Verbs, Part 2: Tense, Mood, and Aspect

This post covers the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect. It’s boring, and I’ve put off writing it forever because it’s boring.

Objectives:

  1. Define the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect.
  2. Supply the correct form for a set of given verbs and features.

Skill level: intermediate

“The past and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

As grammar jokes go, this one is fairly awful. (But I laugh all the same, of course, because my sense of humor apparently sprouted in one of our local corn fields.) Of the verb features, Tense is probably the easiest to understand. Mood, and Aspect were once these nebulous terms to me, conditions that I understood existed but that I couldn’t pinpoint or keep track of. A fourth verb feature, Voice, merits its own post and will be discussed only minimally here.

The nice thing is that, for native English speakers, all of these features are already programmed into the brain. Thus, for writers, it’s just a matter of identifying and managing their use.

Tense

The hallmark of the finite verb, tense expresses the point in time that an action or state occurs. The three tenses are as follows:

  1. Present: what happens currently
  2. Past (AKA preterit): what happened already
  3. Future: what will happen someday

Present: The present tense, for regular verbs, is the base form of the verb, except in the 3rd person singular conjugation, which receives a -s/-es marker:

  • 1st Person: I sing / we sing
  • 2nd Person: you sing
  • 3rd Person: she sings / they sing

Past: English has both weak and strong verbs. Past tense for weak verbs occurs with a morpheme -ed/-d/-t (a “dental suffix”) added to the base form of the verb:

  • Burn → Burned
  • Fume → Fumed
  • Leap → Leapt

Strong verbs have an internal vowel change that occurs to denote tense. Note that the vowel sound itself changes, not necessarily the letter used to represent it.

  • Sing → Sang
  • Bite → Bit
  • Shake → Shook

Strong verbs are sometimes called irregular verbs. There are 120+ in the English language, and the strong/weak designation has existed for over 1,000 years. Truly irregular verbs, however, have separate conjugations for present and past forms:

  • “Be”: I am → I was
  • “Go”: He goes → he went

Future: In English, we express the future tense with the modal “will”:

  • They will burn.
  • She will sing.
  • I will go.

(That’s a rather macabre list when read in succession, but I pulled the verbs randomly from my weak/strong/irregular examples; no plans for merry arson in my future. For now, that is.)

Mood

The jury’s still out on exactly how many Moods there are. If you crack a book of verb conjugations, it will typically give three (Indicative, Imperative, and Subjunctive) and make mention of a fourth (Interrogative), but Wikipedia lists nine and refers to the existence of others. Most of these, in English, are expressed using modals (“mood” + “-al” = “modal”).

As indicated by its name, the Mood of the verb incorporates the speaker’s disposition toward the action or state he or she is expressing: Fact? Question? Command? Hypothetical? It all depends on the Mood. Here’s the skinny on a few:

  1. Indicative (AKA Declarative)
    1. Statement of fact (or rather, what the speaker perceives as fact)
    2. Follows standard conjugation
  1. Imperative
    1. Commands
    1. Follows standard conjugation for 2nd Person
    1. Pro-drop: because the Imperative Mood only takes 2nd person subjects, the subject “you” is typically dropped, except when the speaker wants rhetorical emphasis. Compare “Do your homework!” to “You do your homework!”
  1. Subjunctive (+Conditional/Potential)
    1. Hypothetical situations
    2. This verb form has been dying from English for the past 500+ years; no one uses it consistently. (Seriously. No one.)
    3. Uses the base form of the verb and is most easily seen in “be”:
      1. “If I were you…” [Well, you’re not me, so this is subjunctive.]
      2. Be he alive or be he dead/I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.” [The giant doesn’t know what condition Jack is in, but it doesn’t really matter, because he’s bread-bound either way.]
  1. Interrogative
    1. Questions
    2. Uses inversion (the auxiliary or tense-carrying verb appears before the subject instead of after)
    3. Modern Interrogative Mood uses Auxiliary “do” if the corresponding indicative sentence has no other AUX.
      1. You like him → Do you like him?
      2. She thinks that you’re unreliable → Does she think that you’re unreliable?
    4. Archaic use inverts the main verb with the subject.
      1. Thou likest him → Likest thou him?
      2. She thinketh thee to be unreliable → Thinketh she that thou art unreliable?

A Note on Modals:

Modals, as above mentioned often express Mood in English. The 9 English Modals are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would. (Some people also include ought in this list. I keep it separate because ought requires an infinitive after it, whereas the other nine take a base verb. Compare “I will go” vs. “I ought to go.”) Modals rob their subsequent finite verb of its tense feature.

  • Present/future tense modals: can, may, must, shall, will
  • Past tense modals: could, might, should, would

Aspect

The Aspect feature denotes whether an action is ongoing or complete. There are three aspects:

  1. Perfect: denotes an action that is already complete
    1. Uses the past participle
    2. Uses the Auxiliary “have”: “The building had burned.”
  2. Progressive: denotes an action that is in progress/continuing; also called the Continuous Aspect
    1. Uses the present participle
    2. Uses the Auxiliary “be”: “The building was burning.”
  3. Perfect Progressive: denotes an action that started and was/has continued either to the present, or to a specific point in time
    1. Uses the present participle of the main verb
    2. Uses the past participle of “be”
    3. Uses the Auxiliary “have”: “The building has been burning for five hours.”
    4. NOTE: in the hierarchy of order, the progressive aspect comes after the perfect aspect. I.e., the past participle trumps the present participle in word/feature order; also, all auxiliaries trump the main verb.

The Order of Things

When a sentence carries multiple verb features, they go in the order of Tense, Mood, Aspect [Perfect, Progressive], and Voice. As auxiliaries and modals are added, the Tense feature moves up the line to the front. (It is often packed together with the mood.) Thus,

  • “To run” + 3rd P sing.: he ran → he was running → he had been running → he would have been running
  • “To love” + 1st P pl.: we love it → we are loving it → we have been loving it → we should have been loving it [→ it should have been being loved (by us)]
  • “To think” + 2nd P: you thought → you could think → you could have thought → you could have been thinking
    • OR, you think → you may think → you may be thinking → you may have been thinking this whole time that I’m nuts for writing such a ridiculously dry post as this.

The Moral of the Story

So, why is this important to writers? Aside from the general grammatical necessity of constructing a proper sentence, understanding Tense, Mood, and Aspect can help us simplify our writing. Each additional feature has its proper function, but too many muddle things up. When you add in verbs that naturally require more verbs (such as “try” and “need” → “He should have been trying to make a cake” / “She might have needed to go to the store”), the string of verbs and auxiliaries gets overly long and is more likely to trip up your reader’s focus.

Plainly put, the more complicated the verb structure, the muddier the narrative. Strip away as much as you possibly can. Save the conga lines of verbs for when they’re truly needed. The end.

Exercise:

Supply the correct form for the given verb/feature/subject combinations. (Mood = Indicative unless otherwise noted.)

  1. sing [past tense] + we:
  2. walk [present tense] + he:
  3. march [present tense, imperative mood]:
  4. break [past tense, progressive aspect] + they:
  5. break [present tense, perfect aspect] + it:
  6. intend [present tense, interrogative mood] + you:
  7. meet [past tense, perfect-progressive aspect, conditional mood] she:
  8. repeat [present tense, progressive aspect, hypothetical mood of your choice (i.e., pick a modal)] + I:

 

 

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