Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

8 Responses to “How to Identify Active Voice”

  1. Doesn’t using a verb like “die” make things complicated, particularly with regard to theta roles? The verb “die” is unaccusative, which means that its subject is very much like the subject of a passive.

    • Neal said

      You bet it does, but that’s the point. To get a grip on passive voice, you have to recognize first of all that having a patient for a subject isn’t sufficient.

  2. As Bluebottle of the Goons would have said – “Oh, no! I’ve just been deaded” – – Now that really would be passive!

    It’s strange how foreign learners don’t seem to have any problems at all identifying the passive, while certain native speakers get all in a tizzy..

  3. The Ridger said

    Yep. “The bus exploded” is active voice. Takes more than a patient/theme subject and no agent named to be a passive sentence.

    • As a layman, what is most obvious here to me is the lack of the verb ‘to be’, or anything like it (eg ‘get’). That’s what would be the giveaway for me and, I think, EFL students. (We’re not too well up on themes and patients!)

      As a matter of interest, could this even be made passive. With a bomb or a device or a rocket etc, ‘explode could be ergative’ – they exploded the bomb – the bomb exploded – the bomb was exploded under controlled conditions. But a bus? Blow up a bus, yes, but can we explode a bus? Surely with bus, ‘explode’ can only be intransitive (idiomatically)? Hence, in my book, passive isn’t even possible. Just a thought.

      @Neal – Thanks for your kind remarks.

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