Making Sense of Tenses

“If I was you, I wouldn’t have went there and did that.”

“This agency is ran by the Deaf.”

“I move that the board purchases a new computer.”

“It is mandatory that she is on time, and that she has fun and does a good job.”

Do the above phrases sound right to you? If you answered no, your ear is finely tuned to the proper use of tenses in English grammar. If you answered yes, or were unsure, you may be running the risk of annoying—or worse, confusing—your hearing audience, and making a Deaf person sound less educated than s/he is.

This article will cover two of the most often misused tenses in the English language: the past participle and the subjunctive. In some regional dialects, these tenses seem to have disappeared, but they are still very much a part of Standard English. Let’s look at the examples above to see if we can make more sense of them with the proper tenses.

“If I was you…”

You never were that person in the past, so you can’t use the past tense here. You need to use a conditional, or subjunctive. You can correct the above sentence by saying, “If I were you…” Just ask yourself, “am I talking about what was, or am I talking about the way things might be if they were different?”

“…I wouldn’t have went there and did that.”

What you need here is the past participle, not the past tense. Just remember that verb forms like “went” and “ran” can only be used alone; they cannot be placed adjacent to other verbs. You cannot use the past tense after such auxiliary verbs as “have” or “had.” You can only use it in such cases as “We went there and ran home.” There are different rules for “did,” like “I did go/do/take…,” but that’s another story. To correct the sentence above, you need to say “I wouldn’t have gone there and done that.”

“This agency is ran by the Deaf.”

What you have in this sentence is a use of passive voice, which requires the past participle verb form. Remember that you cannot use the past tense right next to other verbs. “Is,” in this case, is the main verb. To correct the above sentence, you need to say, “This agency is run by the Deaf.”

“I move that the board purchases a new computer.”

The moment you say “I move/suggest/propose,” you are indicating that whatever you are proposing is not happening at present; therefore, it makes no sense to use the present tense. Incidentally, it is also incorrect to say, “I move that the board should purchase a new computer.” Even if your motion is adopted, all you end up with is agreement that “the board should purchase a new computer.” Sure, they ought to, but will they? What you need here is the subjunctive. The subjunctive takes its form from the infinitive, which we hear in “to do, to have, to be,” etc. The correct way to say the above sentence is “I move that the board purchase a new computer.”

“It is mandatory that she is on time, and that she has fun and does a good job.”

We’re not talking about what she’s doing at present; we’re talking about what is required of her. This is another job for the subjunctive. In addition to indicating that which is suggested and proposed, the subjunctive functions to indicate that which is mandatory, necessary, required, crucial, important, etc. Here’s where it might sound a bit strange to some people: the correct way to say the above sentence is “It is mandatory that she be on time, and that she have fun and do a good job.” If it sounds strange to you at first, give it time. Soon, you may well find that the other way sounds much stranger.

Well, I hope I have done a good job of demonstrating how important it is that a voice interpreter know how to use the past participle and subjunctive. I recommend that every interpreter study English grammar and practice Standard English usage. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with using colloquial speech or regional dialects on our own time, but when we voice interpret, it’s important that we be able to speak the kind of English that our Deaf and hearing clients use. If you know both the standard and the colloquial, you can make an educated choice about which to use, depending on the register of the speech event and the clients’ usage. If you don’t know the standard, well… now you know!

This article was originally published in InTouch, the newsletter for the San Diego County chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in December 1998

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.