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by Cherie Tucker

Let’s do a brief review, because we still seem to be having trouble with our verb tenses. Here’s a little song to help you with those tricky past participles that require helper verbs (called auxiliary verbs by the nuns). Sing it lustily to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”:
       Am, Is, Are, Was, Were,
       Do, Did, Have, Has, Had,
       May, Can, Might,
       Could, Would, Should
       Are auxiliary verbs.

The construction requiring these little helpers arises when you are talking about something that

  • Was started in the past and is continuing or was recently completed.

       (She has always mispronounced that word.)
       (They have just finished paving the driveway.)

  • Was finished before something else was completed.

       (They had cut the cake before we got there.)

  • Would be finished before a future happening.

       (It will have burnt to a crisp by then.)

Be careful not to put these helpers in front of verbs that simply show that the action was completed in the past. Too often we hear dreadful things like “I shoulda took the bus” or “I wish I’d of went with you.”  Look out as well for verbs that need the helper verbs and can’t stand alone.  It’s sink, sank, have sunk, but news reports invariably say “The boat sunk.” It didn’t.  It sank

Here are some of the most common misspoken verbs :

  • Drink  It’s drink, drank, have drunk.  I wish I hadn’t drunkso much last night.

  • Swim  It’s swim, swam, have swum. He’s never swumthat fast before.

  • Dive  It’s dive, dived, have dived Not dive, dove, have diven!  (Dove is making its way into our ever-evolving language but shouldn’t be used in formal writing.)

  • Shrink  It’s shrink, shrank, have shrunk.  Yes, the movie should have been Honey, I Shrank the Kids.

We’ll do lie/lay at length next time, but for now remember that lie describes inaction. Things at rest just lie there and don’t do anything to anything else.  Lay describes the action of doing something to something else.  Hens lay eggs.  Consequently, if you say that you are laying down, you’ve told us you’re producing feathers, which could be a lie.  

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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