Verbs: Characteristics

Introduction

In our first section on verbs, we introduced the different kinds of verbs, including transitive and intransitive verbs, linking verbs, and helping verbs.

On this page we turn our attention to the different parts of each verb, and how we can change the verb to indicate tense, mood, and voice.

Principal Parts

Now that we know the types of verbs we might encounter, we are ready to look at the main parts that make up a verb.

There are four principal parts:

Principle Part Example
Basic Form

(An action in the present: I + present tense)

kick
Past Tense

(An action in the past: I + past tense)

kicked
Past Participle

(Often the same as the past tense. Usually formed by adding -ed to the present tense)

kicked
Present Participle

(Formed by adding -ing to the basic form)

kicking

Not all grammar books include the present participle, but we’ve done so to show that all verb tenses can be formed from these principal parts.

Also, by themselves past and present participles cannot be verbs (they’re called verbals), but with helping verbs they can be part of the verb phrase (e.g., will be seeing).

There are some verbs that are a bit irregular in how they form these four principal parts. That’s why they are called irregular verbs! Here are some examples:

Basic Form Past Tense Past Participle Present Participle
drive drove driven driving
read read read reading
sing sang sung singing
swim swam swum swimming

If you’re a native speaker, but you’re not quite sure how to form the past participle, you can ask yourself, how would I finish a phrase such as he had or it was … ? For example, if the verb is swear you might say he had sworn and know that the past participle is sworn.

If English is not your first language, it will take you some time to study the few hundred irregular verbs that have different principal parts.

Verb Tenses

Now that we know about helping verbs and about the principal parts, we can move on to the different tenses of the verb. These allow us to make subtle distinctions about when something is happening.

The following chart provides a quick overview of the twelve different tenses, as applied to both a regular and irregular verb:

For more information about all twelve tenses, please see our detailed introduction to verb tense.

Mood

You can think of the mood as the tone or manner in which something is expressed. English has three moods: the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.

The indicative is the one we use most often. It includes statements of fact and questions:

The time passes so quickly.

We will be doing a fundraiser.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t say “banana”?

We want justice.

By that time I will have been waiting for five hours.

Indicative statements can use any of the twelve verb tenses described above.

The imperative mood covers commands, requests, and instructions. The subject of an imperative verb is implied (it’s usually you):

Do the right thing and buy me a coffee. (you do and buy)

Please join me in applauding a fine performance. (you join)

Follow these simple instructions to put together your new table. (you follow)

The subjunctive is the mood that gives writers the most trouble, in part because it is little used. These days we tend to use modal helping verbs (like should, would, etc.) to create the same effect.

The subjunctive expresses conditions that are contrary to fact, hypothetical situations that have not happened or are not likely to happen.

Here’s how the subjunctive is formed:

Subjunctive Verbs

Now that you know how to form the subjunctive, let’s look at some situations in which the subjunctive should be used.

Hypothetical Statements:

If I were rich, I would live in a hotel. (indicative: I was; I will live)

Wishes and desires:

I wish I were older.

Clauses that start with that and express commands, advice, wishes, and so on:

I suggest that he leave at once. (indicative: he leaves)

If you’re not sure if a statement is subjunctive, try inserting a modal helping verb that makes the clause subjunctive (that he should leave). If that works then the subjunctive mood is probably appropriate.

Advanced Information

The subjunctive is disappearing from the English language, which is why you may often find it more natural to use the indicative form. Here’s a good example:

Subjunctive: If I be honest

Indicative: If I am honest

Most of us would pick the indicative, and not feel bad about it.

The one place where the subjunctive will likely survive for quite some time yet is in common expressions:

So be it

Be that as it may

If I were you

God help us / So help me God

Heaven forbid

Long live the King

Finally, even though the subjunctive is on the way out in English, it is frequently used in other languages.

Voice

The last grammatical category that we need to learn is the voice of the verb. The voice refers to the relationship between the subject and the action.

If the verb has an active voice, then the subject is doing the action.

If the verb has a passive voice then the action is happening to the subject. In other words, the subject would normally be the object of the verb.

Active voice: Treebeard sang a song.

Passive voice: The song was sung by Treebeard.

The passive voice is formed by using some form of to be as a helping verb and adding a past participle. Here are some examples:

To Be + Past Participle
am headhunted
had been praised
will be struck
were seen

Another clue that you’re dealing with the passive voice is that the implied subject is often included after the verb (usually in a by construction):

These cows are milked by robots.

In fact, to make a sentence active you need to figure out who is actually doing the action (robots) and make that the subject:

Robots milk these cows.

However, not all verbs are easily transformed from the active to the passive (or vice versa). Some transitive verbs that take a direct object in the active voice simply don’t make sense in a passive construction. For example, you can’t say that something is lacked.

Usage

As much as possible, write in the active voice. Compare the following two sentences for directness:

If you want to ensure a successful rebellion, the current ruler must be apprehended, all media outlets must be captured and controlled, and innocent civilians should be protected as much as possible.

If you want to ensure a successful rebellion, you should apprehend the current ruler, capture and control all media outlets, and protect innocent civilians as much as possible.

As you can see, the active version is more colorful and concise. That’s why you should use the passive voice sparingly.

The passive voice works best in the following situations:

  • When you don’t know who the subject is or don’t want others to know
  • When you want to draw attention to the action (and its object) rather than the subject
  • When you want your tone to be more abstract and indirect (e.g., in some academic discourse)

However, be selective about when you use the passive voice, also in formal writing. Your default option should be the active voice.

Finally, some grammar books tell you to avoid mixing the active and the passive voice in the same sentence. Our advice is to go with what sounds the most natural. The following sentence has two passive voice verbs:

We were told by our tour guide that the Louvre was closed due to flooding.

In this case the first verb is best made active, whereas the second is fine as is:

Our tour guide told us that the Louvre was closed due to flooding.

Being aware of these subtle differences will give you greater control over your writing.

Exercises


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