What is an active verb anyway?

On the face of it, 'use active verbs' sounds like good advice. Who wouldn't want to be active, right? But actually, 'active verbs' aren't a real grammatical phenomenon. Like 'engaging' or 'immersive', this often-used phrase doesn't have an exact definition, which makes it a less-than-perfect way to deliver advice...

 What is an active verb anyway?

Advice about writing often feels a bit samey. One set of guidelines is inspired by another, which was itself based on a training session someone once went to, that was itself inspired by a grammar book or even a lesson from school or college.

To some extent this is understandable. Good advice bears repeating or restating for a new context. But when the advice is incomplete or flawed, there’s the danger that a half-baked writing tip will go viral. We have seen this with much of the prevailing advice on the passive generally, and specifically in the oft-repeated injunction: ‘Use active verbs’. It comes up frequently in blog posts and even signed-off brand books and tonal guidelines.

‘Active verbs’ don’t actually exist

On the face of it, ‘use active verbs’ sounds like good advice. Who wouldn’t want to be active, right? But actually, ‘active verbs’ aren’t a real grammatical phenomenon. Like ‘engaging’ or ‘immersive’, this often-used phrase doesn’t have an exact definition, which makes it a less-than-perfect way to deliver advice.

Does ‘use active verbs’ mean use the active voice as opposed to the passive voice? Does it mean simply use verbs that denote actions? Then again, does it mean verbs that feel active and energetic – that are punchy monosyllables like ‘get’ and ‘buy’? Or does it mean use imperatives?

There are problems with the word ‘active’ in each of these uses:

  1. Strictly, there are no such things as ‘active verbs’ or ‘passive verbs’. And there is nothing inherently wrong with putting a verb in the passive voice
  2. ‘A word that denotes action’ is many people’s basic understanding of what a verb is, so from this perspective the advice is virtually tautologous. (Although the reality is a little more complex – Wikipedia defines a verb as ‘a word that in syntax conveys an action (bring, read, walk, run, learn), an occurrence (happen, become), or a state of being (be, exist, stand)’.)
  3. Punchiness is probably part of what is meant here – but the word ‘active’, having as it does a specific technical meaning in relation to verbs, isn’t very helpful.
  4. The imperative, which means a sentence that’s phrased as a directive to the reader, probably comes into it too. But again ‘active’ doesn’t really cut it to accurately convey the idea of verbs as directives.

What to say instead?

What people often mean by ‘active verbs’ are punchy imperatives like ‘get’, ‘grab’, ‘explore’ or ‘discover’ (rather than, say, ‘purchase’’ or ‘investigate’). And they often they mean that we should use these at the start of a sentence, especially as a call to action.

‘Write a sentence that starts with a punchy verb and tells the user to do something’ might be a bit of a mouthful, but then again not everyone will know what ‘use punchy imperatives’ means. So we recommend substituting ‘use active verbs’ for something like ‘use punchy, simple verbs’ and ‘tell the user what to do’. And above all, support your advice with lots of really clear, illustrative examples. Here are some punchy imperatives in action…

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