I am trying to determine the tense of a certain verb group. This group uses a modal/auxiliary with "be" and the past tense of the action verb. Examples:

  • He may be finished.
  • She must be loved.
  • It can be done.

These can be modified by adding an adverbial preposition.

I can't find help on any tutorial websites, so far.

P.S.: I'm trying to determine if this is something like "present perfect" or "past continuous", etc.

  • They're all participial adjectives, which syntactically could be replaced by "ordinary" adjectives (such as hungry, stupid, painful, for example). What specific kind of help are you looking for? Oct 19, 2013 at 22:30
  • They could be participial adjectives, but they could also be modal verb constructions in the passive voice. I'd analyze the first two as participial adjectives, and the third as passive voice. I'd interpret it can be done as meaning it might be possible, and as an adjective done doesn't generally mean possible. Oct 19, 2013 at 23:34
  • By the replies, I am going to assume that, to determine the tense, I should take the "participial"word out of the phrase. Then I can just use the modal with "be".
    – M. S.
    Oct 20, 2013 at 0:23
  • Highly relevant: What is a tense?
    – RegDwigнt
    Oct 20, 2013 at 11:09
  • By tense, I'm referring to classification of the verb, or verb phrase, in reference to time. Such classifications would be "past tense", "present tense", "future tense", etc. M.S.
    – M. S.
    Oct 20, 2013 at 11:18

2 Answers 2


It is not customary to refer to English constructions introduced by modals as tenses (apart from the modal will, which a lot of people bizarrely insist on calling the "future tense") so the simple answer to your question is, none.

Your 2 and 3 are just passives; so on one reading is your 1; but for me a more natural reading is as be followed by an adjective finished (which is derived from a participle).

  • By the replies, I am going to assume that, to determine the tense, I should take the "participial"word out of the phrase. Then I can just use the modal with "be". – M. S.
    – M. S.
    Oct 20, 2013 at 0:43
  • I have a different view. For me "can" is present tense and "could" either past tense indicative or subjunctive.
    – rogermue
    Apr 16, 2014 at 10:29

These are all present tense relating to a state represented by a perfective passive participle (acting as an adjective in a predicative construction). So the aspect is perfect and the tense is present, and there is some conditioning involved in each case which is not that different from the would case (below).

He may be finished.

She must be loved.

It can be done.

The following are indeed (expanding on Colin) often called conditional, future, and periphrastic future, but really there is no particular reason to single out these complex constructions and call them a tense, except that we are trying to impose ideas from Latin on English.

It would be done...

It will be done...

It is going to be done...

In fact these "tenses" come from different metaphors (act of the will that has been frustrated in the would case; moving along the path to achieving the goal).

  • The word "done" in "it can be done" is not acting as an adjective. Consider: "he may be finished" does not mean "someone may finish him"; it means "he is in the state of being finished". However, "it can be done" does mean "someone can do it", and not "it can be in the state of being done". Apr 16, 2014 at 11:55
  • This is a matter of active vs passive (or middle) voice. Consider the famous "visiting professors can be dull". Grammatically "visiting" is an adjective with either active or passive sense. Consider "it can be ready". The adjective "done" has been replaced by another in your sentence. Apr 24, 2014 at 8:17
  • Another famous example where it is an adjective that is not a participle that seems to change or control voice is: John is easy/eager to please. Again just as above it was who is doing the visiting that changes, or the doing or finishing, here it is the pleasing. It affects which way "X pleases Y" just as the usual active/passive marking of a verb does in "Y is pleased by X". Apr 24, 2014 at 9:09

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