Talking About Language: Tense, Aspect, Voice, and Mood
The words tense, aspect, voice, and mood, help us to organize and understand language. As an ESL teacher in the classroom, I have only frequently used tense. In trying to understand language better, however, the other three are helpful. How do these words differ?
Tense refers to when an action or event takes place – whether it happened in the past, is happening in the present, or will happen in the future. It helps us understand the timeline of events in a sentence. For example, in the sentence "She pressed the enter key," the word "pressed" indicates that the action happened in the past.
Aspect helps us understand whether an action is ongoing, completed, repeated, or has a connection to another point in time. There are four aspects in English: simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive. In the sentence "They were playing soccer," the aspect is continuous, indicating an ongoing action.
In teaching English, it is common to extend the meaning of tense to include that of aspect as well. This simplification helps learners focus on what is important. As a result, learners are usually taught that English has twelve tenses as opposed to three tenses across four aspects.
Discussion practice sets for each of the “twelve tenses” are linked in this post, Discussion Practice for Verb Tenses.
Mood expresses the attitude or intention of the speaker towards the action or event. It helps convey whether the statement is a fact, a possibility, a command, or a wish. The most common mood in English is the indicative, which is used to state facts. Other moods include the imperative, for giving commands, and the subjunctive, for expressing possibilities or wishes.
In teaching English, we don’t really need to talk about mood. In my experience, it only comes up to explain the unusual effect of words like ‘suggest’ in the following example:
I suggest he redo his application. (not redoes)
Even then, teachers might choose not to mention the words subjunctive or mood.
Voice determines whether the subject of a sentence is performing the action (active voice) or receiving the action (passive voice). It affects the sentence's focus and structure. For example, in the active voice sentence "The cat chased the mouse," the subject "cat" is performing the action, whereas in the passive voice sentence "The mouse was chased by the cat," the subject "mouse" is receiving the action.