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When a Verb Says “The End”

The web-hosting company I use just emailed me to let me know my contract is being renewed. They used the wrong verb. Do you recognize it?

We certainly hope doing business with us was a pleasing experience.

Because of their choice of verb, I thought our business relationship had ended, but it hasn’t.

Their verb choice, was, indicates that something is finished. They should have said it this way:

We certainly hope doing business with us has been a pleasing experience.

The verb phrase "has been" indicates that the past is continuing into the future.

That verb choice mattered. When I read the email, I thought my contract was ending until I read on.

People in business writing classes often ask me about verb tenses, especially past tense verbs. They want to know the difference between verbs such as gave, have given, and had given and was, have been, and had been.

Here’s a short lesson with examples:

I gave him the email address. (Past tense–The giving is finished.)

I have given him the email address. (Present perfect tense–The giving is recently finished. The sentence suggests that more may happen. For example, I may have more information to give him, or I may need to give him the email address again because he can’t find it.)

He forgot that I had given him the email address. (Past perfect tense, also known as pluperfect–The giving was finished before he forgot. That is, the giving is farther back in time than his forgetting, which is also in the past.)

The verbs was, has been, and had been work the same way:

Victoria was ill. (Past tense–She is no longer ill.)
Victoria has been ill. (Present perfect tense–She has recently recovered or the illness continues into the present.)
She had been ill for a while before she started this job. (Past perfect tense: Her illness came before her job start. Both are in the past.)

It was has been a pleasure writing this blog. (The pleasure continues!)

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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