About the tense after the word 'while'

by Lucas
(Jeju, Korea)

Hello!

I've got a question about the tense usage after the word 'while.'

There is a sentence in my textbook,

'Medical practice would be revolutionized by allowing doctors to buy patients time while they searched for new ways to treat disease or life-threatening injuries.'

The sentence seems to express things about future, but the word 'searched' is used after the word 'while'. It doesn't seem that doctors searched for new ways in the past, but since it is used in past tense, I'm confused whether it does mean something about past, or it is simply a way to express formality or politeness (I don't know if making the verb in its past form has the effect of expressing politeness or formality)?

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Oct 14, 2011
Thanks!
by: Lucas

Aha! So it was subjunctive!
Thanks for your help!

Sep 29, 2011
Answer
by: Ola Zur

Hi Lucas,

First of all, you can use some modal verbs in their past form to express politeness or formality.

For example, "Could you open the window?" is more formal/polite than "Can you open the window?"

"Would you give him my message?" is more formal/polite than "Will you give him my message?"

And so forth.

But that's not the case with your example sentence:

"Medical practice would be revolutionized by allowing doctors to buy patients time while they searched for new ways to treat disease or life-threatening injuries."

What you see here is actually a sentence in the subjunctive mood.

A mood is a way to express the attitude of the speaker or writer to what is being said.

There are three moods in English:

1) The indicative mood, which we use to state facts or thinks we consider facts:

"I found an umbrella."

"You have a nice house."

"It will rain without a doubt."

2) The imperative mood, which we use to state orders and instructions:

"Go to sleep!"

"Please, stop making so much noise."

"Don't call us."

3) The subjunctive mood, which we use to state things that are not facts: wishes, possibilities, conditions, etc:

"We would come if we knew the address."

"I wish I were taller."

"If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world."

As you can see, the above sentence all use verbs in the past form, but they do not express past actions, and they do not express politeness or formality either.

They simple show us that the speaker is not talking about a real situation, but rather a situation in his mind (a wish, a condition, a possibility, etc.).

For more information on this subject visit:
Indicative Mood, Imperative Mood and Subjunctive Mood

English Conditionals

Ola Zur is the editor of www.really-learn-english.com, an illustrated guide to English.

Sep 11, 2011
DESCRIBING THINGS
by: Anonymous

hi I have a big problem in describing things, places, abstract topics, could you pls help in this

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