Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

I Want my MTV (Mood, Tense, Voice)!

Gen-Xers like me remember MTV as the 24-hour-a-day source of music videos in the 1980s, when it stood for "Music Television." Many people today would be surprised to learn that MTV ever had anything to do with music. These days, MTV is better known as the source of reality shows like "The Jersey Shore." And now, here's something else that has nothing to do with music that you can think of when you think MTV: Conjugating verbs! When you think MTV, think "mood, tense, and voice."

Probably the most familiar of these three words is tense. Even people who never had any use for grammar in school usually know this word, and know for example, that sneaks is in the present tense, whereas sneaked or snuck is a past tense.

Somewhat less familiar is the word voice, and even people who know it are often on shaky on what it is. Typically, they have learned that there is such a thing as a "passive voice," which should be avoided because it's weak, or wordy, or vaguely disreputable because it avoids assigning responsibility for an action. Unfortunately, that's sometimes all they remember about the passive voice, with the result that they label as passive anything they deem weak, wordy, or weaselly. It has become something of a sport for the linguists at Language Log to call out writers who do this — critics who quote three, four, five, even seven phrases from a speech or piece of writing and disparage their use of passive voice. Usually not a single one of them will actually be passive, while the article in which the critic makes these rebukes will contain plenty of true passives of its own.

Least familiar of the three is the word mood, at least in its grammar sense. Even when I was telling a friend about writing this article, when I talked about the kind of meaning distinctions that mood showed, she asked, "But how does your mood have anything to do with that?" So I present here, in one place, an overview of MTV.

Mood

The grammatical term mood comes from the Latin modus, which means "way," with the o changing to oo during the Great Vowel Shift between Middle and Modern English. The homonym mood meaning state of mind is a native English word, but the OED speculates that some of its meaning rubbed off on the Latinate mood. In other words, my friend's question was not so off base after all. But in that case, how does one's mood have anything to do with a verb's meaning? A verb's mood shows, if you will, what kind of message the speaker has in mind for the sentence. Is it stating a fact? Expressing a command or a wish? A condition? It's a pretty weak connection, but there it is.

Depending on whom you consult, English has three, four, or maybe even five moods. Or just one, with the merest vestige of another, if you ask the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. The "ordinary" mood is the indicative. Sentences in the indicative mood make statements or ask questions. With one exception, every sentence in this article so far has been in the indicative mood. Some of you may have learned four types of sentences in junior high school or later: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. If so, you can think of indicative mood as corresponding to declarative or interrogative sentences.

The one sentence that was not in the indicative mood above was think "mood, tense, and voice." That was an imperative sentence, issuing a command (although not a very strong one: I'm not going to check for compliance on whether you are thinking "mood, tense, and voice" when you think "MTV"). Imperative sentences correspond to the imperative mood.

In addition to indicative and imperative, there is also the subjunctive mood. This is the mood that most often the cause of a grammar discussion about verb mood, just because it's so unlike the others. It's also the most popular one to mention in punch lines like, "A lot of people have asked me that. But that's the first time I ever heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive." Subjunctives are so off the beaten path that modern language arts textbooks don't even have a sentence type corresponding to them: They're neither declarative, nor interrogative, nor imperative, nor exclamatory.

The subjunctive mood is used to talk about situations or events that might not come true. The most common places to hear subjunctive verbs are in somewhat formal sentences with verbs like ask, beg, and command, as in She asks that he not come. There are two things that tip us off that something funny is going on with come. First of all, it's not in the usual third-person singular form comes. Second, it's negated without the do or does that comes standard with ordinary negations. Why isn't the sentence She asks that he doesn't come? As with the imperative, the differences stand out even more when the verb is be: She asks that he not be there. These are usually called present subjunctives.

Another place to look for present subjunctives is in archaic, frozen expressions, often in religious contexts: God bless you, Heaven forbid, be it known, thy kingdom come, perish the thought!

The most common place to find other subjunctives is in a conditional sentence, but not just any conditional sentence. It has to be one talking about a situation that is unlikely, or even different from reality. It can refer to the present time, in which case would use a past-tense subjunctive, which is identical to a past-tense indicative; for example, If I had enough money.... (More specifically, it's identical to a past-tense plural indicative, as seen in conditionals such as If I were you...., instead of If I was you....) Or it can refer to the past time, in which case you'd use a past perfect-tense: If I had had enough money.... (Pluperfect, by the way, is another name for past perfect, so that last clause contained an actual pluperfect subjunctive.) It can even refer to the future, but again, for unlikely situations: If I bought a new car next week.... In earlier stages of Modern English, you'd find present-tense subjunctives in conditionals, too, as in Patrick Henry's famous line, "If this be treason, make the most of it!" Nowadays that sentence would probably just use an indicative is.

Unlike the other moods, the English subjunctive is a strange grab-bag of uses. As things stand today, the present subjunctive is used only in commands or fossilized expressions expressing wishes, and never in conditionals. The past and past perfect subjunctives are only used in conditionals, never in commands. To make matters worse, some people consider verb phrases that use modal auxiliaries subjunctive, too: I would buy a new car; I would have bought a new car; if I should buy a new car.... I won't try to settle that issue here; just suffice it to say (another subjunctive!) that subjunctive is a mood, not a tense or a voice—at least in the traditional way of dividing things up. For an eye-opening new way of looking at the whole situation, I recommend a careful reading and re-reading of CGEL, in the pages indexed under mood.

Tense

Verb tense tells at what time the action took place (or didn't take place), or when the situation held true (or didn't). This makes sense, given that the word comes from the Old French tens, which developed into modern French as temps, and means time. The take-away point here, then, is that if you're not talking about a meaning related to time, then you probably need to use one of the other MTV words, and not tense.

In English, there are three main tenses: past, present, and future. For each of these simple tenses there's a compound tense using the auxiliary verb have: past perfect (had done), present perfect (have done), and future perfect (will have done). Then there are the progressive tenses, with the auxiliary verb be and the present participle: past (was doing), present (is doing), and future (will have done). And then there are the perfect progressive tenses, which use all three! Had been doing, have been doing, will have been doing.

But complicating the picture, there are quasi-tenses such as the habitual past used to do, and immediate (or not so immediate) future is going to do. And what do you call a future tense that has been backshifted, as in She said she would be here tomorrow? Considerations like these have led the authors of the CGEL to conclude that we need to recognize the difference between time and tense. All languages can express time. Some do it with tense, and some (such as Chinese) don't. Those that do use tense, such as English, may also use other means, such as words like used to, or the modal auxiliaries will and would. One claim that will rock the world of anyone who has gotten comfortable with grammar as taught in traditional grammar books: English has no future tense! Sure, it can talk about future time, but it does it with the present tense (we leave tomorrow), or workarounds like is going to and the modal auxiliary will. She will be here tomorrow? Present tense. And the formerly troublesome She said she would be here tomorrow? Not a problem anymore: would be is in the past tense, not to express past time, but just because English uses the past tense to accomplish the required backshifting in sentences like these.

Voice

Whereas mood is about what kind of message the speaker is sending, and tense is about time, voice is about agents and patients, and who gets to be the subject of the verb. In traditional grammars, English has two voices: active and passive.

In the active voice, the agent of the verb gets to be the subject. For example, the verb jump has an agent: the jumper. So Dan jumped is in the active voice, because the subject is Dan, and Dan is the jumper. The verb slap has an agent (the slapper) and a patient (the slapped). He slapped me is in the active voice, because the subject he refers to the slapper.

Here's where things get potentially confusing: Some verbs don't have agents at all. Die has a patient: the person or thing who dies. Since there is no agent, the patient is free to be the subject: They died. I repeat: This sentence is in the active voice! The guideline above should be amended: In active voice, the verb's agent, if there is one, gets to be the subject.

In the passive voice, a verb with both an agent and a patient has the patient as the subject. The way it's formed in English is to have a linking verb (be, become, get) followed by the past participle. There is no passive counterpart to Dan jumped, because there is no patient to get promoted to subject. Nor is there a passive counterpart to They died, because the patient is already the subject. To get a passive verb, you need one with both an agent and a patient, such as slap. I was slapped is in the passive voice, because the subject I refers to the one who got slapped. The slapper, if you mention him at all, is relegated to a by phrase: I was slapped by him. However, there's a good chance you won't mention the agent, since a primary reason for using passive voice is that you don't know or don't care about the agent. For that reason, passive sentences are often not longer, but shorter than their active-voice counterparts.

There are also adjectival passives, as in the slapped child. Even though there's no linking verb here, the noun that slapped modifies, child, is still the patient.

In addition to active and passive, many linguists recognize a middle voice in English, in light of phrases like the soup that eats like a meal, or she scares easily. The verb form is active—eats and scares, not is eaten or gets scared—but the subject is what gets eaten or scared, not what does the eating or scaring. (Technically, there is no subject for eats in this example, but the noun that the relative clause modifies, soup, is understood to function as its subject.) Other languages have separate verb forms for middle voice, instead of just using their active forms, as English does.

I got my MTV!

Now that you've been properly introduced or reacquainted with mood, tense, and voice, we can have some real fun. Let's make a conditional sentence with a passive-voice past perfect progressive subjunctive in the if-clause:

            If we had been being followed all that time, I would have noticed.

How about that, eh?

Uh-oh. I just remembered. There's one more property of verbs that linguists talk about: aspect. Aspect covers the difference between, among other things, was followed, had been followed, and had been being followed, which I lumped together under tense. Too bad! There's no A in MTV, so you'll have to find out about aspect on your own!


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 31st 2010, 4:01 AM
Comment by: Steve V.
4 in the morning on two ambiens was not the proper time to read this, but nonetheless, I learned several things, and will have to re-read MTV to pick up what slipped through my swiss cheese brain. Thanks for sharing,though.
Tuesday August 31st 2010, 7:01 AM
Comment by: Robert D. (Kalamazoo, MI)
Glad you remembered aspect at the end... "Tense" as we usually use the term is a combination of time and aspect. It's really more important to know about than mood.
Tuesday August 31st 2010, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I am studying French currently, and one of the fun things about it is teasing apart the various tenses and what their equivalents in English are. Thanks for a great precis of the categories that English verb forms fall into!
Tuesday August 31st 2010, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Ah, you're making this way too complicated!

Mood is what the cows did.

Tense is what campers sleep in.

Voice is a section of a song sung in New Jersey, as in "The thoid voice of that song has the woist woids I've ever hoid."

Now, isn't that nice and simple? You're welcome!

Sincerely,
The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday August 31st 2010, 9:15 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Fantastic article! Thank you. I'm so tired of explaining this to people (I am retired, after all). I'm saving this. I'll just pull out a few quotes when the topic arises.

Mood is difficult to get across. Particularly with the 'if I were...' So hard to get people used to!

We turned tense into games in Junior High classes, making sentences as obtuse as we could -- just to show what could be done with the complications of English expression of it.

Voice -- I'll leave it to the author of this column now! LOL

Again, thanks for this exposition.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Many thanks for this. I'm a novelist by occupation, and therefore lousy at knowing WHY I say things the way I do. Tasered by editors into complience, shall we say? But the lacunae (did I get that right? Huh? Huh?) in my education are huge enough to fall into and never be found. This gave me clues toward understanding my own hard-learned style of writing. So many thanks from an instinctual word-smith. Some day I might actually learn to spell!

No - that would be like a caterpiller thinking about which leg . . .

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