Mood vs. Tense

By Maeve Maddox

Judging by comments I’ve read on this and other language sites, many people are not quite clear as to the difference between the grammatical terms mood and tense. For example, I’ve seen such expressions as “subjunctive tense” and “progressive mood.”

Because both tense and mood have to do with verbs, the confused terminology is understandable. Tense, however, refers to time, whereas mood refers to manner of expression.

Tense
The three possible divisions of time are past, present, and future. For each, there is a corresponding verb tense:

Present: He walks now.
Past: Yesterday he walked.
Future: Tomorrow he will walk.

Each of these tenses has a corresponding complete tense: perfect, past perfect (pluperfect), and future perfect:

Perfect: He has walked every morning since Monday.
Past Perfect: He had walked a mile by the time we joined him.
Future Perfect: By tomorrow, he will have walked twenty miles.

Each of these tenses has a continuous or progressive form:

Present Continuous: I am still walking.
Past Continuous: I was still walking when you phoned.
Future Continuous: I shall/will be walking when you reach town.
Perfect Continuous: I have been walking since early morning.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been walking for an hour when you phoned.
Future Perfect Continuous: When you see me, I shall have been walking for six hours.

Mood
Mood is the form of the verb that shows the mode or manner in which a thought is expressed. Mood distinguishes between an assertion, a wish, or a command. The corresponding moods are: Indicative (assertion), Subjunctive (wish), and Imperative (command).

Note: Unlike some languages, English does not have an “Interrogative Mood”; questions are formed by changing word order and not by altering the verb.

The word indicative derives from Latin indicare, “to declare or state.” Indicative Mood expresses an assertion, denial, or question about something:

Assertion: I liked him very much before he did that.
Denial: He is not going to remain on my list of friends.
Question: Will you continue to see him?

The word imperative derives from Latin imperare, “to command.” Imperative Mood expresses command, prohibition, entreaty, or advice:

Command: Go thou and do likewise.
Prohibition: Stay out of Mr. MacGregor’s garden!
Entreaty: Remember us in your prayers.
Advice: Beware of the dog.

The “true subjunctive” equivalent to the Latin Optative Mood (opare, “to wish”) is rare in modern English. Examples of the “true” subjunctive: “If I were king,” “God save the Queen!”

In most contexts dealing with unreal situations, speakers used a mixed subjunctive. The use of the auxiliaries may, might, should, and would creates a mixed subjunctive in which one verb is in subjunctive and another in indicative mood:

If I should see him, I will tell him.
He came that they might have life.

According to the Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar,

The distinctive subjunctive forms are now confined to the verb be and to the third-singular forms of other verbs; they are still common in American English, while in British English they are confined to very formal styles.

In American English, the subjunctive often occurs with the following verbs:

suggest: I suggest that she refuse his offer.
demand: They are demanding that he go to London for an interview.
propose: The father proposed that his son be locked up to teach him a lesson.
insist: We all insisted that he accept treatment.

British usage tends to use should in such constructions: I suggest that she should refuse his offer.

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13 Responses to “Mood vs. Tense”

  • Julie

    As a confirmed grammar geek, I loved this article. Thanks for the detailed explanations.

  • Scott Mellon

    “The distinctive subjunctive forms are now confined to the verb be and to the third-singular forms of other verbs; they are still common in American English, while in British English they are confined to very formal styles.”
    aha, that explains my typical Canadian confusion.

  • venqax

    Notice that it is the Americans who’ve kept the subjunctive most active, rather than the Brits who often accuse us of changing things, or doing lazy things like sticking a *should* in there to avoid the traditional subjunctive construction.

    The distinction between tense and mood revives a question I put a while ago about whether mood, specifically the subjunctive one, can be a matter of choice. IOW, can one say, “I wish I was in the land of cotton”, with the expressed intent of using the indicative mood to express a “wishful” state, rather than using the subjunctive, without being grammatically incorrect? If you want to express wishfulness is use of the subjunctive mandatory? Do you have to say “I am wishing I was in the land of cotton” in order to be indicative– or does that require **, too? Or, “I wish to be in the land of cotton?” Maybe using *to be* instead of *were* is simply an underhanded cheat. One need not be Canadian for this to confuse…one.

  • Curtis

    Maeve,
    Nice of you to define moods for us; I so seldom hear that spoken of. However, your assertion that “true subjunctive” is rare in modern use could not be further from the truth. After all, if “God save the Queen!” is an example, then “God **** that jerk!” (for the fool who cuts you off in traffic) must be as well.

  • thebluebird11

    Oy. I must have been absent when they taught this in school. This whole thing about tense and mood has made me tense and ruined my mood LOL 😉

  • Dale A. Wood

    Maeve, you have left out a mood in English, entirely:

    THE EMPHATIC MOOD. Note that many languages do not have an emphatic mood in their conjugations, and German is one of them.
    Future tense, emphatic mood: “Do work out your homework or you will face dire consequences.” The addition of the helping verb “do” is what makes this emphatic.
    In German and the other languages that do not have the emphatic mood, the same notion is expressed by using adverbs.

    Present tense, emphatic mood: “Do walk across the street carefully right now.” Past tense, emphatic mood: “I did eat my chicken slowly to avoid swallowing any bones.” Note that “I ate my chicken…” is in the simple past tense, but “I did eat my chicken…” makes the verb emphatic.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: It is a well known fact that the languages of colonized places are more conservative that are the concoctions of the “old home” places:
    1. Canadian French is more conservative than European French.
    2. Icelandic is more conservative that Norwegian or Danish are.
    In fact, people who are fluent readers of Icelanding can read the Icelandic writing of 800 years ago rather easily because the language has not changed very much. The writings of an Icelandic genius (of a writer) named Snurri Snurlson can be read by modern Icelanders easily. Those writings are the Icelandic Sagas that tell of the settlement of Iceland and Greenland by the Norsemen.
    3. Latin American Spanish is more conservative than the Spanish of Spain itself. In fact, I had a friend from Argentina (born and raised), whom I met in the United States. He told me that when he visited Spain on vacation, people in Spain giggled at him because he was speaking what was (to them) an antique form of Spanish. This was a quite intelligent man – a schoolteacher in Illinois. One example that he gave me was that he was using the informal and formal verisions of “you” as appropriate in South America. That distinction has just about died out in Spain, so the people there thought that he sounded funny.
    4. AMERICAN ENGLISH IS OFTEN MUCH MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN BRITISH ENGLISH IS, especially in the use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions. I also find Australian English to be more similar to American and Canadian English than to other kinds.

    5. Brazilian Portuguese is significantly different from the Portuguese of Portugal. I bet that the difference comes from more conservative forms of Portuguese here and there, but I cannot guarantee it.

    I don’t have direct evidence of some of these, but I believe that these languages have more conservative forms in most of the remote colonies:
    Dutch of the Netherlands vs. the Dutch of Indonesia.
    Portuguese of Portugal vs. the Portuguese of its former colonies in Africa and East Asia.
    Shoot – the Dutch of Indonesia might be a dead language by now…
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    What about “permissive mood” where the speaker grants permission. For example (I’m taking a chance with this!):
    “If there is extra cake, you may have a second piece.”
    “If I finish this project before the end of the shift, I will get to go home early.”
    “Let’s play some music.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Roberta B:
    Your “permissive mood” should be taken as a subset of the indicative mood.
    ——————————————————————-

    I also believe in the interrogatory mood – in spoken English if not in written English – and hence a disagree strongly with Maeve on this point.
    Also, in English, the interrogartory mood can be formed by using the auxiliary verb “do”, hence there is some of the imperative move gets mixed in. For example, “Do you believe in flying saucers?”
    Other languages such as German do not have “do” as an auxiliary verb – it simply does not exist. I will give you the word-for-word translation on the German sentence: “Believe you in flying saucers?”

    The sentence “Glauben Sie in UFOs, nicht wahr?” means “You believe in UFOs, don’t you?”, where some liberties have been taken in the translation so that it would make sense in English.
    (“nicht wahr?” is a German idiom)
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, I accidentally typed the word “a” instead of “I” in the clause that follows “hence”.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    @DAW: It is a well known fact that the languages of colonized places are sometimes more conservative than those of the home country. In some ways they are less conservative. American and British English meet these criteria. My point was simply to underline another example (as we’ve talked about on here before) of the fact that while some of the British (well, the English, specifically) here sometimes feel proprietary about the language because it “originated” in England it is in fact often others who have stayed true-to-course while they are the ones who’ve mangled things. Not always, but not seldom, either.

    Of course that is not the only reason it is ridiculous to think British English or English English has any claim of preeminence but it is a good one.

  • Pearson Brown

    For once, I disagree with you. Most modern grammar writers argue that there are only two tenses in English, past and present. We talk about the future using various modal verbs, including WILL, because we are usually talking about our perception of the future. The example you give above seems pretty nonsensical to me.

  • Christine

    Thanks author, that was a well brought up essay easy to read too.

    Thumbs up too to Dale A. Wood. I like the fact that he compares with the other languages as he explains the emphatic mood.

    It is true that most languages lack that mood. I am a student of French language, but I have have to realize that the French are quite commanding. They hardly express the emphatic mood.

    They may say, “Mangez bein.” To mean ” Eat well.” However, to sound emphatic, the English will say, “Do eat well.”
    Thanks!

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