Inappropriate Shifts in Verb Voice and Mood

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  • 0:02 Active and Passive Voice
  • 2:33 Shifts in Verb Voice
  • 4:48 Types of Mood
  • 6:35 Avoiding Shifts in Mood
  • 7:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

If a person's attitude or tone of voice is constantly changing, he or she can be hard to read or understand. This can be applied to how we write. To communicate clearly, we need to recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb voice and mood.

Active and Passive Voice

If you've ever known someone who acts like he or she doesn't care one minute but is angry and sarcastic the next, but then switches back to being unconcerned, you know that those sudden attitude shifts can be confusing. Similarly, when we're writing an essay or research paper, we don't want to create unnecessary shifts in verb voice or mood because then we will confuse our readers.

So let's start with verb voice to make sure we understand the differences between active and passive voice. The voice of a verb is either active, meaning the subject is doing the verb's action, or passive, the subject is acted upon.

In most English sentences with an action verb, the subject performs the verb's action, so these sentences are written in active voice. For example, 'Mary fed the kitten.' Mary is the subject, and she is doing the feeding because 'fed' is the verb.

Here's another one: 'Mischievous monkeys live in the jungle.' Monkeys are the subject, and they are performing the act of living in the jungle, since 'live' is the verb. Because the subject in both sentences is doing the verb's action, these sentences are written in active voice.

We can change many sentences from active to passive voice so that the subject is no longer active but is being acted upon by the verb. In order to change a sentence from active to passive voice, it needs to contain a direct object. A direct object is a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that shows what or who receives the action of a transitive verb.

So in the sentence 'Mary fed the kitten,' the kitten is the direct object because it receives the action of feeding. We can change this sentence from active to passive voice by writing, 'The kitten was fed by Mary.' Now the subject is the kitten, and it is being acted upon by the verb 'fed.'

The active sentence 'Mischievous monkeys live in the jungle' can't be changed to passive voice because 'live,' which means to occupy a home, is an intransitive verb because it doesn't need a direct object to complete its meaning. It's a complete action all by itself. Live can stand alone just like other intransitive verbs, such as run or sleep. Also, this sentence doesn't have a direct object. There isn't a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun receiving the action of a transitive verb. So it can only be written in active voice, not passive voice.

Shifts in Verb Voice

When a sentence has two or more verbs, both verbs should stay in the same voice. Inappropriate shifts in verb voice from active to passive or vice versa can really be confusing to the reader. So let's look at some examples in order to avoid this common mistake.

'When Jim turned on the microwave, a crackling sound was heard.' The verb 'turned' is in active voice, but then 'was heard' is in passive voice, so there's an obvious shift to passive voice. To fix this, we would rewrite the sentence to say, 'When Jim turned on the microwave, he heard a crackling sound.' Now both verbs are in active voice and the sentence is written clearly.

It is generally preferable to use the active voice over the passive voice. Sentences in active voice tend to flow more smoothly and are easier to understand. Here's an example that illustrates this: 'That article is being read by the entire class.' This sentence is written in the passive voice with the article as the subject, but the class is doing the reading. To make this clearer, we can rewrite it as, 'The entire class is reading that article.' Now it is in the active voice with the class as the subject, and the article is directly receiving the action of reading.

In some cases, the passive voice may be a better choice, but only when the doer of the action is unknown, unwanted, or not needed in the sentence. Here are a couple of sentences that work better in passive voice: 'The exams have been graded.' 'Sometimes our efforts go unnoticed.' The first sentence is written in passive voice because who graded the exams isn't said, but it is automatically understood that teachers graded the exams and stating that isn't necessary. The second sentence, also in passive voice, communicates how the speaker, presumably a teacher, feels about his or her work and how little he/she feels it's appreciated. The goal here is to emphasize the efforts that don't get recognized rather than to focus on who doesn't recognize them, so this is purposefully written in passive voice.

Types of Mood

The mood shows the writer's intentions and attitude. Changing from one mood to another in the same essay or research paper can also disrupt the feel of the writing and confuse the reader. First, let's review the three types of moods, and then we will see how problematic it can be to shift moods.

The indicative mood indicates something by making a statement, asking a question, or exclaiming something. For example, 'Isabella leaves tomorrow' is written in the indicative mood because it is a statement of fact.

'Will Isabella return soon?' is written in the indicative mood because it asks a question. 'Isabella is so tall now!' is an exclamatory sentence that is also written in the indicative mood.

The imperative mood gives a command or makes a request. 'Eat whatever your grandmother makes for dinner' is a command written in the imperative mood because it is telling the implied 'you' what to do.

'Please be good while staying with your grandparents' is a request that is being asked of the implied 'you,' which doesn't need to be stated because it is already understood.

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