Verbs are complicated creatures. They have voices and moods. We constantly have to worry about their tenses. And yet, as Patricia T. O’Conner writes in Woe Is I, “without a verb…there’s nothing going on, just a lot of nouns standing around with their hands in their pockets.”
Writers need to have a lot of good verbs in their toolbox. Stylistically, you’re better off using a robust verb (sprint, jaunt, tumble, prod) than a weak one. “To be” verbs are often the enemy of good writing; prose that relies too heavily on “to be” tends to be rather limp.
- It was raining.
- She was tired.
- The reader was bored.
Okay, we remember from primary school that verbs are “action” words. A sentence is not complete without a verb. In fact, the shortest grammatically correct sentence in English is a single verb: Go.
In their natural state, verbs are called infinitives. “To be,” “to think,” and “to dance” are all infinitives. To split an infinitive, you wedge an adverb between the “to” and the verb (e.g “To boldly go”). This is less of a rule and more of a guideline.
If we want to use a verb in a sentence, we’ll probably have to conjugate it, or add an ending. Depending on the subject of the sentence, the mood, and the tense, the verb will be conjugated in different ways. (If “conjugate” sounds suspiciously similar to “conjugal visit,” that’s because they both come from the same Latin root, conjugare, meaning “to join together.”)
There are regular verbs and irregular verbs. Regular verbs are predictable; they all get the same endings when conjugated. If we want to talk about a woman dancing sometime in the past, we would say “she danced.” However, if we wanted to talk about a woman thinking sometime in the past, we don’t say “she thinked.” We say “she thought,” because English is an evil, evil language filled with irregular verbs that refuse to follow the rules.
As a writer, you can give insight into your characters just by the way they conjugate verbs. No seriously, bear with me. Compare these two lines of dialogue:
- “I swum that river five years ago,” said Maryann.
- “I swam that river five years ago,” said Maryann.
The Maryann of the first sentence used the verb incorrectly. That kind of mistake is typical of less-educated people. Will one letter’s difference definitively tell the reader what kind of character she is? No, but a systematic series of mistakes like this establishes her voice. Even if don’t know why she’s wrong in this instance, it sounds off. We feel the difference. (If you’re curious, “swam” is the simple past tense of “to swim,” while “swum” is the past participle and must be accompanied by an auxiliary like “have” or “had.” More on tenses in Part II of this series.)
Sentences can be written in either active voice or passive voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action. In the passive voice, the action is being done to the subject.
- Passive Voice: The wildebeest was eaten by the lion.
- Active Voice: The lion ate the wildebeest.
In this example, the active voice is the better choice because it clarifies the action and it cuts out unnecessary words. (“ate” is more succinct than “was eaten”)
Writers are usually advised to use only the active voice, but sometimes the passive voice can be used effectively. One of the best examples of the power of the passive voice is this simple phrase: “Mistakes were made.” That sentence acknowledges that somewhere, somehow, an error occurred, but it sidesteps the blame. We don’t know who made the mistakes. Maybe it was Steve; we don’t know. The information is hidden from us, the readers, by the construction of the sentence.
There are also times when the subject of the sentence is less important than the object–basically, the “what” is more important than the “who.” For example, the first sentence of this section (“Sentences can be written in either active voice or passive voice.”) is written in passive voice. It works because the hypothetical, unnamed writer is less important than the sentences themselves.
For more about passive voice, check out UNC’s Writing Center.
Verbs have several possible moods. The most common are indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. These moods each carry their own little set of rules. Most of the time, we write and speak in the indicative mood. Any time we make a statement, ask a question, or offer an opinion, we are using the indicative mood.
- I want a pony.
- Jim secretly enjoys knitting scarves for his pet pug, Jasper.
- She dropped the vase.
- Do you like turtles?
When we issue a command, we are using the imperative mood. Commands almost always have the implied subject “you,” and the verb is conjugated accordingly.
- Hand me the remote.
- Go take a long walk off a short pier.
The subjunctive mood is where things get weird. This mood is for wishing, making hypothetical statements, etc. Phrases that begin with “if” often indicative the subjunctive. For example: “If I were you, I’d watch out.” Here’s a 90′s hip-hop one-hit wonder abusing the hell out of the subjunctive mood:
Technically, Skee-Lo should have said “I wish I were a little bit taller; I wish I were a baller.” As a writer of fiction, however, we’re sometimes more concerned with how things sound. People, and therefore characters, don’t usually speak with perfect grammar, and the best choice may not be the correct choice.
Come back next week for Part II: Verb Tenses!