Wilbers: You can't use the active voice until you get to the transitive

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2013 - 2:00 PM

The last time I gave a presentation, we had so much fun discussing the active voice that no one wanted to leave. Dinners were missed. Children were not picked up from day care.

But this time I had to explain a concept with an ugly name, one that makes people run for the exits. I decided to take an indirect approach.

“Which of the following sentences are active and which are passive?” I asked.

1. God made the sky blue.

2. The sky was made blue by God.

3. The sky is blue.

“The first sentence is active,” they said, “and the second two are passive.”

“Well,” I said, “I threw you a curve ball. Sentence 1 is active. The subject performs the action. Sentence 2 is passive. The subject receives the action. Sentence 3 is neither active nor passive.”

There was an awkward silence. I knew the time had come to use the word.

“Sentence 3 is intransitive.”

There were gasps and cries, but when they reached the exits, they found them locked.

“Please,” I said, “it’s not as bad as you think. You can’t have active or passive voice unless you have action and objects, and verbs with action and objects are called …”

“Stop!” cried a woman. “Please don’t use that word again.”

“… are called transitive,” I said.

“Hey, that wasn’t so bad,” said a man, drying his tears. “Transitive?”

“That’s right,” I said. “Note that the verb in sentence 3 links the subject, sky, to its complement, blue, but there’s no action or object, so it’s neither active nor passive. It may sound passive, but it’s …”

There was another gasp.

“… a linking verb,” I said. “Remember: No action, no object — no active, no passive voice. Only transitive verbs can be active or passive.”

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