changes in nouns occasioned by the conventions of pluralization, those used to indicate possession are slight. Basically, all you need to know is this:

  • Use an apostrophe + s to indicate possession for singular nouns, whatever letter they end in. For example, the boy’s hat, Jack’s house, Amos’s brother, James’s book, mother’s coat, my cousin’s car, the class’s picture, McDonald’s farm, and your dog’s tail are all properly formed singular possessives.
  • Also use an apostrophe + s to indicate possession for plural nouns that do not end in s. For example, the children’s playroom, the women’s occupations, the men’s club, and the alumni’s annual gift are all properly formed plural possessives.
  • Use an apostrophe (only) to indicate possession for plural nouns that end in s. Thus, my sisters’ husbands, the Joneses’ house, the dogs’ houses, the families’ get-togethers, the Democrats’ ideas, the Republicans’ policies, the politicians’ excuses, and the presidents’ spouses are all properly formed plural possessives.
  • Use the of construction, in general, if the possessor is not a person or persons. It is usually better to indicate that a thing is the possessor by inverting the order of the two nouns and using the preposition of to link them. For example, the Speaker of the House, the agenda of the meeting, the purpose of the committee, the words of the speech, the rooms of the castle, the heroes of the country, and the women of the Senate are all properly formed impersonal possessives. The inflected form, using an apostrophe, would sound awkward in these instances: the House’s Speaker, the meeting’s agenda, and so on.

A choice. We often have two options for expressing possession, at least technically. We can use inflection, forcing ourselves to work out the proper use of the apostrophe, and write, for example:

John found Alicia’s pen in the baby’s room.

John found Alicia’s pen in the babies’ room.

John found Liza’s and Alicia’s pens in the children’s room.

John found his sisters’ pens in the children’s room.

Alternatively, we can use the second possessive construction, the of construction, and duck the issue of apostrophes altogether. Unfortunately, the result usually sounds less than natural to an English speaker:

John found the pen of Alicia in the room of the baby.

John found the pen of Alicia in the room of the babies.

John found the pens of Liza and Alicia in the room of the children.

John found the pens of his sisters in the room of the children.

All of these sentences sound odd in English, vaguely Martian or robotic, even though the equivalent construction is the perfectly correct and natural way to indicate possession in French and Spanish (and many other languages, for that matter). For instance:

Jean a trouvé le stylo d’Alicia dans la chambre du bébé. (or la chambre des bébés)

Juan ha encontrado la pluma de Alicia en el cuarto del bebé. (or el cuarto de los bebés)

In English, the more appropriate use of the of construction is with impersonal nouns, as in:

We seem to be doing everything in our power to ensure the collapse of the economy.

Here, it is the apostrophe construction (the economy’s collapse) that sounds odd, even though it is acceptable English. The problem with this construction is that it seems to personify the economy, and in the mundane context of a discussion of economic matters, personification seems to be a bit too much of a stretch toward the poetic.

The following examples from news reports use a bit of personification in attributing ownership of various things to a war, poverty, and Ohio.

The Iraqi War’s grim toll in blood and tears will haunt its victims—on both sides—long after some form of peace has been declared.

Poverty’s grip continues to squeeze Ohio’s Appalachian counties.

These sentences are matters of judgment. In the first, the personification of the war is difficult to remove from the sentence without damaging its rhythm, and furthermore, the verb haunts and the phrase its victims reinforce the personification. The more prosaically worded sentence (The grim toll of the Iraqi War in blood and tears will haunt victims on both sides long after some form of peace has been declared) may not be as effective. Here it is wisest to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and allow him or her to engage in the familiar trope of personifying War.

The second sentence, in my opinion, can be de-personified without losing any of its effect: The grip of poverty continues to squeeze the Appalachian counties of Ohio. I think we can retain the implied personification and vividness of grip and squeeze while hewing to the more standard of construction.