The Verb that Keeps Going


When I was in Germany, I interviewed to teach English as a second language long before I had credentials. This was in (pause for effect) 1992.  I had helped in a few EFL classrooms but never studied English grammar the way a second language teacher would. The young beautiful woman interviewing smiled as she asked me questions. I wasn’t stressed.  I would have been if I’d known how little I knew about teaching.

“So,” she said, “What’s the difference between the simple present and the present continuous?” She still smiled. I got the feeling that she was proving herself right about my lack of grammatical know-how.

“Excuse me?” I asked. I thought Mr. Sharrar had once said something about the tenses in 11th grade at Auburn High School. But I wasn’t sure.

“If I say, ‘I use the pen,’ how is that different from ‘I am using the pen?'” she asked, the smile still reassuring me that even though she knew I would get this wrong, I’d still get the job.

“Uh…” And here my memory fails me. I think I said something ridiculous like using the pen is faster. I can’t be sure. 1992 was, after all, a long time ago. Most native speakers don’t know what they are telling themselves and each other when they use these two different tenses. That’s why they confuse the continuous with passive voice when they are writing. The good news is that, while passive voice is not something you want to use often in your writing, the continuous is a good strong way to express yourself.

If you are like me in 1992, however; you might need some explanation to understand just what that interviewer was talking about.

Continuous verbs (also called ‘progressive’ in some grammar books) describe action that is happening right now or that take some sort of progression to complete. For example, ‘I am using the pen’ describes me using the pen in this present moment whereas ‘I use the pen’ can describe a pen I use on a regular basis but not necessarily right now.

Another explanation is of the baby who ‘sleeps.’ Maybe she isn’t sleeping right now but she sleeps every night and doesn’t wake her mother up every two hours. In comparison, if you say the baby ‘is sleeping’ she has her eyes closed right now and is asleep.

More explanation and practice:



These explanations and practices are mostly for people studying English as a second language or trying to teach it. Writers, however, sometimes confuse the continuous with passive because it has the ‘to be’ verb. I did not find websites with a comparison of the passive voice and the continuous tense but here is a quick layout to help you get it:

Continuous = to be + ing and involves and action currently happening

Passive = to be + past participle

In case you wondered, I did get that job teaching English even though I needed much more grammatical knowledge than I had at the time. I remind myself of this when I feel the urge to squint my eyes at young or retired people who cruise the world, getting English teaching jobs without knowing what they are getting into. We all start somewhere. I’m just glad I took the time to figure out what I was doing and hope others will do the same.

On Barking and Passing the Action


When my family and I moved into a new home, many of our neighbors greeted us. The two families on either side of us welcomed us, told us all about the neighborhood watch and made sure we had the phone numbers of the neighborhood on a gridded map.  One neighbor noticed our dog Remington and introduced us to his. He said to be sure to let us know if Moose’s barking bothered us. We agreed and asked him to do the same if our dog bothered him. We kept our dog inside when we went to work. We didn’t think Remi would be a problem, but were happy to be in such a friendly place.

About a month later, I opened a letter from the Humane Society. A neighbor had called to complain. The letter stated that our dog was a problem. If we didn’t stop his barking, the authorities would issue us a $100 dollar ticket. It went on to explain that dog barking could be corrected, and it was important we keep our neighbors happy. My heart beat up into my throat. My face, I’m sure, flushed the bright red that lets everyone know when I’m upset. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors report us instead of just telling me. I couldn’t understand when my dog was barking when he was inside all day.  How could he be bothering anyone?

After asking around, I found out that it was a neighbor in the far corner. They had told someone else that our dog barked at 5:30 when I let him out each morning. This woke them up since it was next to their bedroom at the corner of our yard. Of course, I stopped letting him stay out until he barked and made sure he came in. But I never much liked those neighbors who tattled on me instead of asking me directly. They didn’t speak to me themselves. They had someone else do it for them. Because they told me indirectly, I had to work to know when exactly my dog was bothering them. They were ‘passive.’ As it turns out, no one much likes passivity in writing, either.

The Passive Voice in Grammar

Much like my neighbors passed the action on to the animal shelter, the passive voice in grammar hides the ‘agent’ of the sentence. The object of a sentence becomes the subject. This sounds crazy but here is an example to help explain:

The Ridgeback dog caught the ball.

Subject = The Ridgeback

Verb = caught

Object = the ball

The ball was caught by the Ridgeback dog.

Subject = The ball

Verb = was caught

Object (agent) = by the Ridgeback dog

The passive voice always has a form of ‘to be’ together with the past participle (3rd form of the verb).  Be careful not to think of passive as any construction with the verb ‘to be.’ The continuous tenses also have ‘to be’ but are not always passive. Next week I’ll come up with another fascinating grammar tale to explain the continuous.

I like to think of politicians and executives who have done wrong when I think about the passive voice. “The bill was passed,” said Mr. Schmo the politico. “The money was stolen by someone,” said the executive in the congressional hearing. People often use the passive voice to cover up who did something other people may not like.

Sometimes the purpose is less nefarious. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter who did something. For example: “The building was built in 1972.” It wouldn’t help anyone to know the names of all the construction workers involved in the project.

If you’d like to know more and practice in order to wrap your neurons around the idea, here are a few sites with more examples and exercises:

Basic Description

Examples with all the English Tenses

Easy Exercise to Explain the Idea to Your Brain

More Difficult Exercise to Practice Writing Skills

The last exercise is especially helpful because many of the sentences are not passive and some work well in the passive voice. Sometimes passive works in writing and in the rest of life. The practice of writing and rewriting gives you choices when you understand how to use the language.

Like the neighbors who didn’t deal with me directly, passive often leaves a reader feeling like the writer should have told you something she didn’t. Understanding what it looks like by breaking it down can help you give your readers more clarity. And clarity pulls a reader into the writing more completely. Test a few sentences and see whether you feel more like you’ve gotten a letter from the humane society or if you feel like your neighbor let you know what was happening with your dog.