Grammar and Punctuation: Verbs

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1. Subject-Verb Agreement

2. Verb Tense

3. Passive and Active Voice

A verb is the part of the sentence that describes the action, the occurrence, or state of an object. For the purposes of writing academic papers, the key terms to remember are “agreement” and “consistency.”

1. Subject-Verb Agreement

If a subject of the sentence contains two or more nouns or pronouns, it is important that the verb agree with the plural subject. While a sentence containing a single subject might correctly read “John is going to the store,” a sentence containing a plural subject (or two subjects) should read “Anna and John are going to the store.” Here, the “to be” verb has been altered from the singular “is” to the plural “are.”

2. Verb Tense

One of the biggest mistakes that students make, often unintentionally, is to change tense throughout the course of their papers. This can be confusing for the reader. As a general rule, most non-narrative writing is written in the simple past (I wrote) or simple present (I write).

Use present tense to relate the events of a piece of fiction (play, short story, novel) because the events, in effect, continue to happen every time someone reads the text.

EXAMPLE
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers inhabit a typical Green
World.

Use past tense to refer to an author or an author’s ideas as historical entities.

EXAMPLE
Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1595 or 1596.

Use present tense to state facts and to refer to continuing actions. This differs from the present perfect tense (I have written), which describes action occurring before the time of the narration. It can also be used to narrate action that began in real life in the past but is not completed, may continue, or may be repeated in the present or future.

EXAMPLE
Psychologists continue to assess the impact of the digital age on childhood
behavior.

3. Passive and Active Voice

Passive constructions are those in which something other than the subject is doing the action. Because of this inherent confusion, passive voice is weak and should only be used for a specific and clear stylistic or rhetorical purpose. You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of the "to be" verb, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. Remember that these are not mutually exclusive: while the "to be" verb is required for passive voice, just because a sentence has a "to be" construction does not mean that it is passive.

EXAMPLE
Passive voice:
        The ball was kicked.
Active voice:
        The children kicked the ball.
In the active voice sentence, there is no question about who is kicking the ball.

Active voice sentence constructions are clearer, more concise, and more direct because the subject is, in fact, doing the action of the verb and nothing is implied or left unsaid.