Middle Voice  

What is middle voice?

The so-called middle voice is an approximate type of grammatical voice in which the subject both performs and receives the action expressed by the verb. In other words, the subject acts as both the agent and the receiver (i.e., the direct object) of the action. For example:
  • He injured himself playing rugby.” (He is the agent and himself is the receiver of the action.)
  • The cat is scratching itself.” (The cat is the agent and itself is the receiver of the action.)
Middle-voice verbs follow the same syntactic structure as in the active voice (agent + verb), but function semantically as passive-voice verbs. As a result, the middle voice is described as a combination of the active and passive voices.
Because there is no verb form exclusive to the middle voice, it is often categorized as the active voice since it uses the same verb structure in a sentence. The following examples highlight the similarities between the two:
  • Some snakes have tried to eat inedible things.” (active voice)
  • Some snakes have tried to eat themselves.” (middle voice)
  • The man accidentally hit his face.” (active voice)
  • The man accidentally hit himself in the face.” (middle voice)

How to identify the middle voice

We can distinguish the middle voice from the active voice by determining whether there is a reflexive pronoun after the verb (in the direct object position) or an intransitive verb acting upon the agent.

When the direct object is a reflexive pronoun

Because the agent is also the receiver of the action in the middle voice, we can clarify this connection by inserting a reflexive pronoun after the verb. The reflexive pronoun assumes the role of the direct object and indicates that the agent is acting upon itself. For example:
  • The child warmed herself by blowing into her hands.” (Herself is a reflexive pronoun that refers to the child.)
  • Small dogs tend to hurt themselves when playing with bigger dogs.” (Themselves is a reflexive pronoun that refers to small dogs.)
Many middle-voice verbs are transitive verbs and therefore require a direct object in the form of a reflexive pronoun. Without a reflexive pronoun, the receiver of the action becomes unclear, and the sentence loses coherence. For example:
  • The child warmed by blowing into her hands.” (What or whom did the child warm?)
  • Small dogs tend to hurt when playing with bigger dogs.” (What or whom do small dogs tend to hurt?)
Reusing the agent instead of adding a reflexive pronoun will affect the coherence of the sentence or even change its meaning altogether:
  • The child warmed the child by blowing into her hands.” (implies the child warmed a different child)
  • Small dogs tend to hurt small dogs when playing with bigger dogs.” (implies small dogs tend to hurt other small dogs)
Likewise, using a personal pronoun instead of a reflexive pronoun will change or confuse the meaning of the verb’s action:
  • The child warmed her by blowing into her hands.” (implies the child warmed a different child)
  • Small dogs tend to hurt them when playing with bigger dogs.” (indicates an unspecified object of the verb hurt other than small dogs)
However, there do exist certain verbs for which the reflexive pronouns are implied and may therefore be eliminated. For example:
  • My father is shaving himself in the bathroom.” (with the reflexive pronoun himself)
  • My father is shaving in the bathroom.” (without reflexive the pronoun)
  • She always stretches herself before doing yoga.” (with the reflexive pronoun herself)
  • She always stretches before doing yoga.” (without reflexive the pronoun)

When the verb is intransitive and acting upon the agent

Certain intransitive verbs can be used to modify an agent (usually an inanimate object) that is also the receiver of the action. In the middle voice, this type of verb does not take a reflexive pronoun (or any direct object). For example:
  • My sister’s lunch is cooking on the stove.” (Cook is an intransitive verb indicating what is being cooked.)
  • This car doesn’t drive smoothly anymore.” (Drive is an intransitive verb indicating what is being driven.)
  • Her engagement ring broke in half.” (Break is an intransitive verb indicating what is being broken.)
However, active-voice verbs can also be intransitive and are expressed identically to middle-voice verbs. For example:
  • The boy laughed when he heard the joke.” (Laugh is an intransitive verb indicating who is laughing.)
  • Someone is crying in the hallway.” (Cry is an intransitive verb indicating who is crying.)
You can determine whether an intransitive verb is in the active voice or the middle voice by changing the verb into the passive voice. Doing so will convert the intransitive verb into a transitive verb and the agent into the receiver of the action. If the meaning of the sentence stays roughly the same, it is in the middle voice. If the meaning changes dramatically or lacks coherence, it is in the active voice. For example:
  • My sister’s lunch is cooking on the stove.” (original)
Because cook can be converted into a transitive verb in the passive voice without altering the meaning of the original sentence, we know that the original sentence must be in the middle voice.
Here is another example:
  • The boy laughed when he heard the joke.” (original)
When converted into the passive voice, the original sentence loses coherence; therefore, we know it must be in the active voice.
Quiz

1. Which of the following is the correct word order for a middle-voice sentence?







2. Which of the following sentences is in the middle voice?





3. Which of the following sentences is in the active voice?





4. Which of the following sentences is not in the middle voice?





Complete English Grammar Rules is available for purchase as Paperback and Kindle eBook.
Share Tweet Share

Conversations