Three women passing money between them in a market.

Middle Voice


Voice is a grammatical category which makes it possible to view the action of a sentence in either of two ways without change in the facts reported.

Randolph Quirk (1985)


We need a notion of power which...is performed by as much as it performs the process - or the procedure.

John Llewelyn (1991)


Grammars acknowledge the importance of a point of view: active and passive. ‘Blue takes the money from Black’ versus ‘The money is taken from Black by Blue.’ The same action but from two angles. Some languages offer a third choice: the ‘middle voice’, this is not simple in English, sometimes it covers a reflexive event ‘I shave myself’, its value is that it is less accusatory, offering a more neutral point of view - something vital when it comes to considering our treatment of others: our ethical codes. In the middle voice actors are often not named, or if they are, the action is not deliberate or intentional. In recounting the events shown here, we might say: ‘Money was taken from Black to Blue’. Maybe the middle voice offers us a way of resisting that push which English exerts, a push which induces accusation even before the circumstances of the case are known.

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Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik et al A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. John Llewelyn’s quote is from page ix of The Middle Voice of Ecological Conscience which was published by Macmillan. The argument of the book is cryptic in the extreme, however, its suggestive title is worth the weight of many books. The women were photographed at a market near Tam Sơn in Hà Giang Province northern Vietnam.

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