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What is the Middle Voice?

We have probably all heard the terms “active voice” and “passive voice,” but did you know there is also a middle voice?

Grammarians use the term “voice” to refer to the relationship between the event described by a verb and the participants in the event. When a verb is in the active voice, the subject is performing the action described by the verb and the object of the verb is having the action performed on it. So, in a sentence like

The press published several excellent new studies on grammar.

The subject (“the press”) is doing the publishing, and the direct object (“several new studies of grammar”) is being published. The passive voice, the unfortunate bane of some writing teachers, is found in the sentence:

Several excellent new studies on grammar were published by the press.

where “new studies” is the subject and is having the action performed on it and the object of the preposition by is performing the action described by the verb. The metaphors “acting upon” and “being acted upon” are evident in the terms active voice and passive voice and extended to the idea of active and passives sentences (ones with active or passive voice verbs). And note that the by phrase can be omitted, leading to what is called the truncated passive where the noun performing the action (“the press”) is implied:

Several new studies on grammar were published.

Beyond the active and passive, English also has something known as the middle voice, sometimes more fancily called “the mediopassive.” The middle voice occurs when the subject of the sentence is the noun or noun phrase that is acted upon, but there are none of the trappings of the passive, like the auxiliary be-verb and the by-phrase. We find the middle voice in sentences like these:

Her novels sell well.

Some people photograph easily.

Novels are sold, not doing the selling; people are photographed, not operating a camera. But in these middle voice sentences, the focus is on the novels and people, and reference to agency is suppressed altogether. You can think of the middle voice as mid-way between the active and the passive—grammatically active but semantically passive. The middle voice is often accompanied by an adverb like well or easily, which refers to properties of the subjects (novels or people) or the situation that makes them good products or easily photographed.

The middle voice also includes sentences with a non-literal reflexive pronoun in the place of the adverb. An example would be “Her novels sell themselves,” which means that they are so easy to sell that no effort is needed. The sentence is a close paraphrase of “Her novels sell well,” but the similarity breaks down if the two sentences are negated: “Her novels don’t sell well” is not the quite the same as “Her novels don’t sell themselves.”

Verbs of causation overlap with middle verbs, and sometimes are even referred to as a kind of medio-passive. These are verbs like open, close, melt, freeze, sink, break, among others. Open, for example, can occur in the active voice, as in “Jill opened the window.” But it can also occur in the passive (“The window was opened by Jill”) or in the middle voice (The window opened”), where the implication of agency is suppressed.

The middle voice has antecedents and analogies in many other languages, and it enjoys a long history in English. Historians of the language date the middle in its present shape from the early fifteenth century and the scholar F. Th. Visser cites this 1437 example:

Grete pleynte … of Wynes made nygh the seide Portz come into this londe … atte that tyme … the tonne of such Wynes solde better chepe by a gretter quantite than it is nowe. 

In other words, the wines sold well.

A recent study by linguist Marianne Hundt found various examples of the middle in advertising product descriptions, like ones that refer to “sleepwear that machine washes,” surfaces that “wipe clean easily,” and even “a turtleneck collar that cuddles easily below the neck.”

The middle voice is anything but middling.

Featured image: “Books in Library” by Jessica Ruscello. Public Domain via Unsplash.

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