Avoiding Grammar Nazis: A Grammar Jew’s Survival Guide Volume 2

One of my followers posted this comment on the article about word usage I posted yesterday:

How about “He was sat on a bench” or “She was stood at the bus stop”? These are mistakes that are creeping into the language. I’ve even seen them written in daily newspaper columns. Shocking!

In response to her queries, I decided to write this article concerning two grammatical issues that I often see on the Internet: (1) the confusion between the passive and the active voice of the verb and (2) the erroneous verb tense construction in a sentence. And I will answer the question above after the discussion, which most probably will be a bit long.

Active vs. Passive Voice of the Verb

The active voice of the verb tells us what the subject does, or what the subject does to the object (if the verb of the sentence requires an object). Between the two, this is the one that we use the most.

Kirby is walking. Kirby walks to work every day. Kirby walked to work yesterday.

Kirby is walking his dog. Kirby walks his dog every afternoon. Kirby walked his dog yesterday afternoon.

It is really not that difficult to construct a sentence with the active verb since it is widely used.

The passive voice of the verb, however, is quite tricky. As opposed to the active voice, the passive verb tells us what happens to the subject of the sentence, or what the agent of the verb does to the subject; however, in most cases, the agent of the verb is less important than the action being done to the subject—with or without the agent of the verb, the thought of the action would be complete nonetheless.

The door has been painted by Kirby. The door was painted by Kirby. The door is being painted by Kirby.

The door has been painted. The door was painted. The door is being painted.

How is the passive voice formed?

Forming the passive voice of the verb is not really as difficult as it seems. It follows the order:

subject + auxiliary (helping) verb [AV] + past participle of the main verb [MV] (+ agent of the verb)

However, only the AV changes its form but the MV stays the same as the verb tense changes.

Tense

Subject

Auxiliary

Past Participle

Singular

Plural

Past Simple The door[s] was were painted.
Past Progressive The door[s] was being were being painted.
Past Perfect Simple The door[s] had been had been painted.
Present Simple The door[s] is are painted.
Present Progressive The door[s] is being are being painted.
Present Perfect Simple The door[s] has been have been painted.
Future Simple The door[s] will be will be painted.
Future Perfect Simple The door[s] will have been will have been painted.

As you have noticed, there are some verb tenses that are not included in the table. Although some grammar books include all the verb tenses in the passive verb construction rules, I personally suggest to only use the above tenses when using passive voice of the verb. Also, spare the use of passive voice. Use it only to call emphasis to the action being done to the subject. Avoid using it too much as, more often than not, it introduces misreading, misconception, and/or confusion. Try to stick with the active voice if the agent of the verb is known; use only the passive voice if the agent of the verb is unknown.

In addition, the type of verb used is of grave importance when changing active sentences to passive. Basically, if the main verb used in an active sentence is intransitive—that is, it does not require any object to complete its thought—there is no way that it can directly be changed into a passive sentence.

She arrived yesterday. (intransitive)

She sat on the chair. (chair is the object of the preposition on and not the direct object)

In both sentences, intransitive verbs are used, changing the voice of those sentences without changing the verb is impossible.

In some cases, however, some verbs are ditransitive—that is, they can either be transitive or intransitive depending on the sentence pattern they are used in.

She sang the song. (transitive verb, active voice)
The song was sang by her. (transitive verb, passive voice)
She sang at the pub last night. (intransitive verb, active only)

In conclusion, only active sentences with transitive verbs can be changed into passive sentences.

Verb Tenses

Tense is the “inflectional form of a verb expressing a specific time distinction.” With regard to the form, there are four categories: simple, progressive, perfect simple, and perfect progressive. With regard to time, of course, there are three: past, present, and future. So basically, we have twelve verb tenses in the English language—four forms for each time.

The Past Tense

  1. Past Simple. Past simple tense expresses an action or situation that was started and finished in the past; it is a completed action. Most past tense verbs end in –d or –ed. The irregular verbs have special past tense forms which must be memorized. For negatives, simply use did not plus the base form of the verb.

Kirby walked [did not walk] to work yesterday.

Tony drank [did not drink] too much eggnog that he now suffers an upset stomach.

  1. Past Progressive. This tense describes a past action, which was happening when another action occurred, or two past actions happening simultaneously. This tense is formed by using was/were with the verb form ending in –ing. For negatives, simply insert not between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.

I was reading [was not reading] Shakespeare when it began to rain.

I was cooking dinner while my other siblings were arguing what show to watch on TV.

  1. Past Perfect Simple. This tense describes an action that took place in the past before another past action began. This tense is formed by using had with the past participle of the verb. For negatives, simply insert not between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.

Somebody had broken [had not broken] into my flat when [before] I arrived home yesterday.

  1. Past Perfect Progressive. It expresses longer actions in the past before another action in the past. This tense is formed with had been together with the –ing form of the verb. For negatives, simply insert not between the had and been.

Ram started waiting at 9:00AM; I arrived at 11:00AM. When I arrived, Ram had been waiting [had not been waiting] for two hours.

The Present Tense

  1. Present Simple. Present simple tense expresses an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action or situation that exists only now. It can also represent a widespread truth. The form is simple: add –s or –es to the verb if the subject is singular; retain the base form (bare infinitive) of the verb if the subject is plural. For negatives, use does not (singular) or do not (plural) and the base form of the verb.

The mountains stand [do not stand] tall and white.. (unchanging action)

Every year, the school council elects [does not elect] new members.     (recurring action)

Teachers work [do not work] in schools and academies. (widespread truth)

  1. Present Progressive Tense. This describes an ongoing action that is happening at the same time the statement is made. It can also be used to express an action that was started in the past, but is not yet completed. This tense is formed by using am/is/are with the verb form ending in –ing. The negative is formed by simply inserting not after the “be” verb.

You are reading this post right now.

I am reading a book about demigods. (not actually now, but I started it in the past, and I am not yet finished reading it)

  1. Present Perfect Simple Tense. It describes an action that happened at an indefinite time in the past or that began in the past and continues in the present. This is often used to express a person’s experience in life when the time of the action of event is not expressed. This tense is formed by using has/have with the past participle of the verb. Most past participles end in -ed. Irregular verbs have special past participles that must be memorized. The negatives are formed by inserting not after the auxiliary verbs has and have.

The researchers have traveled to many countries in order to collect more significant data. (at an indefinite time)

John has been to Japan ten times in his life now. (personal experience)

Women have voted in presidential elections since 1921. (continues in the present)

  1. Present Perfect Progressive Tense. This tense describes an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. This tense is formed by using has/have been and the present participle of the verb (the verb form ending in -ing). The negatives are formed by inserting not after the auxiliary verbs has and have.

The CEO has been considering [has not been considering] a transfer to the state of Texas where profits would be larger.

The Future Tense

  1. Future Simple Tense. Future tense expresses an action or situation that will occur in the future. This tense is formed by using will/shall with the simple form of the verb.

The speaker of the House will finish her term in May of 1998.

The future tense can also be expressed by using amis, or are with going to.

The surgeon is going to perform the first bypass in Minnesota.

However, there is a difference between the two. The use of will/shall denotes that the decision of the action was made during the time the statement was expressed. The use of am/is/are with going to denotes that the action is prearranged—simply, the decision was made prior to the expression of the statement.

  1. Future Progressive Tense. It describes an ongoing or continuous action that will take place in the future. This tense is formed by using will be or shall be with the verb form ending in -ing.

Dr. Jones will be presenting an ongoing research on sexist language next week.

  1. Future Perfect Simple Tense. This tense describes an action that will occur in the future before some other action. This tense is formed by using will have with the past participle of the verb.

Before the day ends, I will have posted this article on my blog.

By the time my mother arrives, I will have cooked dinner for myself.

Before December of this year, I will have bought a new laptop for myself.

  1. Future Perfect Progressive Tense. It describes a future, ongoing action that will occur before some specified future time. This tense is formed by using will have been and the present participle of the verb (the verb form ending in -ing).

By the year 2020, linguists will have been studying and defining the Indo-European language family for more than 200 years.

By May of this year, I will have been working for my company for a year.

 

I know I have mentioned some verbs that take irregular past participles. I cannot fit them in this blog, so simply click here for a list.

Now, to answer the question stated in the onset of this article. The first sentence (He was sat on a bench), could either be correct or incorrect. That would depend on the context. If it means that somebody made him sit on a bench, then, it would be correct (but I guess, it would be more correct to say “He was seated on a bench”). If it means that he sat there sometime in the past, then, it would be wrong. It would either be “He was sitting on a bench” or “He sat on a bench.” The second sentence? Honestly, I tried understanding it, but it seemed to burn my brain. “She was stood at the bus stop.” This, to me, simply makes no sense. My first thought was “She was stood up at the bus stop”? But, maybe no. So I would say, this sentence is better phrased as “She was standing at the bus stop” or “She stood at the bus stop.” The surrounding text would help the writer or the reader determined which of the two tenses is more appropriate.

If you have any other questions with regard to grammar, such as this, do not hesitate to post them in the comment section below.

7 thoughts on “Avoiding Grammar Nazis: A Grammar Jew’s Survival Guide Volume 2

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