Middle Constructions in English

With a short comparison to German

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

18 Pages, Grade: 1,1 (A)



0. Introduction

1. Middle constructions in English
1.1 What are middles?
1.2 Examples
1.3 General characteristics
1.4 Middle formation and its circumstances
1.5 Verbs which form middles
1.6 Middles and passives
1.7 Middles and ergatives
1.61 Transitivity of middles and ergatives
1.8 Sources of confusion

2. Middle constructions in German

3. Conclusions

4. Bibliography

0. Introduction:

With this paper I want to give a survey about middles in English, verbs which form middles, general characteristics, make obvious the relationship between middles and passives and middles and ergatives and in the end compare German and English middles.

I dedicated this paper also to the question: Are verbs which form middles transitive or intransitive?

Some experts claim, that middle verbs can be both, transitive or intransitive (cf. Dixon), others try to prove that verbs which form middles are always transitive and that with middle formation the transitivity is lost.

1. Middle constructions in English

1.1 What are middles?

The best way to explain middles is perhaps to give some designations and then some examples for middle constructions. Nesfield said 1898 that middles are “active in form but passive in meaning“. Jesperson calls them “activo-passive“ (as do Bresnan 1982b and Levin 1982).

As well used are the terms “middle voice“ (e.g. Andrews 1982), “middle“(e.g. Bresnan 1982a), and “mediopassive“(e.g.Bresnan 1982c). Brown and Miller mention the terms “pseudo- intransitive” or “patient- subject construction”. There also exist the term “promotion to subject”, which describes the shift of grammatical functions from active to a middle sentence. The most common expression is “middle”, which should therefore be used in this essay.

The origin of middle voice is locate in Greek language. Brown and Miller state in their Generative Grammar: “In grammars of Classical Greek three sets of verb paradigms are distinguished: active, middle and passive.”[1]

Some examples shall serve to make obvious the grammatical differences between middle, active and passive voice.

1.2 Examples

(1) Mary washes the woolens well. active
(1a) The woolens are washed well (by Mary). passive
(1b) The woolens wash well. middle[2]
(2) Hugo sells sports cars quickly. active
(2a) The sports cars are sold quickly (by Hugo). passive
(2b) Sports cars sell quickly. middle

In the change from active to passive according to grammatical functions the active object takes the place of the passive subject (see 1-1a, 2-2a). This change of focus is stressed by the change of verb form in passive. In middles the change of the subject- object focus is the same as in passive (compare 1a-1b, 2a-2b). Only there is no change in verbal morphology. The verb remains active. Instead, middle constructions need markers like adverbs or modals, as shall be presented in the following.

1.3 General characteristics

In middles not the subject plays the responsible role for the action, but in middles the grammatical function of the subject is in some kind generalised. One could also say that there is no “deep subject”.

“It is possible, in some particular instance of an activity, for the success or lack of success to be due not to the subject (which is usually the responsible role) but to some role in non- subject relation. If this is so, then that role may be promoted into subject slot (and the original subject is omitted from the sentence).”[3]

E.g. Sports cars sell quickly means that people in general like to buy them.

This fabric washes easily means the same as This fabric is easily washable or People in

general can wash this fabric easily.[4]

When a non- subject role is promoted to subject the original subject is lost. Nothing is added to the verb in contrast to passive with its marker “ be--en”.

In the phrase Sports cars sell quickly“ Sports cars is still understood to be in object relation to the verb, although it is in surface subject slot. There are transitive and intransitive examples for promotion to subject (=Middle constructions).

Dixon says: “ Potentially, any non- subject noun phrase from a transitive or intransitive clause may be promoted into subject slot; the transitivity of the clause is not affected.”[5]

1.4 Middle formation and its circumstances

Middle formation is possible if there is some marker of the success of an activity, like an adverb, the negative particle, a modal or emphatic “do”.

a) Adverb

(i) SPEED--- slowly, fast, quickly, rapidly
(ii) VALUE--- well, badly, properly, oddly, strangely
(iii) DIFFICULTY--- easily, with/ without difficulty

It is also possible to add comparatives, like quicker, better. [6]

b) Negation

Used to stress the lack of success of the referent of a non- subject role.

e.g. That book didn´t sell. [7]

The middle house won´t let.[8]

c) Modal

e.g. Do you think this material will make up into a nice- looking dress? Yes, it must/ should/ ought to/ might make up into a really stunning gown. [9]

d) Emphatic “do”

Emphatic do has a similar effect like an adverb.

e.g. These sports cars do sell, don´t they?

In Middle sentences mostly present tense is used, but it is also possible to use past tense/ present perfect e.g.

(4) This jumper (has) washed well. middle

(4a) This politician (has) bribed easily middle.[10]

Sell is one of the verbs, which do not always need a marker. It is frequently used in middle constructions, especially in the advertising area.

e.g. Did those sports cars sell? [11]

The frequency in which Middles occur in advertisement language is very high. One can say that they almost form a part of advertisement register.

e.g. This rose prunes easily. (rose catalogue)

This wine drinks well. (wine catalogue)

This bra unhooks at the front. (advertisement)[12]

In general one can say that Middle sentences which do not contain a marker are wrong.


(a) *Bureaucrats bribe.
(b) *The wall paints.
(c) *The chicken killed.
(d) *The floor waxes.[13]


[1] E.K. Brown and J.E. Miller (1982): Syntax: Generative Grammar. London Melbourne Sydney Auckland Johannesburg, Hutchinson, 224

[2] RMW Dixon (1991): A new approach to English grammar on semantic principles, OUP, 323

[3] RMW Dixon (1991): A new approach to English grammar, 322

[4] Brown Keith, Jim Miller (1999): Concise encyclopedia of grammatical categories, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 396

[5] Cf. Dixon: A new approach to English grammar, 324

[6] Cf. Dixon (1991): 326

[7] Dixon (1991): 326

[8] ibid, 326

[9] ibid, 326

[10] Brown and Miller (1999): Encyclopedia, 396

[11] Dixon (1991): 326

[12] Ingo Rauh, Handout to the Hauptseminar, 06.12.99

[13] Keyser Samuel Jay and Thomas Roeper (1984): On the Middle and Ergative Constructions in English. Linguistic Inquiry 15, 385

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Middle Constructions in English
With a short comparison to German
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistisches Institut III)
Verb Classes and verb alternations in English
1,1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
408 KB
Middle, Constructions, English, Verb, Classes
Quote paper
Claudia Haase (Author), 2000, Middle Constructions in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/36907


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