The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (2 ed.) by Bas Aarts defines "active" as follows:

active (adj.) Of a verb, clause, construction, etc.: designating an exponent of the grammatical category of voice whereby the grammatical subject is the agent of the action denoted by the verb. Contrasted with passive.
(n.) A construction (verb phrase, clause, sentence) in which the referent of the grammatical subject typically carries out the action expressed by the verb (i.e. is its agent). Contrasted with passive.
The term is sometimes applied to the verb itself such that the verbs in the following examples are said to be in the active voice:

The bird caught the worm
The sun rises in the east

Many verbs, e.g. intransitive verbs, can occur only in the active.

  • active verb: (in older usage) the same as action verb.

According to the italicized clause following "whereby", the dictionary seems to presuppose two things: (1) the verb in the "active construction" denotes an "action"; and (2) the grammatical subject of the "active construction" is the agent of the action.

But in "investors love the stock" — the active construction of the passive "the stock is loved by investors" — (1) the verb "love" does not denote an action; and (2) the grammatical subject "investors" is not the agent of an action.

If these presuppositions are incorrect, is it on the dictionary or on the term "active"? That is, did the dictionary drop the ball by making the incorrect presuppositions? Or is the term "active" itself wrongly used in the first place (among grammarians and linguists) such that it forces the incorrect presuppositions?

  • 1
    Arguably, thematic relations whose referents correspond to the subject of a sentence include Agent (eg Jo hit Jim) / Experiencer (eg Jill heard a bell ringing) / Force or natural cause (eg The moon gives rise to Earth's tides). And then there are clausal (eg To become / Becoming an expert snooker player takes years) and phrasal subjects (eg Behind the hedge proved a poor place to hide). I'd start by classing the verbs in these examples as punctive (happening instantaneously or near enough) vs durative. Then worry about dynamic vs stative. And the polysemy of 'active'. Dec 16, 2022 at 16:00
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    There's a Construction called Passive, sometimes called the "passive voice" that is sometimes said to contrast with "active voice". Don't do that. A clause where Passive has not applied has no special name, any more than a clause where Dative has not applied, or any of hundreds of other syntactic rules. Active, as a linguistic term, is semantics, not syntax (though it affects syntax, since some rules require or forbid action verbs of different kinds, e.g, Action, Achievement, Accomplishment are all terms for different kinds of semantic action. Dec 16, 2022 at 19:28
  • How do you figure to love is not an action? Dec 16, 2022 at 23:45
  • @JohnLawler Please note that it was the difficulty in determining the exact semantic meaning of "active" that made me post the question. :)
    – JK2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 4:21
  • @TinfoilHat "Investors love the stock" can be used for a current event, as opposed to its past-tense counterpart "Investors loved the stock", because "love" here denotes a state. "Investors sell the stock", on the other hand, can hardly be used for a current event, as opposed to its past-tense counterpart "Investors sold the stock".
    – JK2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 4:49

3 Answers 3


Stative verbs as well as dynamic verbs can have an object or no object; that is, they may or may not be transitive. However, the present day terminology relative to the question of active-passive correspondence is far from ideal.

("dynamic" is equivalent to "action verb" or "active verb")

  • intransitive, dynamic: go, run (He is running fast.)
  • intransitive, stative: stand, (Where do you stand on private education?)
  • transitive, dynamic: take, (He took his bag with him.)
  • transitive, stative: love, think, (They love sport. He thinks that this is true.)

whereby the grammatical subject is the agent of the action denoted by the verb.

This is often a neglectful formulation by grammarians who mean by that "… the action or state denoted …".

But in "investors love the stock"--the active construction of the passive "the stock is loved by investors"--(1) the verb "love" does not denote an action; and (2) the grammatical subject "investors" is not the agent of an action.

True, the verb "love" is stative. However, "investors" is, truly speaking, the recipient of the state.

In conclusion, it must be said that "active" is used properly and that the problem stems from sweeping generalizations that are traditional when discussing this question (action, agent).

Addition suggested by user BillJ: details about terminology

Typical statements about the active-passive correspondence are as the following.

  • When a sentence is written in the active voice, the subject performs the action; in the passive voice, the subject receives the action.

  • The person or thing performing an action is called the agent. Passive voice occurs when the subject is the recipient of the action.

It seems to me that the terms in bold are in some way mere elliptic terms that represent something larger.

It is obvious that in "John loves Mary." the subject does not "perform" an action. The subject (grammatical), as I conceive this, is something like the recipient of the state, or perhaps better the entity subject to the state.

Similarly, in the passive the subject is not the recipient of an action (person who receives something): if anything is received (at least in this particular case ("Mary is loved by John.")) it can be only as a result of the existing state. So the subject is really the object of the state (SOED, 5 A thing or person to which the action, thought, or feeling is directed, an aim.); it can be said in rather strictly factual terms that Mary is the object of John's love.

Calling the person or thing performing the action an agent is perfectly correct when the verb is a dynamic verb, but otherwise, the departure from the true meaning of this word is too great (SOED, The entity performing the action of the verb.). The subject is therefore the agent or the entity subject to the state, according to the (nature of the) verb.

It is readily seen that the complexity of the true grammatical situation entails generalization, which is perhaps useful to a certain extent, but nevertheless unsound, as the present question by user JK2 shows it.

  • So you're saying that it's on the dictionary, not on the term 'active' itself. But don't "active" and "action" share the same etymology?
    – JK2
    Dec 16, 2022 at 10:10
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    @JK2 "Active", as it applies to voice is not to be questioned: it has nothing to do with "active verb" or "dynamic verb". It is merely used as the opposite of "passive", which is not a concept that applies to the context of dynamic and non-dynamic verbs. They do share the same etymology, but as specialized to particular subjects, and even different topics in one given subject, they do not necessarily have to show any connection. The word "recipient" I use, for instance, is not necessarily the best term and it is already in use for indirect objects.
    – LPH
    Dec 16, 2022 at 10:16
  • You can argue about who is doing what in "investors love the stock", and compare "he saw the dog", "he remembered the dog", "he believed that Mary had a dog", etc, where you may need theories of mind or perception to decide who is causing what to happen. But philosophically states of mind such as loving can be considered to be things people in some sense do, if only because when they die they stop loving.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 16, 2022 at 11:27
  • @StuartF I don't think that you can associate states of mind to actions at all; you say that the destruction of a state of mind through death is proof of that. Let's take the example of a program in a live memory, this program being conceived to have the machine react in a certain way given a stimulus A; let's consider further a long period of time while this program provides no directive because stimulus A is not present. The machine is still in a state of reaction to stimulus A. Remove the power, the program is lost, which has nothing to do with action; the state just disappeared.
    – LPH
    Dec 16, 2022 at 12:09
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    Why don't you answer with your own views instead of just quoting form dictionaries? We all know what the dictionaries say, and they are usually wrong.
    – BillJ
    Dec 16, 2022 at 13:53

The OED says that all intransitive English verbs are by definition active ones, bar none:

  1. Grammar. Denoting, relating to, or using a voice of verbs in which the subject is typically the person or thing performing the action of the verb. Opposed to passive, and in some languages also middle.

    The active voice comprises all forms of intransitive verbs, and those forms of transitive verbs that attribute the action of the verb to the person or thing from which it proceeds.

    In older usage verbs were classified as active only if they had a corresponding passive. Thus cut would be active since there is a passive in, for example, the grass was cut. If a verb was active in form but had no corresponding passive it was called neuter; thus a verb like appear is traditionally neuter.

Active has no other grammatical meaning for us here. Avoid all of these like the pox they are:

  1. Do not confuse these with what happens in languages like Ancient Greek and Latin that have deponent verbs, ones which are passive in construction but active in meaning. English doesn’t have those, even if some folks argue for be born.
  2. Any reference to stative or dynamic in this context is a red herring. Ignore it altogether.
  3. Stop talking about actions. That is completely immaterial, and it risks committing an etymological fallacy.
  • I respect OED, and like many other times, they don't fail me this time either. Please note that they inserted "typically", a hedge that isn't found in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Grammar. So I think you should focus on why OED put the hedge in there. (Honestly, I don't understand why you'd focus on "intransitive verbs".)
    – JK2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 2:59
  • All in all, I respectfully disagree with your second and third "instructions", if you will, which are essentially about the same thing (action vs. state or dynamic vs. stative). Please note that OED itself does use the term "action" in "...in which the subject is typically the person or thing performing the action of the verb," of course with the hedge.
    – JK2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 3:22
  • I've figured out your logic, which is "(1) According to OED, all intransitive verbs are "active"; (2) There are at least some intransitive verbs that semantically denote "state" (not "action") or are "stative" (not "dynamic") such as Reasons exist; and therefore (3) The concept of "action" or "dynamic" has nothing to do with the term "active". Is this what you're saying?
    – JK2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 3:42
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    @JK2 Yes, that's exactly it.
    – tchrist
    Dec 17, 2022 at 3:43
  • Then, you're essentially saying that it's the term "action" (without any hedge) in The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, not the term "active" itself, that is inaccurate and thus causes confusion, right? If so, that leads to basically the same conclusion as LPH's answer.
    – JK2
    Dec 17, 2022 at 4:10

But in "investors love the stock"--the active construction of the passive "the stock is loved by investors"--(1) the verb "love" does not denote an action; and (2) the grammatical subject "investors" is not the agent of an action.

The term "active" (also "action", "act", etc.) comes from the latin verb "agere", which means "to do".

Now, in

investors love the stock

ask yourself: what does the subject of the sentence - "(the) investors" - do? Answer: they do love.

In contrast:

The stock is loved by investors.

Here "the stock" is the subject of the sentence, but it doesn't "do" something, something is done to it instead. What is done to it? The loving from the investors.

I fail to see where your problem is.

  • Do you agree with the two presuppositions of the dictionary?
    – JK2
    Dec 16, 2022 at 9:22
  • @JK2: Yes, i do! I thought this was stated in my answer: "what do the investors do? They love."
    – bakunin
    Dec 16, 2022 at 9:44
  • Let me ask again. Do you agree that (1) the verb in the "active construction" denotes an "action"; and (2) the grammatical subject of the "active construction" is the agent of the action?
    – JK2
    Dec 16, 2022 at 9:49
  • @JK2: Let me answer again: Yes, i do! Ad (1): the action is the "love" the subject (investors) do to the object (the stock). Ad (2): The subject (investors) is the agent - it does the loving.
    – bakunin
    Dec 16, 2022 at 9:53
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    @JK2 All tensed intransitive verbs are by definition active verbs: Reasons exist. People left. Caesar died. The noise stopped. You're being tricked by this weird idea of actions.
    – tchrist
    Dec 16, 2022 at 18:35

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