How to Identify Active Voice
Posted by Neal on December 2, 2011
This week, Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote on the active voice. It’s actually part 1 of a two-episode series on passive voice. As Geoff Pullum said of his 2,500-word Language Log post on passive voice, “I can’t make it simpler than it is.” GG and I tried, planning on a single episode to clear up what is and is not passive voice, but eventually decided to split the episode and spend part one establishing just what active voice is. Even that turned out to be a bit much for one episode, so I just aimed to raise listeners’ awareness of the many kinds of active-voice clauses in which the subject is not performing an action. What I left out was a paragraph on my (attempt at a) quick-and-dirty style diagnostic for whether a clause is in the active voice. So here it is for those who are interested. I suggest listening to or reading the Grammar Girl episode first, if you don’t know what I mean by semantic roles. And if you got here because you clicked over from the Grammar Girl website to begin with, welcome!
With all those possible roles for a verb’s subject, how do we know if it’s in the active voice? We need an anchor, something that we know beyond all doubt is in the active voice. Our anchor will be to take the subject and verb and put them in a simple present-tense clause with no helping verbs. No matter what, this kind of clause is in the active voice. Then, we can check the semantic role expressed by the subject in this clause, and if it’s the same one expressed by the subject in the verb phrase we’re interested in, then that verb phrase is also in the active voice. Here’s an example: Is Roscoe is dying in the active voice? Compare the simple present-tense clause Roscoe dies. The subject, Roscoe, is filling a patient role. What about in Roscoe is dying? Here, too, the subject Roscoe is filling a patient role, so Roscoe is dying is in the active voice. Another example: Is Steve has always loved Amy in the active voice? Let’s compare it to Steve loves Amy. In this clause, the subject Steve has the role of experiencer. In Steve has always loved Amy, the subject Steve is still the experiencer, so this clause is in the active voice.