Mid-voice crisis: Beyond active and passive

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I've long since accepted that most people use "passive voice" to mean "vague about agency": see "Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.", 3/12/2009. And I've made my peace with an extra-extended use of the term passive to convey only a vague sense of disapprobation: "'Passive construction' means… nothing at all?", 7/25/2009. But in David Brooks' most recent column, he offers a new target for terminological tolerance by moving the whole active/passive semiotic complex not just beyond grammar, but beyond the whole question of linguistic content and into the realm of interpersonal interaction and communicative etiquette.

David Brooks, "Can People Change After Middle Age?", NYT 8/4/2017:

I sometimes read that people don’t change much after middle age. But everyday experience contradicts this on a weekly basis.

For example, this week in Shreveport, La., I met two guys in their 60s named Bo Harris and Mike Leonard. […]

When I sat with Bo and Mike after the staff and volunteer meeting on Monday, three things struck me, which often strike me about people who have transformed their lives for the final lap.

First, they’ve gone through a sort of moral puberty, as if a switch turned. They’ve lost most of their interest in egoistic calculation and some sort of primal desire for generativity has kicked in.

Second, they have what Baylor’s Paul Froese calls existential urgency, and obsessive connection to a social problem. […]

Finally, they speak in the middle voice.

So what is this "middle voice" of which he speaks? It's certainly not the "middle voice" in the sense that grammarians over the centuries have used that term. Brooks explains it like this:

Sometimes we speak in the passive voice, when things are happening to us. Sometimes we speak in the active voice, when we’re lecturing and taking charge. But mature activists speak in the middle voice, which is receiving and volleying, listening and responding, the voice of equal and intimate relationship.

Yastreblyansky at The Rectification of Names suggests ("A Wank Supreme",  8/4/2017) that "Brooks may have run across the term in commentary on the New Testament and imagined he understood it instead of trying to find out what it meant". Well, as the caterpillar said, …

For those who retain some residual interest in the grammatical term "middle voice" and its possible application to English, we've got you covered:

"Diagnosing soup label syntax", 6/29/2006
"Another bit at 'eats like a meal'", 7/1/2006
"'It eats salty': middle voice on 'Top Chef'", 1/31/2016

And just for fun, what other grammatical concepts might David Brooks someday metaphorically transform? Here's my contribution: In today's polarized political discourse, people are far too prone to refer to others in the accusative case — perhaps some new-wave thinkers will shift to the ergative? OK, that's pretty weak — can you do better?





  1. Mike Aubrey said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    Also: "But everyday experience contradicts this on a weekly basis."

    Which is it? Is it every day? Or is it weekly?

  2. Mike Aubrey said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

    Though I should also say: most NT commentary writers don't understand middle voice either.

  3. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

    Everyday experience weekly contradicts.

  4. Jonathan said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    "Trump's phrasemaking is grammatically incoherent. Forget embedded and dependent clauses… he needs a sanity clause."

  5. Jonathan said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

    Slightly better: "He needs to use more sanity clauses."

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

    I'm trying to get away from presupposing all kinds of disasters—it makes me future tense.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

    …and I start imagining what I would do in those cases, and I get in a very subjunctive mood. I'm trying to base my thinking more on pragmatics.

  8. TR said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

    I enjoyed Yastreblyansky's snark, but he doesn't know what the middle voice is either if he thinks that "The Greek middle is a verb form indicating that the subject and object are the same".

  9. Viseguy said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

    I used to think datively, then I married my wife.

  10. Viseguy said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

    Wait… she wasn't my wife when I married her. Or was she?

  11. Joyce Melton said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    Once you start talking about the current political scene, all I can say is, "Erg."

  12. Steve Morrison said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    It took (or will take) you until 20019 to make your peace with an extra-extended sense of the word passive? Surprised to find you are so conservative!

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 9:09 pm

    "Constrained by habit, technology and partisanship from moving toward each other, we are becoming syntactic islands."

  14. AntC said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 9:17 pm

    @Pflaumbaum syntactic islands.

    Then we're going to need some extrapositions. Particularly the Republicans on healthcare reform. None of their attempted positions are working for them so far.

  15. Keith DeRose said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

    but she breaks just like a little girl?

  16. David Morris said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

    Passive voice is so last, last, last, last, last, last, last century.

  17. Lai Ka Yau said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 2:27 am

    Politicians' use of switch-reference is definitely a way to evade questions. It's especially pernicious when combined with the propensity to employ clause chains – strings of clauses so long that by the time they've finished, you've forgotten what the question was.

  18. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 3:29 am

    She speaks entirely in relative clauses — my uncle did this, my cousin said that…

  19. Ray said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 6:55 am

    it sounds like brooks meant “middle aged” voice — he’s larded his prose with all sorts of references to age: middle age, final lap, moral puberty, generativity. and so, having gone down that path, a kind of “middle way” of activism that’s not polarizing, he puts a spin on a term he’s probably heard somewhere else…

    as for what new terms brooks may invent: the tween voice? (for talking out of both sides of one’s mouth?)

  20. emily said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 9:24 am

    As a young linguistics major, I was just starting a summer job as a waitress at IHOP. While shadowing another waitress, she explained to an older, crusty gentleman customer, "She's training." Predictably, he snorted and retorted, "Who's she training?" I had to bite my tongue and refrain from delivering a lecture on the middle voice because I didn't think that would be conducive to getting a good tip.

  21. Robert Coren said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    To me, "middle voice" means mezzo-soprano or baritone.

  22. Jonathan said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    You do know, don't you, that if the accusative/ergative distinction enters popular discourse, 'accusative' will be used to mean that an accusation is involved, and a sentence like "Trump lied." will be described as accusative?

  23. Rodger C said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    I've already seen "vocative complaints."

  24. Martin Grimshaw said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    Couldn't we have a passive voice which says somethingdaring,like an aggressive-passive?

  25. Martin Grimshaw said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    Couldn't we have a passive voice which says something meaningful,like an aggressive-passive?

  26. Viseguy said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

    Aggressive-passive — an interesting concept. Something like, "I stab you in the heart, I love you!"?

  27. Bloix said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 8:02 pm

    It's nice when you're able to give someone an objective compliment.

    PS- Is it just me or is there something vaguely revolting about the phrase "moral puberty"?

    PPS – for a real-life equivalent of "I stab you in the heart, I love you!" – try "Je t'aime – moi non plus."

    PPPS – "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!"

  28. Anthony said,

    August 6, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

    I have no problem with moral puberty in the sense of putting aside childish things morality-wise. And of course I love Alain Delon, in connection with "Je t'aime – moi non plus."

  29. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 7, 2017 @ 12:34 am

    Utterances by spies are secret-agentive.

    In novels, descriptions of the characters' feelings are instances of fictive emotion.

    When the New York Times publishes an account of someone swearing, but they rely on indirection rather than print the swear that was actually used, and as a result you have to somehow infer what the swear really was, that's an example of expletivature.

  30. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    August 7, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    If you ever go camping in crowded national parks, you often spend a lot of time walking Past Tents.
    And if you accidentally step on a sleeping bag in the dark, you might very well elicit an Active Voice.

  31. James Wimberley said,

    August 7, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    Astronauts reentering the atmosphere swear by the ablative.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

    It would I suppose be curious to know how the phrase "middle voice" got into Brooks' head, since I'm not inclined to give a lot of weight to the notion that he was carefully perusing an NT commentary that got into that level of syntactic detail. (I think way back during the Reagan Administration I became aware of "middle voice" as a thing in Greek and kinda-sorta middle voice as a thing in English around the same time and possibly during the same academic semester, but the latter was only because I was taking a class with Larry Horn who was into that sort of thing. My Greek textbook and instructor certainly weren't pointing out analogies in English and I don't know if I would have seen them myself had I not been exposed to Larry's enthusiasm for sentences like "this sausage practically cuts itself."

  33. Joe said,

    August 8, 2017 @ 4:32 am

    @J.W. Brewer,

    J.M. Coetzee wrote an article about "Writing in the Middle Voice" (I don't recall if there is something there that could form the basis for Brooks' use of the term), and I think some literary critics have used the idea to examine Coetzee's own work. I'm not sure if that is where Brooks picked up the term, but I would imagine it is more likely he got it from Coetzee (or someone writing about Coetzee) than from a commentary on the New Testament.

  34. John said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    "There has long been a tradition amongst grammarians of accepting, even ENCOURAGING, young and uneducated speakers to use what they euphemistically dub "imperfect" — what they really mean, of course, is "wrong". By the time my Utopia is complete, this will have been stamped out as a matter of urgency. I will have created a society of flawless English speakers, and every other social problem will have vanished!"

  35. John said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    (…And don't even be talking to me about the "progressives".)

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