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My answer to this question prompted me to consider what are the appropriate descriptions for the verb tenses used in the sentences given below. Unfortunately, my google-fu wasn't sufficent to the task of tracking down a satisfactory answer.

Sentence 1:

Please let me know which input to consider.

Sentence 2:

Please let me know which input should be considered.

Does it even make any sense to talk about a tense that covers the whole of one of these sentences (with the relative clausal verb tenses modifying the overall tense) or can we only describe clausal verb tenses in isolation from each other?

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“Consider”

Sentence 1

Please let me know which input to consider.

Infinitive. The infinitive form of a verb is basically a form that doesn't have to agree with other things in the sentence. It has no person or number, even if it has a subject. An infinitive verb doesn't even need a subject, as in your sentence. If it has a subject, it's in the objective case, as in this sentence:

Let him consider what you have said.

Notice that consider does not agree with him even though him is its subject. A non-infinitive form would be "He considers what you said important." Notice the s to agree with He.

It's debatable whether infinitives have tense. In some languages, they clearly do. In English, it's not so clear. But you can force a tense onto an infinitive like this:

Please let me know which input I was to have considered.

You could say that have is infinitive here (with no tense), or you could say that have considered is the perfect-present infinitive of consider. It's just a matter of which terminology you prefer.

Sentence 2

Please let me know which input should be considered.

This is another infinitive. I'd call it a passive infinitive. But one could also reasonably say that be is in the infinitive and considered is a past participle. We form the passive voice in English with be + past participle.

The reason be (or be considered) is in the infinitive here is because it's governed by the modal verb should. Other common modal verbs that work the same way are: can, could, may, might, must, shall, and will.


“Let”

In both sentences, let is in the present tense and the imperative mood. That is, it's a command, and it's telling the listener to do it now.


“Know”

As you can probably guess now, know in both sentences is in the infinitive. Its subject, me, is in the objective case.


“Should”

Should is in the present tense. Even though it's third-person singular (its subject is input), it doesn't get a terminal -s because modal verbs don't inflect. That is, they use their infinitive form in all situations.

You can verify for yourself that should is in the present tense by replacing it with an ordinary verb and seeing how it inflects. For example, "Please let me know which input is in need of consideration."


By the way, in English, it's customary to list verbs in dictionaries in their infinitive form. This is said to be the "lemma form" of the verb: the basic one, by which you refer to all the forms of the verb. Other languages follow different customs for the lemma; for example, in Latin, the first-person present singular is usually the lemma. But anyway, when you look up a verb in an English dictionary, you'll find it listed in its infinitive form.

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  • Very interesting! I thought that should is "technically" a past tense of shall but semantically reflects a future event or future obligation. – CowperKettle Jan 30 '15 at 9:06
  • @CopperKettle Hmm, I think you're right about should. I didn't listen to the slightly uneasy feeling I had when I wrote that it's in the present tense. I'm not sure if I want to open that can of worms in this answer, though. Well, maybe after I get some work done on what I should be working on… :) – Ben Kovitz Jan 30 '15 at 9:20
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    Hmm, I'm not sure that imperatives have tense really. The main reason for this thinking is that we have to use the plain form of BE, not the present form are when we use imperatives. Compare Be quiet and Are quiet ... :-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 30 '15 at 10:47
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    @Araucaria That's a good point. Methinks I've been studying too much Latin lately. No doubt this is how all sorts of misconceptions about English grammar get started… :) – Ben Kovitz Jan 30 '15 at 10:53

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