A few days ago, I received an email from someone who wanted to know the difference in meaning between two sentences.
Compare the two sentences below and think about how they are different.
- The image is burned in my mind.
- The image has been burned in my mind.
Now, I should note before we begin that there are several different ways to interpret these sentences, but I'm going to focus on what I think the person meant when he asked me this question.
The idiom: to be burned in one's mind
And also before we begin, we should clarify what it means for something to be burned in your mind--it simply means that something has been placed into your memory more or less permanently. (Unless, of course, something tragic happens to your brain, which we hope will never happen.)
For example, you could say that you saw something so beautiful that the image is burned in your mind.
Now the difference between the two sentences.
The verb tense difference: is vs. has been
The first obvious difference between the two is the verb tense.
If I say that something is burned in my mind, then I mean that it is in my mind now. However, if I say that something has been burned in my mind, then, since I am using the present perfect verb tense (which likely means that it was burned in my mind at some indeterminate point in the past).
However, I don't think the person meant to ask me that. Rather, I think he wanted to know why it's possible to use this expression in two different ways: is burned vs. has been burned.
Let's take a closer look at the differences between using burned in these two ways.
Past participle vs. past tense
The simple answer is that in one case (is burned), we are using the word as an adjective, whereas in the other case (has been burned) we are using the word as part of the verb phrase that is paired with the subject and explains what the subject did.
Let me explain a little bit more. If I say the image is burned in my mind, I'm basically saying that the image is presently in my memory. burned is basically an adjective.
If I say that the image has been burned in my mind or the image was burned in my mind, then I'm calling attention to the process of the image being burned in my mind. burned is part of the verb phrase.
Think of it this way: in one sense (is burned) burned is an adjective. This usage denotes that the image is present in my mind.
In the other sense (has been burned), we are saying that it went through the process of being committed to memory.
Note on verb tense: I should note that was burned and has been burned are more or less equivalent for our purposes. The difference between the verbs is the tense: one uses the simple past, the other the present perfect. It doesn't really matter which we use for this discussion.
To clarify this let me give you some similar examples.
I should also note that something about English makes this a little bit more confusing (and you probably know this already).
Why this can be a little confusing
The past tense and the past participle of regular verbs in English take the same form, meaning they sound or look exactly the same when you hear them or see them written. For example, talked could be the simple past or it could be a past participle. Compare this with something like went and gone where went is the past tense and gone is a past participle. They are totally different.
Here are the examples.
Is broken vs. was broken
What is the difference between saying that something is broken and something was broken? If we say it is broken right now we are saying it is not functioning. That is to say that the current state is that it is broken. It is not functioning. It is not working, period.
However, we could also emphasize the action of the breaking. We could say that it was broken. For example, we may want to know when the item was broken and we could ask, "When was this broken?" And someone could respond, "Oh, this was broken yesterday."
(And anticipating some questions: Yes, someone could theoretically ask about the state of the toy yesterday: "Oh, I notice that this toy is broken now. Was it also broken yesterday?" In this case, with the context, we would know that what the speaker meant. And yes, in it is possible to create an ambiguous sentence in this case.)
So theoretically you could say that the toy was broken yesterday and today.
Another example coming up!
Is open vs. was opened
Another one that people sometimes ask about is something like this: What's the difference between the store is open and the store was opened? Similarly, the store is closed vs. the store was closed. Again, we have the same difference: In one case, we're emphasizing the present state of the store (is open). In the other case, we are focusing on the action or the process of opening or closing the store (was opened).
Is cut vs. was cut
Finally, I have one more example if things are still not clear. If we say, for example, my arm is cut then I am saying that right now my arm has a cut on it. If I say my arm was cut yesterday then again, I am focusing on the action of the cutting.
I hope this helps. Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.
For those applying to college, be sure to check out our tips for writing the UC undergraduate admissions essay as well.
In my last email, I introduced and gave a few writing tips for the leadership personal insight question for the University of California application. At the end of the email, I promised some examples of actual responses.
First, please note that for a good reason, I have chosen not to write these essays to the required UC word count. Why? There is the very real possibility that someone will copy the writing entirely and use it as an actual response. Or more likely, use this writing as a template. Neither case is desirable.
Recap of the essay prompt:
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
(Note: The following writing is completely my original writing based on composites of the hundreds of application essays I’ve read in the past decades.)
In tenth grade, I was president of the Latino Culture Club. There were about 20 members in the club, but most of them didn’t come very often. We met to discuss the unique aspects of our culture in the United States, and my job was to get more members and figure out ways to show our culture to others.
In the first week of the club, I was overwhelmed by what to do. It seemed like I had so much responsibility, but not much time. But I decided that the best way to get ahead and reach our goals was to use: teamwork.
As a team, we were not only stronger, but we had more ideas. Suddenly, people who kept to themselves spoke up. They seemed more excited about coming to meetings. And we also had many more suggestions about what to do. After this, one of the best suggestions came up, we should put on a talent show to show the different kinds of culture we had amongst ourselves. We decided to include singing, dancing, music, and traditional costumes that each performer could pick.
The talent show was a great success, and it could never have happened without harnessing the power of the team. It’s like a bundle of sticks—alone, each one is breakable. But together, they are unstoppable.
In ninth grade, I set a goal for myself: I wanted to increase the presence of the Latino Culture Club at my school—I wanted it to be one of the clubs people talked about and actually wanted to join because they enjoyed it, not because they felt like they were required to.
I initially joined the club because I wanted to share the beauty of Latino culture with others, and hopefully, even improve race relations at my school. We have a fairly balanced mix of races at my school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our opinions of each other are as fairly balanced. I believe that to some extent we all represent others who look like us and come from similar backgrounds, and if we can create favorable impressions of our cultures with others, we can help reduce the racial tension that plagues some areas of the US.
Running for president, I gave some short speeches and presentations, and my fellow club members seemed impressed. And then I launched my big plan: Pull off an event that the whole school would talk about.
We had dozens of suggestions, from a talent show to a “Cultural Awareness Day” to a flash mob-style performance in the cafeteria of a fusion of hiphop and Latino music. But in the end, we decided on a food festival with music; after all, if there’s anything that brings people together, it’s delicious food.
For several months, we planned and marketed. To create excitement for the event, we announced that we’d be giving out prizes for students who arrived early and for those who visited every table at the festival. I believe that any good leader is also in the trenches, so in addition to overseeing preparations, I was also planning for my table, which would showcase the Brazilian snack “kibe” (a Middle East-inspired mixture of beef and bulgar wheat that is fried and served with hot sauce). I decided to play “baile funk,” a style of dance music popular in clubs in Rio de Janeiro.
We encountered a number of obstacles and disagreements along the way, but nothing that logical discussion and decision-making couldn’t overcome. In the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the result—for the four hours of the event, I heard the laughter of the attendees amid the various types of music being played. While I cannot state with 100% certainty that our club succeeded in creating a positive image of Latino culture at our school, I can say without any hesitation that everybody who attended had a good time and left with tummy full of delicious food, all homemade and provided by us.
See the difference between the two examples? Although nearly the same events happen in both essays, the student in the second essay sounds much more impressive. Many students believe that they must encounter some completely unique hardship or invent the cure for some disease in order to "have something interesting to write about," but really, the events themselves are only half of the puzzle. As these essay examples have shown, the other half of an interesting essay lies in how well the essay is written. Good writing can make a conventionally boring event come alive, just as bad writing can make a dramatically gripping event seem dull.
The takeaway from all of this:
If you think you have a "boring" story, don't worry! You'll do fine as long as you are descriptive and really show your passion.
If you think you have a good story, that's great! But make sure you don't get complacent! A stellar writer with an everyday story easily outshines a mediocre writer with a "good" story.
Best of luck with your college admissions!