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Middle Voice Sentences

A sentence such as ""The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would," isn't in passive voice. It's in something called middle voice!

By
Neal Whitman, Writing for
9-minute read
Episode #640

I got a comment on YouTube from a listener named Steven, who asked about verbs like the ones in this following sentence: "The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would." Clearly, the screw didn’t screw itself in. The person who uttered the sentence screwed it in. A similar sentence came from a blacksmith he was talking with, who had cast some spearheads--that is, he had shaped them by pouring molten metal into a mold. The blacksmith wasn’t happy with how the spearheads had turned out, and he said, “Those spearheads didn't cast very well.” As Steven pointed out, “[T]he spearheads couldn't have cast themselves.” You might think phrasing a sentence this way would lead to total confusion, but it doesn’t. How is that possible? Steven wondered if this grammatical phenomenon has a name. 

In fact, there is a name for it. It’s usually called the middle voice, although if you want a more jargony name, you might prefer “mediopassive construction.” We’ve talked about active voice and passive voice in other episodes, but how does middle voice fit into the picture? To see how it does, we need to start with a recap of what active and passive voice are. 

Passive in Meaning, but Active in Form

In a typical active-voice sentence, the verb’s subject is the agent--the person or thing that performs the action. For example, “The blacksmith cast the spearheads” is in the active voice. The subject of the verb “cast” is “The blacksmith,” and the blacksmith is the one who did the casting. Depending on what verb you choose, there might also be a patient role, for the person or thing that undergoes the action. In the sentence “The blacksmith cast the spearheads,” the patient is the direct object, “the spearheads,” since they’re what underwent the casting process. 

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On the other hand, when a sentence is in the passive voice, the verb’s subject is the patient. The sentence “The spearheads were cast” is in the passive voice, and “the spearheads” is now the subject. As for the agent, it doesn’t have to be expressed. If you want to express it, you can do it by using the word “by”; for example, “The spearheads were cast by the blacksmith.” But here’s an important point: Whether you express the agent or not, there has to be one. In other words, if you say, “The spearheads were cast,” you’re implicitly saying that someone or something cast them; it didn’t just happen on its own. We know this is true, because a sentence like “The spearheads were cast, but no one cast them” is a contradiction.

So now let’s talk about “Those spearheads didn’t cast very well.” Once again, the patient is the subject, so this sentence is similar to passive voice in that way. Also, there was definitely an agent--the blacksmith--even though we’re not saying so explicitly. So that makes two things that this sentence has in common with the sentence in the passive voice. 

However, in form, “The spearheads didn’t cast well” does not look like passive voice. In English, a verb phrase in the passive voice typically consists of some form of the verb “be,” and a past participle. For example, in the passive-voice sentence “The spearheads were cast,” we have “were,” which is a past-tense form of “be,” and the past participle “cast”—“were cast.” We don’t have any of that in the sentence “Those spearheads didn’t cast very well.” We just have the ordinary, active-voice, negated verb phrase “didn’t cast.” 

Other Properties of the Middle Voice

The middle voice has some other differences from passive voice. With the passive voice, you don’t have to mention the agent, although you can if you want to. With the middle voice, you can’t. A sentence like “Those spearheads didn’t cast very well by the blacksmith” is ungrammatical. 

With the passive voice, you don’t have to mention the agent, although you can if you want to. With the middle voice, you can’t.

Second, middle-voice sentences usually include some adverbial meaning, negation, or a modal verb, or a combination of the three. “The spearheads didn’t cast very well” has both negation (“didn’t”) and an adverb phrase (“very well”). “The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would” has the adverb phrase “more easily than I thought it would.” 

Third, middle-voice sentences insinuate that the responsibility for the action is not with the agent, but with the patient. When the blacksmith said, “Those spearheads didn’t cast very well,” it sounds a bit like the bad casting was not the blacksmith’s fault; maybe it was some problem with the metal. A clearer example is “The screw screwed in easily.” The speaker isn’t saying that their own mastery of hand tools allowed them to screw in the screw. Instead, something about the inherent or designed properties of the screw made it possible. For this reason, they sometimes also go by a more-specific name: the dispositional middle voice. It was the disposition of the screw, something inherent to its nature, that made it easy to screw in.

This property is tied to the last one we’ll mention: Since middle-voice sentences are more about saying something about the qualities of their subject, they often don’t refer to a specific event. For example, “This history book reads like a novel,” “My car drives smoothly,” and “Squiggly doesn’t embarrass easily” are general statements, not about particular events. Possibly the most famous dispositional middle-voice sentence in the United States is from a TV commercial in the 1980s, which states that a certain brand of soup is “the soup that eats like a meal.”

However, not all middle-voice sentences are dispositional. For example, Steven’s sentences about spearheads and screws do refer to particular events. So do sentences such as “Your receipt is printing,” “The painting sold for $1.2 million,” and “Suddenly, the tablecloth blew away.” 

Patient-Subject Constructions

As it turns out, middle-voice sentences are not the only kind of construction in which a verb that ordinarily takes a direct object doesn’t take one, and instead has a patient as its subject--and isn’t passive voice. English has two others. 

One of them involves verbs that name actions that agents do to themselves or to each other. To put it another way, the subjects of these verbs are both agent and patient. For example, think about the verb “shave.” It can be used as an ordinary verb with a direct object, in a sentence such as “Fenster shaved his tail.” But it can also be used without a direct object, as in “Fenster shaved.” In that case, it means the same thing as “Fenster shaved himself.” For another example, the sentence “Squiggly and Aardvark hugged” means the same thing as “Squiggly and Aardvark hugged each other,” even though it doesn’t use the phrase “each other.” In these examples, the agent doing the shaving or hugging is also a patient, getting shaved or receiving a hug.

The other kind of patient-subject construction involves verbs such as “break,” “melt,” “boil,” “freeze,” “open,” “close,” “burn,” and many others. Let’s illustrate with the verb “burn”. You can definitely use “burn” with a direct object, in a sentence like “My roommate had burned the cookies.” You can also put it in the passive voice, as in “The cookies had been burned,” and your listeners will know you mean it didn’t just happen; someone or something did it. But you can also use it with a patient-subject, as in “The cookies had burned.” In this sentence, maybe there was an agent, or maybe the burning just happened. The speaker isn’t telling us. And as with dispositional middle-voice constructions, we can’t specify an agent. The sentence “The cookies had burned by my roommate” isn’t a possible sentence. These verbs go by several names, but the one that I find easiest to understand is “anticausative verbs.”

So all together, there are four kinds of patient-subject constructions in English, and only one of them is the actual passive voice! The other three are the verbs of reflexive or reciprocal action, as in “I dressed quickly” and “Where did Kim and Sandy meet?”; the anticausative verbs in sentences such as “The door opened” or “My tomatoes froze”; and the middle-voice sentences that kicked off this episode, such as “The spearheads didn’t cast well” and “My new boat handles like a dream.”  We need a convenient name for these three kinds of constructions, so I’m going to use the acronym RAM: R for reflexive and reciprocal, A for anticausative, and M for middle voice. 

Middle Voice in Other Languages

Not all languages express RAM meanings the way English does, but interestingly, these meanings tend to cluster together in different languages. A paper by Artemis Alexiadou and Edit Doron, published in 2012, divides languages into three groups. The group that includes English lets active-voice forms express RAM meanings. Another group, which includes Classical Greek, modern Hebrew, standard Arabic, and an African language called Fula, have an active voice and a passive voice, and also a third set of verb forms, which is used for RAM meanings. This third set, you may have guessed, is called the middle voice. This group of languages also includes some of the Romance languages, such as Spanish and French. If you know some Spanish, you may have noticed that a sentence such as Se habla español, which is usually translated as “Spanish is spoken,” actually seems to mean “Spanish speaks itself”! That’s because the same verb forms, namely the reflexive ones, are used both for actual reflexive meanings and for patient-subject meanings where the agent is unknown. 

The third group of languages that Alexiadou and Doron identify includes languages such as Amharic and Modern Greek. These languages don’t have a passive voice at all--instead, they have an active voice and a voice that covers all the situations where a patient is a subject. So for that reason the non-active voice in these languages is often called the medio-passive.

Middle Voice Everywhere

According to one study, middle voice is on the rise in English, with an especially big increase in frequency and variety during the twentieth century. Once you start thinking about the middle voice in English, you’ll start to notice it everywhere. In fact, and this is a true story, in a single day while I was writing this script, I noticed two of them in a magazine article about the airline industry. One sentence said that deregulation “made it easier for new carriers to launch,” with the patient “new carriers” as its subject. The other said that the galleys were the places “where we enter and exit the plane, [and] where the drink carts stow.” The drink carts don’t stow themselves; the flight attendants stow them. Mere hours later, an air-conditioner technician told me as he wrote up the paperwork for a service call, “The bill will be sending this week.” A couple more hours later, I downloaded some updated software for a handheld device, and a message on my screen said, “Your file is downloading.” The instructions I was following said that once I selected the downloaded file, “Your software will install automatically.” 

Once you start thinking about the middle voice in English, you’ll start to notice it everywhere.

The last two sentences show that sometimes it’s hard to say for sure that a verb is an implicit reflexive, an anticausative, or a middle-voice verb. On the one hand, “Your software will install automatically” means more or less the same thing as “Your software will install itself,” so maybe “install” is an implicit reflexive. On the other hand, it also means more or less the same thing as “Your software will install all by itself,” which makes it look more like an anticausative. And finally, if you don’t give any thought to the agent at all, and just go with the flow, the sentence just looks like another middle-voice construction. That’s probably why these RAM meanings tend to pattern together so often. There are situations where it’s just not clear whether they involve just one participant, or two. If you use the same verb forms for all these situations, context can do most of the work of resolving them into the different kinds of RAM meanings, or it can leave it conveniently ambiguous.

Neal Whitman is an independent PhD linguist who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com, and you can find him on Twitter at @LiteralMinded.

References

Alexiadou, Artemis, and Edit Doron. "The Syntactic Construction of Two Non-Active Voices: Passive and Middle." Journal of Linguistics 48.1 (2012): 1-34. Print.

Hundt, Marianne. English Mediopassive Constructions : A Cognitive, Corpus-Based Study of their Origin, Spread, and Current Status. 58 Vol. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. Print.

Bradley, Ryan. "The Incredible! Shrinking! Airplane!" Popular Science (Fall 2018): 52-9. Print.

Kaufmann, Ingrid. "Middle Voice." Lingua 117.10 (2007): 1677-714. Print.

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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