Action and Static Verbs

Start by briefly reviewing transitive and intransitive verbs.

Action verbs: the subject of the sentence does the action described in the verb. Action verbs are either transitive verbs in the active voice (see 1 below) or intransitive verbs (see 3 below).

Static verbs: either the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb (transitive verbs in the passive voice - see 2 below), there is no action ('to be' verbs - see 4 below), or the action is vague ('weak verbs' - see 5 below).


1. Transitive verbs in the active voice (action) are followed by a noun (direct object). The grammatical subject does the action and the direct object receives the action. Transitive verbs, whether in active or passive voice, always describe action carried to an object. If the actor is the subject of the sentence, voice is active. If the object is the subject of the sentence, voice is passive. Active and passive voice only refer to transitive verbs.

example: The lion subject and actor ate transitive, active voice the zebra object, receiver of the action.

Do you see that the grammatical subject and the actor (whoever does the action described by the verb) are the same? Lion is the subject and the actor.


2. Transitive verbs in the passive voice (static) are followed by a phrase.

example: The zebra subject, receiver of action was eaten transitive, passive voice by the lion actor, object of prepositional phrase.

The verb in sentence 2 is still transitive because it describes movement of action to an object. And the actor is still the lion, the lion is the eater. And the receiver of the action (the 'eatee') is still the zebra. But now the actor is not the grammatical subject; instead, the actor is hiding in a prepositional phrase. In most of your sentences, you will want the actor to be the grammatical subject = use active voice unless you have reason not to.

Do not confuse voice with tense

Sue kicked the ball. active voice, past tense

Sue is kicking the ball. active voice, present tense

The ball will be kicked by Sue. passive voice, future tense


3. Intransitive verbs (action) are not followed by nouns but are usually followed by adverbs or adverbial phrases - adverbs and adverbial phrases indicate where, when, why, or how. The terms 'active voice' and 'passive voice' are not used with intransitive verbs.

example: The lion subject and actor ran intransitive quickly adverb.

4. 'To be' verbs (static) do not describe action but define or describe a noun. 'To be' verbs are static by definition. The 'to be' verb is usually followed by an adjective (predicate adjective) or a noun (predicate nominative).

example: The lion subject but no action is to be fierce adjective.

example: Lions subject but no action are to be efficient predators noun.


Auxiliary verbs. When used with transitive or intransitive verbs, 'is', 'are', 'was', 'will be', 'am', etc. are auxiliary verbs and not to be verbs.

example: The lion was eating transitive, active voice the zebra. (the verb consists of both was and eating).


5. Weak verbs (static) do not describe a specific action and usually can be replaced by verbs that do.

example: This report serves weak to demonstrate our position.

revision: This report demonstrates transitive, active voice our position.

example: They made weak a presentation of the data.

revision: They presented transitive, active voice the data.

other examples: They reached a decision.

They came to a conclusion.

They had a meeting.

The report placed emphasis on field data.

The carbohydrate provided inhibition of the reaction.


Some passive expressions common in scientific writing

In the following examples, the writer ineffectively attributes an idea or action to an anonymous source:

It was shown that predators regulate prey.

It is known that predators regulate prey.

Regulation has been observed to occur on small islands.

Improve these by identifying or deleting the anonymous source. You can identify the source in the sentence or in a citation. Assume the source is Smith below.

Smith showed that predators regulate prey. (identify source in sentence)

Predators regulate prey (Smith). (move source from sentence to citation)

Regulation occurs on small islands (Smith). (move source from sentence to citation)