The Peculiarities and Usage of Active Verbs

Depending on how a particular sentence is worded, a verb can either be active or passive.

Whenever a verb is active, it means that the subject of the sentence of the verb is the one that is doing the specific action. For example:

The Huskies (subject) beat (active verb) the Bears in the last game.

More than 30 people in my class (subject) will write (active verb) the math test on Monday.

Kevin (subject) will take (active verb) the children to the play.

Whenever the verb is passive, the subject must undergo the action as opposed to actually doing it. For example:

The Huskies (subject) were beaten (passive verb) in the last game.

The math test (subject) is taken by  (passive verb) my class.

The children (subject) will be taken to play (passive verb) by Kevin.

In the above examples, the point of view of the sentences have changed to become the subjects of the passive verbs. In the first example, you will note that the subject of the active verb (the Bears) does not appear in the passive version.

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What are Active Verbs?

Active verbs get to the point of the sentence. They clearly demonstrate who or what is performing the action. They straightforward and point to who is responsible.

Active verbs should be easy to understand and will make your writing flow much more easily.

Additionally, learning how to properly use active verbs will make your writing much more concise because using active verbs requires using less words than passive verbs need.

Passive verbs, on the other hand, do not take responsibility and force your audience to think harder. They tend to add to the wordiness of a paper and are often used in longer, more convoluted and confusing work.

Learning the differences between active and passive verbs means that you will be better prepared to uncover passive verbs and change them to active ones. You will even develop a better understanding of when you should use passive verbs – all skills needed to make you a more effective writer.

First, here is a small refresher on verbs.

What are Verbs in General?

All languages have verbs. Verbs are the words that are used to demonstrate action (action verbs) or relationships or conditions (linking verbs). The English language also has help verbs (also known as auxiliary verbs.)

Note that action verbs and active verbs are NOT the same thing. Action, helping and linking verbs are in one category of verb classes and active and passive verbs are in another category of verb classes – called VOICE.

Action verbs  are the verbs that are used to describe or demonstrate an action that can happen. Examples of action verbs are: walk, run, eat, throw, speak, drink, write, perform, activate, launch, build and pronounce.

Linking verbs reference any form of the verb be (are, is am, was, were, been, being, etc.) and also seem and become. Linking verbs are used to join the subject of a sentence (which is the main person, thing or location) to with additional or corresponding information. Example of linking verb: Here reading is good.

Note that true linking verbs are neither passive nor active. They unite the subject of the verb with some sort of additional information, like a noun or adjective. Certain verbs might act as both action and linking verbs, for example, smell, taste, look, appear, feel, prove, remain, etc.

Helping verbs, or auxiliary verbs as they are correctly called, are forms of the verb ‘be’ and ‘do’ and ‘have’.

Active vs. Passive Verbs

Common logic might have you believe that active verbs are descriptive, lively and energetic. Whereas passive verbs are boring and sedentary. Perhaps shimmied is a more active verb than walked. Or maybe howled is a more active verb than laugh?

If this is what you believe, you are not alone. Unfortunately, you aren’t necessarily correct, however. Uncovering active  and passive verbs isn’t quick that straightforward.

Active verbs demonstrate the subject of the sentence performing an action.

For example:

  • Beverly Cleary wrote the book.
  • The actor fired the agent.
  • Her mother baked the cake.
  • The doctor found lumps in her shoulder.

The sentence follows this pattern: subject + verb + direct object.

Passive verbs, on the other hand, demonstrate the subject receiving the action. Here are a few examples:

  • The book was written by Beverly Cleary.
  • The agent was fired by the actor.
  • The cake was baked by her mother.
  • The lumps were found by the doctor.

In this case, the sentence follows this pattern: subject + helping verb / verb + doer of action.

How to Identify Active and Passive Verbs

It is possible for active verbs to take a direct object. This is the objective for active verb identification. If a verb is to be considered active, all possibility of it being passive must be eliminated. And, if you are uncertain, put it to the test.

Here is a sentence from a review of Fifty Shades of Grey that was posted in the New Yorker.

Ana, as she is usually called, first meets Christian Grey at Grey House, which is home to Grey Enterprises, in Seattle.

The subject (or the doer of the action) And + the verb (meets) + the direct object (Christian Grey)

It is easy to tell that this is an active verb because the subject is doing something instead of receiving something or having something done to them.

This is the formula (or pattern) needed for an active verb. Because this pattern is present, this sentence cannot be passive. But, what if it was worded differently?

Christian Grey is first met at Grey House, which is home to Grey Enterprises, by Ana, as she is usually called, in Seattle.

In this case the formula is: the subject (person receiving the action) + verb (is + met) + the doer of action.

This would change the sentence to passive because the subject is not actually doing against. He is passively receiving the action (being met by Ana), thus creating the equation for a passive verb construction.

The important thing to take note of in the above two examples is the sentence that is more concise and easier to read and understand.

Active verbs are almost always the best to use. They are clear, concise and get to the point without causing confusion. However, there are times when you might choose to use a passive verb, particularly when you want your audience to focus on the person or thing that is receiving the action as opposed to the person or thing that is doing the action.