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



We often think active verbs express actions and have the originator or cause of the action as their subject; but many active verbs are not like this at all



This is the first of two posts on active and non-active meanings. It concentrates on non-active meanings that some active verbs always have. The other post (83. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 2) is about the way surrounding words can cause an active verb to lose its active meaning.

What do we mean by “active” and “passive”? The answer is not so simple. We can give definitions based on either the meanings of all the verbs of each type, or their forms. Other parts of this blog refer to the latter, but meanings can seem more natural. A meaning-based definition would say something like “an active verb suggests its subject is the cause or origin of its action, while a passive verb suggests its subject suffers or receives the action” (subjects are explained in the post 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices). This is true of most active and passive verbs. Here are some examples:

a) Working hard brings success.

b) The people were led very well.

The verb brings in (a) is active, and its subject working is the cause of the action of bringing; while were led in (b) is passive, and its subject the people is not what is doing the leading.

Unfortunately, definitions based on meaning tend to have a problem of exceptions (a similar problem with countable and uncountable nouns is discussed in the Guinlist post 14. Noun Countability Clues 1). One group of active verbs that quite often does not fit the above definition is those used without a directly-following noun (or equivalent) that is acting as their “object” (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 113. Verbs that Cannot be Passive). Here is an example:

c) Africa opened up in the nineteenth century.

This surely does not mean that Africa did anything to cause its opening up!

A definition in terms of forms overcomes the problem of exceptions. Passive verbs defined this way always involve the so-called “past participle” (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). With regular verbs, this is the ed form that is not the past simple tense; with irregular verbs, it is the third of the three forms that usually have to be memorised (e.g. taken, begun, made – see 97. Verb Form Confusions). Usually, this form is combined with some form of BE (are taken, was begun, has been made) or informal GET (got killed, will get married, were getting beaten), though not always. Once we have an idea of what passive verbs look like, we can define active verbs as those verb forms that do not meet the test for passives.

The problem with form-based definitions of active and passive is that they do not help us to know whether a verb we are trying to use should be active or passive; they help us only to recognise active and passive forms already present in reading. The use of meaning is therefore more desirable for making the correct choice in writing, if only some way could be found to overcome its disadvantage. One approach might be to try and classify the exceptional active usages, in order to help us to remember them more successfully. That is the purpose of this post.  The exceptional active usages can be classified into the following main groups:

1. Actives without an object.

2. Actives with an object that express states rather than actions.

3. Actives with an object that express passive actions.

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



Not all actives without a directly-following noun are exceptional. Most would say that, in the following example, work is a normal active verb expressing an action whose performer is its subject, farmers:

(d) Farmers work hard.

However, many other object-less verbs are clearly like the one in (c) above, suggesting that the subject receives the action rather as the subjects of passive verbs do:

(e) The bottle broke.

(f) Rain falls more often in August.

The verbs in these two examples represent two different types of object-less verbs: ones which, like broke, can be used in other sentences with an object, and ones which, like falls, cannot. The first type fairly reliably have passive meaning when lacking an object. The verb opened up in sentence (c) above is also of this type. More can be read about it in the post 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive.

Verbs of the second verb type, however, are not so reliably passive in their meaning without an object. Although falls in (f) has a passive meaning, work in sentence (d) does not. The verbs GO and LIE, which similarly cannot have an object, are sometimes like a passive in meaning and sometimes active. In which of the following does GO have the more passive meaning?

(g) The lawyer went to the prison.

(h) The accused went to prison.

The more passive meaning is in (h), where prison has no the. We could replace went with was sent.



This group is quite large – verbs do not always have to be “doing” words. Examples are KNOW, BELONG TO, COMPRISE, CONTAIN, COST, LACK, RESEMBLE and OWN. Many of them are rarely used in the continuous tenses. Also needing a mention here are some of the verbs that have a “complement” after them rather than an object, such as BE, SEEM and REMAIN (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors).

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. When any of these active verbs expresses a state rather than an action, it is hard to say that their meaning is “active”.



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 just a few other verbs like SUFFER. HAVE could replace it in (k), but is also usable with objects representing desirable events (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE). In addition, there are RECEIVE, MEET and SEE, as in these sentences:

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

(m) The ship met its doom.

(n) Sales saw a sharp fall in June.

The verb GET can cover a variety of meanings, but is rather informal (see 108. Formal and Informal Words). It is possible in (l) above, but not in (k). More about where it can be used is in the post 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE.



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

(o) The company is faced with a crisis.

(p) 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 possible 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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