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    #1

    Question The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Asking different questions on other tips of English Grammar, I faced some difficulty in telling where the subject can be active and where it can be not.
    Why can I say,

    'The book reads well'?

    Doesn't it mean that the book reads itself?

    How not to make a building 'to form itslef'?

  1. nyota's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    ***I'm not a teacher***


    The book reads well means that the book is good to read and so, anyone can read and enjoy it. It points to the quality of the patient (the book) itself. The agent in this sort of constructions (middle voice) is unexpressed because it's 'anyone'.

    For example, you can't say poems write easily. Writing refers more to the quality of the agent. Poems aren't easy to write for anybody who can write.


    Middle voice seems to be something between active and passive voice. Let's consider a couple of examples:

    1. These tiles lay easily.

    Lay is a transitive verb that should have a subject and an object. Grammatically, tiles is the subject but where's the object? This is the feature of the middle voice - one of the participants is not visible.

    Also, with transitive verbs you should have an agent and a patient. The agent does something and the patient undergoes the action. So tiles is clearly the patient. Notice it's not 'normal' for a patient to be the subject - that's another feature of the middle voice.
    The patient is also the subject in passive voice but the grammar's different. In other words: middle voice has the same grammar as active voice but the subject is a patient like in the passive voice.


    2. Woolen clothes wash easily.
    3. Woolen clothes shrink easily.


    (2) is an example of the middle voice, (3) is active voice. Why? Because in the middle voice, the verb has to be transitive and 'shrink' is intransitive. Woolen clothes shrink on their own, but they don't wash on their own. In the case of washing you need an agent; in the case of shrinking - you don't, which is why it's active voice.

    In the middle voice you also need an adverb at the end. However, it cannot by any adverb:

    4.*VW drives cautiously.
    5.*VW drives dangerously.


    (4) and (5) are incorrect because cars can't behave dangerously or cautiously. The adverb must describe the quality of the patient. That's why middle voice is often used as a marketing tool - if it refers to the quality of the patient, not the characteristics of the agent/user:

    (6) VW drives easily.

    The ease of driving comes from the quality of the car itself and has nothing to do with the driver or his skills - at least that's what they want you to think. ;)

    Yet another thing - the subject in the middle voice has to be inanimate, so you didn't confuse it with the agent:

    7.*Babies wash easily.
    8.*My grandma frightens easily.


    Technically, babies and grandma are patients here but it could be understood that the babies wash something or that the grandma frightens others, which is not the point.


    9. Softwood saws easily.
    10. Softwood is sawn easily.
    11. People saw softwood easily.


    In (9), the ease is due to the quality of the wood; in (10), the ease is due to the quality of the agent. (11) is rather awkward because it concerns people in general - everybody, and if so, why even mention that?

    You could also say that (12) cadillacs sell themselves which suggests that selling these cars requires next to no effort, and again it's about the quality of the patient not the agent's skills.


    P.S. I'm pretty sure the examples were taken from a book but unfortunately I couldn't find its title in my lecture notes.


    On edit: I think I've found the source - Fellbaum, Ch. 1986. The middle in English. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
    Last edited by nyota; 30-Mar-2011 at 18:09. Reason: Adding the source

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    #3

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Quote Originally Posted by nyota View Post
    Middle voice seems to be something between active and passive voice.
    I don't use the same terminology as nyota, but that's a clear picture of how certain verbs are used.

    I do, however, disagree on a couple of points.

    There doesn't always have to be an explicit adverb: Bookseller: Novels sell, biographies don't.
    The subject doesn't always have to be inanimate; I think we can say My grandma frightens/scares easily.

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    #4

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??


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    #5

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    I don't use the same terminology as nyota, but that's a clear picture of how certain verbs are used.

    I do, however, disagree on a couple of points.

    There doesn't always have to be an explicit adverb: Bookseller: Novels sell, biographies don't.
    Now that you've noticed it 5jj, the adverb can be quite easily removed in negatives, too: Red wine spots do not wash.

    Then perhaps it'd be better to say that the type of information the message contains also plays a role? For example, you wouldn't say *VW drives as it's pretty much obvious that what you do with cars is drive them. Novels sell is not necessarily that evident, it may depend on the market, current readers' preferences etc.

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    The subject doesn't always have to be inanimate; I think we can say My grandma frightens/scares easily.
    You're right. I should've said it's more ambiguous, not incorrect.

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    #6

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Quote Originally Posted by nyota View Post
    Then perhaps it'd be better to say that the type of information the message contains also plays a role? For example, you wouldn't say *VW drives as it's pretty much obvious that what you do with cars is drive them. Novels sell is not necessarily that evident, it may depend on the market, current readers' preferences etc.

    I haven't given it enought thought yet, but you could well be right.

    I think we can say 'My grandma frightens/scares easily'.
    You're right. I should've said it's more ambiguous, not incorrect.
    In the case of grandma scaring easily, I don't think there is any realistic chance of ambiguity. In such situations, then the subject can be animate - 'My daughter rarely sunbathes, because she burns easily'.
    Despite my picking up of the grandma sentence, I agree that the subject in such constructions is usually inanimate (because of the ambiguity you suggest with animate subjects), and it's a useful point to make.

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    #7

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Although this theme was already discussed in some past (I found that out only after having created my own thread), I think this, together with some fivejedjon's remarks, is an excellent explanation of the middle voice. Everything's as clear as day. Particularly to me, the lanquage learner. Thank you, nyota!

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    #8

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    ... I think we can say My grandma frightens/scares easily.
    Well mine certainly did.

    b

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    #9

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    ***** NOT A TEACHER *****


    I THINK (repeat: THINK) that we may be discussing so-called ERGATIVE verbs.

    If you go to the search box at this website and type in "ergative verbs," you will

    find more information

    in addition to the great explanations in this thread.

    And The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar gives these examples:

    My shirt has torn. (I have torn my shirt)

    The door opened. (Someone opened the door)

    The meat is cooking. (I'm cooking the meat)

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    #10

    Re: The book reads well, or How to recognize the Active and the Passive??

    Quote Originally Posted by TheParser View Post
    ***** NOT A TEACHER *****


    I THINK (repeat: THINK) that we may be discussing so-called ERGATIVE verbs.

    If you go to the search box at this website and type in "ergative verbs," you will

    find more information

    in addition to the great explanations in this thread.

    And The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar gives these examples:

    My shirt has torn. (I have torn my shirt)

    The door opened. (Someone opened the door)

    The meat is cooking. (I'm cooking the meat)
    An interesting remark. I've had a look at the ergative verbs. Is it the same as the middle voice?

    Also, the verb 'open' is what is always in my mind, better say, subconsciousness ). I remember learning the construction 'The shop opens at 8.00', not 'The shop is opened at 8.00'. Does that mean that in such sentences this verb is used only in the way shown above? Really eager to find that out .

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