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Get The Mood Right In Research Writing

How to use indicative, imperative, and subjunctive verbs

Verbs have different moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. You can use these moods to express a fact, give a command, or indicate that something is not true. Why does this matter in a research paper? Well, using the wrong mood changes what the verb is doing, which can alter the intended meaning of your sentence.

In this blog post I describe the three main verb moods and explain how to use them correctly. I also point out some common mistakes to avoid in your next research paper.

Different moods

Verbs have three main moods:

  • Indicative: expressing facts, denial, or questions:

The statistical power was too low because we did not recruit enough participants.

  • Imperative: giving commands or advice:

Recruit more participants to increase the statistical power.

  • Subjunctive: expressing a wish, a hypothesis, or something that is not true:

If we had recruited more participants, the difference would have been significant.

In a research paper, verbs are mainly indicative because most sentences are factual statements. For example:

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that promotes social bonding.

We investigated the effect of oxytocin inhibitors on maternal behaviours in mice.

Oxytocin inhibition reduced maternal bonding with newborn offspring.

We conclude that oxytocin plays an important role in maternal bonding in mice.

But the imperative and subjunctive moods also have a place in research writing. Let's take a look at how these less common moods are used.

Command with care: imperative verbs

Imperative verbs give an order. They are usually directed at the person who is supposed to follow the order, so do not have a subject (the you is implied). Imperative verbs are used in laboratory protocols to give instructions:

Coat the culture dishes with laminin.

Add 5% FCS to the culture medium.

Seed 10,000 cells per well.

Culture the cells at 37°C.

The purpose of a research paper is not to give instructions, but to explain the rationale, aims, methods, results, and conclusions of your work. So do you need imperative verbs? Not really – but they can be used to draw attention to an important detail in your Results section:

Note that cell motility decreased briefly after 30 minutes

or to engage the reader in the Discussion:

Consider the impact that this could have on patient safety.

But for imperative verbs to do their job effectively in a research paper, they should be used sparingly.

What could have been: subjunctive verbs

The subjunctive mood expresses a wish, a hypothesis, or something that is not true or improbable. It tends to cause the most confusion among scientists, so let’s talk about how to use it properly.

A subjunctive verb is most often found in a clause beginning with the word if. For example:

If the study were not designed this way, the results would not be valid.

If you have read my previous blog post on subject-verb agreement, you will immediately notice a problem with this sentence: the subject (the study) does not agree with the verb (were not designed) here. But in the subjunctive mood, the verb to be is always be in the present tense and were in the past tense. The subject does not change this. In the example above, use of the subjunctive (were not designed) instead of the indicative (was not designed) tells us that the study was indeed designed this way and that this design ensured valid results.

You can also create the subjunctive with the past perfect tense:

If we had waited longer, we could have recruited more patients.

A common mistake here is using would have or could have in both clauses:

If we would have waited longer, we could have recruited more patients (Incorrect).

Another common mistake in research writing is using the subjunctive when facts, not suppositions, are being discussed. Not every if or whether sentence is subjunctive. If the sentence is describing something that is true or could be true, then the verb should have an indicative mood:

We checked the patient’s records to see whether treatment had been administered (Indicative; correct)

We checked the patient’s records to see whether treatment were administered (Subjunctive; incorrect).

Here, the subjunctive mood is wrong because the treatment could have been (and probably was) administered. Using the wrong mood changes the meaning here.

The right mood improves clarity

Giving verbs the correct mood can be difficult, particularly if English is not your native language. But getting it right is important because the mood tells the reader in what manner the verb is acting. The tips outlined in this article will help you to use verb moods correctly and make your intended meaning clear in your next research paper.

The correct mood is a good mood

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a medical journal

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