I just wrote a psychology quiz and there was a "good at" question that I did not answer correctly. I would like to ask the thread's help on this one.

The question was:

Is the following a behavior or a summary label: "A person was [good at tuning the violin]."

If the "good at" phrase is interpreted as an action, then it is a behavior. If the "good at" phrase is interpreted as a personal characteristic, then it is a summary label. An online thesaurus gave the synonym of "to have a particular physical or mental skill" for "good at doing something". It is very unclear to me whether "good at tuning violins" actually refers to a specific, instance or instances or tuning violins or as a description of a person skill in tuning violins.

My psychology profs often seem to want to be English profs. The correct answer to the question hinges on whether or not [good at] should be understood as an active or a passive phrase. The question had to be phrased in nominal English, so whatever is considered to be correct by those highly proficient in English usage is the answer that should be accepted as correct.

{The behaviorist tradition in psychology makes a distinction between objectively measurable responses (behavior) and subjectively applied labels. So for a behaviorist, someone with autism (label) would be described as a person with autistic behaviors (behavior). The rationale here is that behavior can be changed while using operant technology, while a label is a description that refers to an internal state of a person that is assumed unchangeable. The danger is that when people are labeled, others can respond to them according to the label and not according to how other people are actually responding.}

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    Your use of "active" and "passive" is not the grammatical use. There is no active or passive construction in good at. Passive is something that can only happen to a transitive verb with a direct object, not an adjective with an infinitive modifier. And there are several different kinds of "action"; it's not a unified concept. Jun 5, 2018 at 18:45
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is not about learning English, but about a specific use of technical terminology.
    – James K
    Jul 3, 2022 at 19:32

2 Answers 2


I would regard [good at tuning the violin] to be an adjective describing 'person'. Based on the information that you provided, I would then conclude that the phrase is a summary label.

Just an opinion.

  • Thank you for replying James! Yes, it does have a sense of being something that one has more than what one does. I can see that in psychology that they want language to be very precise, though often language is not like that. Sometimes, even a very simple phrase such as [good at] can be ambiguous. Jun 5, 2018 at 21:55
  • YEAHH!!! I just got an email with an upgrade on my quiz! Looks like they bought my line of thinking! The actual sentence was more complicated than what I presented, though I presented basic idea faithfully. One feature of this course is that you are encouraged to engage in debating the marking received: it is felt that such argumentation shows a higher level of course content understanding than even giving the "correct" answer. Jun 5, 2018 at 23:25

As John Lawler notes in the comment, whether it is a "behavior" or "summary label" is separate from the grammatical construction that is used. Active or passive voice is a property of verb predicates, but "good at..." is an adjectival predicate.

Examples of active voice:

  • Someone tuned the violin.
  • Someone was tuning the violin.

Examples of passive voice:

  • The violin was tuned by someone.
  • The violin was being tuned by someone.

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