Passive Verbs in
the Middle Voice

Ergative Verbs - or 'Passive Verbs' - can express how the subject of a sentence is affected by the main verb, except that the sentence doesn't need to be in Passive Voice to do so. Sentences that contain Passive Verbs have the Active Voice structure with the Passive Voice meaning and my be considered to be in 'Middle Voice' (or perhaps more specifically: Mediopassive Voice or Anticausative Voice).

While the Passive Voice is a reversed-order sentence construction used to show how the subject is affected by the verb instead of acting out the verb, it is possible to get this same effect in Active Voice, or at least with a structure that’s identical to Active Voice.  There are certain verbs whose very meaning (or one of their meanings) express what happens to the subject, instead of what the subject actively does.  Let’s call these ‘Passive Verbs‘.

Insights likes to call these ‘Passive Verbs’ for the sake of consistency — that is, to show how they’re thematically related to Passive Adjectives and Passive Voice.  But if you happen to come across them elsewhere, they might be referred to as ‘Labile Verbs’ or ‘Ergative Verbs’.

To get a better understanding of what Passive Verbs are, let’s run through a few examples:

  • “My phone broke again.”
  • “The flag has twisted in the wind.”
  • “The scones are baking in the oven.”
  • “A bottle washed up on shore.”
  • “The wire hanger might bend from overuse.”
  • “These gadgets will sell like hotcakes!”

 

Notice that each of these sentences appear to be constructed in Active Voice, yet they communicate the effects of the verb.  The first example uses the verb break, but although the subject ‘phone’ performs the verb in a grammatical sense, we can assume that the phone didn’t break itself.  Nor do the scones bake themselves.  In some cases, like with the twisting flag, an argument could be made that subject does carry out the verb and do something to itself (we call this ‘reflexive’) — but even in those cases, the point is still on the effect, not the cause.

Here is a collection of Passive Verbs.  For some, it depends upon how the verb is used.

appear, bake, bend, boil, break, burn, burst, burst, change, close, cook, cool, drive, drop, enter, extend, fall, flail, fly, form, fry, grow, heal, hurry, look, melt, move, open, read, return, reverse, run, sail, seem, sell, shake, shatter, sink, smell, sound, spill, stretch, sweep, taste, tear, transform, trip, turn, twist

Consider another example: “The door opened.”  Perhaps the door opened itself (active voice; reflexive) using some mechanism, or perhaps the door was opened by someone else (passive voice) who is unstated.

There’s a mild difference between the Passive Verbs used in Active Voice and those same verbs used in Passive Voice.  Consider:

  • “The door opened.” vs. “The door was opened.”
  • “The flag has twisted in the wind.” vs. “The flag has been twisted in the wind.”
  • “The scones are baking in the oven.” vs. “The scones are being baked in the oven.”

 

The first version of each sentence (Passive Verbs in Active Voice) feel very static.  The second version of each (Passive Voice) has a dynamic nature to it, if only a little.  While the Passive Voice focuses on how the verb affects the subject, Passive Verbs seem to feel less like they indicate a result of an action (although they are) and more like a state.  It’s almost as is Passive Verbs were attributes that could be ascribed to their subjects.

As for the sentence construction, there’s an argument that these example sentences are in not Active Voice after all, but rather in a different voice known as Middle Voice — or perhaps one of its sub-voices: Mediopassive Voice, Anticausative Voice, or Reflexive/Reciprocal Voice.

Mediopassive Voice and Anticausative Voice are features of various other languages.  They do have correlations in English, but are not clearly defined in English, and whether they even have a distinct place in English grammar is debatable.  But in case you’re curious, the following sections offer an approximation of what these variations on Middle Voice might entail.  You may notice a fair amount of overlap between the two.

Mediopassive Voice

Mediopassive Voice may be used to express an attribute of the subject, and sometimes it is devoid of any true action (not unlike linking verbs like ‘be’).  Here are some examples:

  • “This sweater feels nice and warm!”
  • “Your ice cream will melt quickly, so eat fast!”
  • “The TV show ran for only one season.”
  • “Those leaves have changed colors recently.”

 

With each example, we learn something about the subject, even though the subject doesn’t actively do anything.  There may or may not be an unspoken noun that performs or causes the action represented by the noun (for example, someone might be touching the sweater to feel it, or maybe not and that first example sentence is just a bit of descriptive advertising).

Anticausative Voice

The Causative Voice expresses how the subject might cause a verb to happen, even if that same subject might not be the agent that ultimately performs the action (in which case, the subject would play a more indirect role).

The Anticausative Voice, conversely, eliminates the agent; whatever caused the verb – directly or indirectly – is not voiced here.  Some examples include:

  • “The vase shattered when the ball crashed into it.”
  • “That ship sunk long ago.”
  • “My orange isn’t peeling well, and I’ve made a mess of the rind.”

 

Who shattered the vase?  What sunk the ship?  Without further context, we may never know.

We can see that the verbs here are a bit more active than the verbs in Mediopassive Voice.  But the key is that it’s not the subject that’s carrying out those actions.  That’s what makes it Middle Voice.

Reflexive/Reciprocal Voice

Reflexive Voice could arguably be a form of Middle Voice, although it doesn’t use Passive Verbs.  With reflexive verbs (or perhaps verbs followed by reflexive pronouns), the subject does take action, as with the Active Voice.  However, the subject is also the recipient of the action, as with Passive Voice.  For example:

  • “My scar is healing nicely!”
  • “She dressed in elegant eveningwear before calling a cab.”
  • “I love how caterpillars transform into butterflies!”

The reflexive pronouns ‘itself’, ‘herself’, and ‘themselves’ (respectively) could be added after the verbs, but the sentences work fine without them.

Reciprocal Voice works in the same way, except that instead of individual subjects performing verbs for themselves, multiple (often just two) subjects do something on/to/for each other, as in “They kissed beneath the starlit sky”.

Keep on Learning; Keep on Teaching

Passive Voice

Middle Voice isn't as common as Active Voice or even Passive Voice. It's usually in learning about Passive Voice that we come to understand what 'voice' means.
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Causative Voice

One structure that is sometimes considered to be yet another 'voice' is the Causative Structure. Different types of causative may be semi-passive or semi-active.
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