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You're standing in front of a ticket vending machine and it says "The ticket is printing". Is that correct or should it be "The ticket is being printed"?

EDIT:

If both are correct, which one should be preferred or is more common?

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Starcraft commentators often say "[unit] is making" instead of "[unit] is being made." It took some time to get used to. –  avakar Nov 28 '10 at 8:49
    
Related: Is “update” transitive or intransitive? –  Meysam Jun 8 '12 at 18:46
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1 Answer

up vote 35 down vote accepted

The Middle Construction

"The ticket is printing" is something known as a middle construction. It is called "middle" because it is not exactly a passive sentence ("The ticket is being printed") and not exactly an active sentence (because the "ticket" is not really the agent of the action).

Some examples of middles from "An Introduction to English Syntax":

  • This sweater washes well.
  • These cars sold very quickly last week.

This sort of construction is extremely common. Sometimes, it conveys basically the same information as the passive, like in your examples about tickets printing. In that situation, either construction is completely valid in any context. "The ticket is printing" is just as correct as "the Boeing 737 flew to Seattle".

Another interesting thing about Middles

Sometimes, the middle construction conveys some additional information that neither the active nor passive conveys completely.

For example:

  1. I can't shut the window. (active)
  2. The window can't be shut. (passive)
  3. The window won't shut. (middle)

All of these sentences give the same fundamental information, i.e. that the action of shutting cannot occur with the window. But each one says something slightly different about why and to what extent.

In (1), the only claim is that the speaker cannot shut the window. In (2), using the passive, the implication is that nobody there is able to shut the window. In both cases, there is the possibility that perhaps the people trying to close the window are too weak or are doing it wrong. However, in (3), the blame for the inability to shut the window is placed squarely on the window: it is the window that won't shut.

By the way, the middle construction is not something that is unique to English.

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+1 I like this answer. And thanks for an interesting link. –  Robusto Nov 27 '10 at 14:53
    
Thank you very much for the comprehensive answer! This is exactly what I was looking for. –  Alex Nov 27 '10 at 15:18
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As I understand it, it's (2) ("The window can't be shut") that places the blame on the window — it is impossible for anyone to shut it — and (3) ("The window won't shut") only indicates that current attempts to shut the window are failing. But maybe different readers/listeners interpret them differently. –  ShreevatsaR Nov 27 '10 at 17:28
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@Shreevatsa: Does it work better for you if I say "The window doesn't shut"? It makes the same point as "won't shut", but eliminates the sense of temporariness. –  Kosmonaut Nov 27 '10 at 17:52
    
Interestingly, yes. :-) Not exactly sure why, though. –  ShreevatsaR Nov 27 '10 at 18:24
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