21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings (1)

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Bottle

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The word “active” gives a very misleading idea of verbs in the active voice

THE MEANING OF “ACTIVE”

It is common to first meet the word “active” in English grammar when learning about its opposite, the passive form of verbs. This is perhaps because, in simplest terms, “active” is a name for any verb that is not passive. In other words, if passive verbs are defined in terms of their form (a “past” participle of a verb, alone or combined with BE – see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs), active verbs can be understood as verbs with other forms.

Defining active and passive in terms of their forms is very precise – it is indeed the preferred approach elsewhere within this blog – but a problem that it can give to learners of English is that it is more useful in reading than in writing: it enables active and passive verbs to be recognised in completed texts, but it is not much help for deciding when to form them during text construction. For that, there is a need to think about meanings.

The terms “active” and “passive” are actually attempts to describe these verb categories in terms of their meaning. Outside of grammar, they have easily-understood meanings which resemble those carried respectively by active and passive verbs. A major problem with them, however, is that the meanings they suggest do not cover all of the possible meanings that active and passive verbs can express.

This problem is actually not so great with “passive”, which suggests some kind of receiving or suffering. Most passive verbs do associate this meaning with their “subject” (the noun or equivalent that determines whether the verb is singular or plural – see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices), particularly when by is present. The exceptional ones seem mostly to express a state or condition rather than an action, such as BE SITUATED or BE COMPOSED OF.

Active verbs, on the other hand, more often have a meaning that does not seem to match their name. “Active” suggests action, but many active verbs express a state instead. “Active” also suggests that the subject of the verb has some responsibility for the action – the opposite of the “receiving” role bestowed by most passive verbs. In this respect too there are numerous exceptions, for example verbs expressing actions beyond human control, such as DIE or AWAKE.

It is this problem of the variability of active verb meanings that the present post is about. A later one (83. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 2) also deals with it, but focuses on the influence of surrounding words and not on the basic meanings of the verbs. My aim here is to present a classification of exceptional active verbs, in order to help them to be remembered more successfully. I will consider four broad groups:

1. Active verbs without an object.

2. Active verbs with an object that express states rather than actions.

3. Active verbs with an object and non-initiating subject.

4. Verbs whose active and passive forms mean the same.

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ACTIVE VERBS WITHOUT AN OBJECT

An object is a verb-dependent noun (or noun equivalent) that is not the verb’s subject and does not repeat the meaning of the subject. Like the subjects of passive verbs, objects usually receive or suffer the action or state expressed by the verb (for a fuller definition, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Some verbs absolutely must have an object (e.g. SAY), some must not (e.g. GO), and some allow a choice (e.g. INCREASE). For more details, see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive.

Active verbs without an object may or may not have an “active” meaning. One that does is WORK, as illustrated by the following:

(a) Farmers work hard.

Of object-less active verbs without a clear “active” meaning, a few name a state rather than an action:

(b) Luxembourg lies between France and Germany.

Here, France and Germany are not an object because they directly follow a preposition (between) – something that objects cannot usually do (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). Other object-less verbs that express a state like LIE include EXIST, PROTRUDE, REMAIN, STAND and STAY.

A more frequent reason why an active verb without an object might not be very “active” is the subject’s lack of responsibility for the action. Indeed, many subjects of this verb type seem to be receiving the action more than initiating it, rather like the subject of a passive verb:

(c) Africa opened up in the nineteenth century.

(d) The bottle broke.

(e) Rain falls more often in August.

None of the subjects of these verbs can be considered the cause of the action. However, it may be going too far to say that the verbs’ meaning is passive, since passive verbs are usually more definite about the involvement of a cause other than the subject (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs).

The verbs in the example sentences above represent two different types that are found without an object. OPEN UP and BREAK can also be used with an object, whereas WORK, LIE and FALL cannot. The first type are analysed in depth within these pages in the post 4. Verbs that don’t have to be Passive. What is useful to know about them is that their active use without an object can fairly reliably be taken to express a non-active meaning, as in (c) and (d).

Verbs of the second verb type, however, are not so predictable. Some, like LIE and FALL, always seem to have a meaning that is not very “active”. Others, like WORK and PROCEED, seem to be the opposite. Others again vary. LIE DOWN can express an action as well as a state. GO is particularly interesting. In which of the following is the meaning less “active” because the subject is not the initiator of the action?

(f) The lawyer went to the prison.

(g) The accused went to prison.

The less “active” meaning is in (g), where prison has no the. We could replace went with was sent.

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ACTIVE VERBS WITH AN OBJECT THAT EXPRESS STATES RATHER THAN ACTIONS 

This group is quite large – proof of how often verbs are not “doing” words. Examples are KNOW, BELONG TO, COMPRISE, CONTAIN, COST, LACK, RESEMBLE and OWN (see also verbs listed in 163. Ways of Naming Properties). Many of them are rarely used in the continuous tenses. Also worth a mention here are some of the active verbs that have a “complement” after them rather than an object, such as BE, SEEM and REMAIN (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive).

A number of other verbs offer a choice of meanings, either “doing” or “being”. Compare the following uses of OCCUPY:

(i) The Romans had occupied most of Europe by the time of Christ. (COMPLETED ACTION)

(j) Nelson’s Column occupies the centre of Trafalgar Square. (STATE)

Other double-meaning verbs are HAVE, HOLD, CROSS, (DIS)LIKE, LINK, JOIN, CONNECT, POSSESS, ALLOW, LEAD, TOUCH and FEEL. For details of HAVE, see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE. For other examples, see 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning.

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ACTIVE VERBS WITH AN OBJECT AND NON-INITIATING SUBJECT 

Probably the best-known example of a verb of this kind is SUFFER, as in:

(k) Drivers suffer more accidents when the road is wet.

The very meaning of suffer makes it clear that drivers receive rather than cause the action – despite the use of the active form and following object. This unusual situation is probably why the active and passive uses of SUFFER are so often mixed up (see 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors).

There are a few other verbs like SUFFER, notably ENCOUNTER, GET, HAVE, MEET, RECEIVE, SEE and UNDERGO. Here are some more example sentences:

(l) The most successful team will receive a prize.

(m) The ship met its doom.

(n) Sales saw a sharp fall in June.

(o) The country has undergone much change.

HAVE is broader than SUFFER, being able to name desirable experiences as well as undesirable ones (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE). It could replace the indicated verbs in (k), (n) and (o).

GET is rather informal (see 108. Formal and Informal Words). It could be used in (l), but not in (k). For other uses, see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE.

UNDERGO is commonly used with “action” nouns – but not every type. The possibilities often seem to express services provided by other people, and resemble the ones commonly found after under by itself (see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases). Common object nouns include change, criticism, examination, scrutiny, surgery and treatment.

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VERBS WHOSE ACTIVE AND PASSIVE FORMS MEAN THE SAME 

This is a very small group, and is easy to remember as a result. It may just be a subgroup of actives that express states. Compare:

(p) The company is faced with a crisis.

(q) The company faces a crisis.

Both of these sentences seem to mean the same. Note how the passive verb is followed by with, not by. Most verbs of this kind seem to disallow by after the passive. Other examples are ACCOMPANY/BE ACCOMPANIED BY, BOTHER ABOUT/BE BOTHERED BY (or ABOUT), COMPRISE/BE COMPRISED OF, CONFUSE/BE CONFUSED BY (or ABOUT), CONFRONT/BE CONFRONTED WITH, OPPOSE/BE OPPOSED TO and SUIT/BE SUITED TO.

If further examples exist, I would be grateful to hear what they are via the comment facility below.

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